Evidence of contact between cultural groups is of great importance to the study of prehistory. Although the development of absolute dating methods has decreased our dependence on the discovery of such contacts for chronology, they are essential material when the origin and spread of culture is being studied. In the past, cultural contacts have generally been demonstrated by typological similarities of artifacts, but unfortunately many typological comparisons are open to discussion, and it can be exceedingly difficult to be certain of direct contact by this means alone.
The importance in this respect of the study of raw materials used in places far from their place of origin and presumably deliberately imported has long been realized. Recently more attention has been paid to the careful characterization of such materials; the detection, that is, of properties of the specimen under study which are characteristic of material from particular sources. By this means it is often possible to assign a source to a given specimen. The petrological identification of British neolithic stone axes is perhaps the most comprehensive archaeological characterization study yet undertaken. Demonstrations of trading links made by such methods, if based on a sure identification and a comprehensive survey of possible sources, are not open to the criticism and doubt which may be directed at typological similarities. The variety of techniques now available for the analysis and identification of materials makes this field a promising one for the archaeologist.
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