In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Technological Organization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Fundamental Principles: Behavioral Ecology
  • Time and Risk
  • Technological Organization and Mobility
  • Reconstructing Technological Organization and Mobility
  • Artifact Use-Life and the Probability of Discard
  • Tool Design

Anthropology Technological Organization
Caroline Spry, Nicola Stern
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0158


In the English-speaking world, technological organization—also referred to as the organization of technology—is the predominant interpretative framework for inferring what the features of stone artifact assemblages can tell us about past human behavior, regardless of their chronological or geographical distribution. Lewis Binford originally conceived of technological organization as “the organizational characteristics within a technology which may be manipulated differently to effect acceptable adaptations for different situations” (see Binford 1979, cited under Technological Organization and Mobility, p. 255). Since then, technological organization has come to be defined more formally as “the study of the selection and integration of strategies for making, using, transporting, and discarding tools and the materials needed for their manufacture and maintenance” (see Nelson 1991, cited under General Overviews, p. 57). Studies of technological organization seek to investigate how stone tool technology can solve adaptive problems. This approach developed from ethnoarchaeological studies of the relationships among artifact assemblages, subsistence activities, and land-use patterns—such as John Yellen’s observations of the !Kung bushmen in the Kalahari Desert (see Yellen’s Archaeological Approaches to the Present: Models for Reconstructing the Past, New York: Academic Press, 1977), and Lewis Binford’s study of the Nunamiut Eskimos in Alaska (see Binford’s Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology, New York: Academic Press, 1978). The literature on technological organization has identified a number of archaeological “signatures” for organizational differences that reflect different patterns of land use and planning (see Binford and Stone’s “Righteous Rocks” and Richard Gould: Some Observations on Misguided “Debate,” American Antiquity 50.1 (1985): 151–153). While this literature is vast, an overall sense of cohesion is lacking. This article identifies the key literature on the organization of technology, the different problems it can investigate, and how these problems can be approached. It is divided into eight parts: (1) general overviews, (2) fundamental principles of this approach, (3) analytical strategies using time and risk as measures, (4) the relationship between mobility and technology, (5) features of stone artifact assemblages from which information about mobility can be generated, (6) the impact of artifact use-life and the probability of discard on archaeological visibility, (7) examples of technological strategies that have been identified in the archaeological record, and (8) tool design.

General Overviews

Dedicated synopses of the literature pertaining to the organization of technology are scarce, with the majority of discussions presented in the context of analyses and interpretations of stone artifact assemblages, or in reviews of methodological and analytical approaches to the study of these assemblages. The selected literature discusses studies that have contributed fundamental ideas and concepts to this framework, or that illustrate the specific technological strategies that can be inferred from the characteristics of particular stone artifact assemblages. This literature also provides a historical review of the development of key ideas and concepts. Shott 1986 and Kelly 1988 offer brief but concise overviews of some of the earliest landmark studies of technological organization. Nelson 1991 presents one of the only focused overviews of technological organization since its inception in the late 1970s—including studies that laid the foundations for this framework. Odell 2001 discusses the analytical advances made in this study area during the 1990s, with reference to some of the earlier literature. Holdaway and Stern 2004 outline the ethnoarchaeological studies from which the concept of technological organization was derived, the theoretical and methodological concepts it borrows from behavioral ecology, and the technological strategies that have since been inferred from the archaeological record. Clarkson 2007 explores a variety of earlier and more recent studies of technological organization, in the broader context of a discussion about how optimization models are used as an analytical tool. Andrefsky 2009 reviews an array of literature highlighting the relationship between adaptive strategies and raw-material procurement, tool manufacture, and tool maintenance.

  • Andrefsky, W., Jr. 2009. The analysis of stone tool procurement, production, and maintenance. Journal of Archaeological Research 17.1: 65–103.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10814-008-9026-2

    This overview of studies of technological organization has a particular focus on methods that have enhanced our understanding of people’s adaptive strategies in the past. It includes detailed discussion of how studies of reduction sequences, curation, raw-material procurement, raw-material sourcing, the analysis of flaking debris, minimum analytical nodule analysis (MANA), and artifact refitting can contribute to this goal. A helpful resource for establishing which methods can provide insight into alternative technological strategies.

  • Clarkson, C. 2007. Lithics in the land of the Lightning Brothers: The archaeology of Wardaman country, Northern Territory. Terra Australis 25. Canberra, Australia: ANU E.

    This monograph investigates the adaptive significance of the technological changes that took place in Wardaman Country, in the Northern Territory of Australia, over the last 15,000 years. The second chapter presents a discussion of how optimality models can be used to study subsistence and technology. It reviews studies of curation and expediency, performance characteristics, time budgeting, mobility, risk reduction, retooling, raw-material procurement, design theory, and provisioning strategies. A useful discussion of earlier and more recent literature on the organization of technology.

  • Holdaway, S., and N. Stern. 2004. A record in stone: The study of Australia’s flaked stone artefacts. Melbourne, Australia: Museum Victoria.

    This book is an introduction to stone artifact identification. It discusses the interpretative and methodological frameworks employed in the study of chipped-stone artifact assemblages, with an emphasis on Australian assemblages. The second chapter includes a comprehensive explanation of how studies of technological organization grew out of ethnoarchaeological studies, and the principles of behavioral ecology on which these studies draw. This includes clarification of the way optimization models are used to advance understanding of adaptive constraints. It also considers the concepts of risk, curation, opportunism, expediency, tool design, site function, mobility, and provisioning strategies. An important resource for understanding the foundation of technological organization.

  • Kelly, R. L. 1988. The three sides of a biface. American Antiquity 53.4: 717–734.

    DOI: 10.2307/281115

    Investigates whether changes in mobility can be inferred from the features of bifaces from the Carson Sink, in western Nevada. The first part explains the origins and meaning of technological organization. It also discusses some of the pioneering studies that investigate key aspects of technological organization, such as tool design, curation, and mobility. A helpful introduction to studies of technological organization.

  • Nelson, M. C. 1991. The study of technological organization. Archaeological Method and Theory 3:57–100.

    This classic paper reviews pre-1990s studies of technological organization. It explains many of the basic concepts and terminology that these studies employ, including notions of strategy, planning, and design. One of the most comprehensive introductions to studies of technological organization.

  • Odell, G. H. 2001. Stone tool research at the end of the millennium: Classification, function, and behavior. Journal of Archaeological Research 9.1: 45–100.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1009445104085

    A review of 1990s literature on the analysis and interpretation of stone artifact assemblages, covering classification, functional analyses, the study of behavioral processes, and other conceptual approaches. The section on technological organization discusses studies of mobility, risk and stress, subsistence strategies, raw-material procurement, and curation. While there is a predominant focus on the North American literature, many landmark studies of technological organization are cited.

  • Shott, M. J. 1986. Settlement mobility and technological organization: An ethnographic examination. Journal of Anthropological Research 42.1: 15–51.

    DOI: 10.1086/jar.42.1.3630378

    A quantitative exploration of the relationship between mobility and technological organization, using data from ethnographic studies. The first part of this paper discusses pioneering studies of technological organization. Some of these studies investigate the impact of situational variability, style, time budgeting, risk minimization, and design on the organization of technology, while others focus on the concept of tool use-life, and the relationship between drop/discard rates and the “making” of archaeological assemblages. A helpful introduction to some of the pioneering literature on technological organization.

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