Just before sewing with needles

Researchers at the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country establish that the Noailles burins were used to pierce soft materials such as hide

  • Research

First publication date: 06/06/2019

Aitor Calvo
Aitor Calvo. Photo: Nuria González. UPV/EHU.

Numerous burins are routinely found at sites of the Gravettian period (between 29,000 and 21,000 years old) and thousands in the case of Isturitz. What were they used for? A research team led by the UPV/EHU’s Prehistory Area suggests that they were used to pierce hides or similar materials. The article has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

In the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an article on the functionality of one of the most characteristic and enigmatic tools of the Gravettian period, the so-called “Noailles burin”, has just been published by a team of researchers led by the UPV/EHU’s Prehistory Area. The article, entitled ‘Just before sewing needles. A functional hypothesis for Gravettian Noailles-type burins from Isturitz cave (Basque Country, south western France)’, suggests that these burins were mainly used to pierce hide or a similar, soft, perishable, organic material and were the precursors of needles.

The sample analysed comes from recent excavations conducted by the archaeologist Christian Normand at the cave of Isturitz in the Continental Basque Country, which is the location of one of the most important sites of this period on the whole of the continent of Europe. The article presents the results achieved in the technological, typometric, morphotypological and mainly functional analysis (supported by an experimental programme) of the collection of Noailles burins from level IV of the Isturitz cave. This is one of the few studies on this subject published to date, and which contrasts with the significance and number in which utensils of this type tend to appear, in the order of thousands on sites such as that of Isturitz.

The Noialles burin is a small tool (frequently under 3 cm long and 2 cm wide) made, in most cases, from a small sheet of flint. So an abrupt concave retouching was applied to the distal edge producing a small platform (known as a truncation) from which all the lateral edges of the sheet are removed; this produces a pointed tip that would be the functional part of the tool. The analysis proved that these small burins are highly standardised tools used for specialised and precision tasks. Specifically, the distribution and type of use marks seen on them on a microscopic level led the researchers to put forward the hypothesis that the Noailles burins from the cave at Isturitz were mainly used for piercing tasks, mainly of materials that were not very hard, such as animal hide.

In actual fact, the effectiveness of these tools in tasks of this nature is very high as the authors noticed after reproducing this activity experimentally. All this can be linked to what was observed in funerary contexts at other European Gravettian sites, such as Sunghir (Russia), Arene Candide or Ostuni (Italy), where graves were documented with trousseaux comprising hundreds or thousands of beads, which had originally been sewn onto garments such as hats, jackets or trousers for decorative purposes. So "the Noailles burins in the Isturitz cave may have been used in a similar way as part of the processes to pierce clothing or other kinds of leather objects to decorate them with beads or other similar objects. So the Noailles burin would precede the first sewing needles (as we know them today), which appeared in the the Solutrean period, the one immediately following the Gravettian”, as the researcher Aitor Calvo highlighted.

Bibliographic reference