Technological Change in Wardaman Country: A Report on the 1999 Field Season. (Research Report)

Article excerpt


In this paper I report on the aims, field procedures and preliminary results of four months of archaeological fieldwork conducted in 1999 in Wardaman Country in the Northern Territory. The study region is located among the black-soil plains, sandstone outcrops and mesas of the semi-arid zone, about 120 km southwest of Katherine (Figure 1). The project focuses on documenting changes in techno-logical provisioning strategies employed by hunter-gatherers inhabiting this region over the last 10,000 years. This latest phase of fieldwork builds on an earlier season and forms part of a doctoral thesis at the Australian National University.


Project aims

The purpose of the 1998 and 1999 field seasons was to gather data to further develop models of changing Aboriginal land-use in northern Australia over the last 10,000 years. Analysis of stone artefact sequences from several rockshelters in Wardaman Country has already revealed major changes in technology over this period, including changes to the organisation of procurement and the introduction of new forms of implement manufacture (Attenbrow et al 1995; Clarkson and David 1995; Cundy 1990; Mulvaney 1969; Sanders 1975).

This project aims to understand these changes in terms of the ecology of hunter-gatherer land-use, and to develop understanding of the strategic role of technological organisation in Wardaman Country. This involves understanding the way in which people bridged the gap between the constant need for tools and the scheduling and distribution of subsistence opportunities (Kuhn 1995). Understanding technological change therefore involves exploring the various ways in which people provisioned them-selves and certain key locations in the landscape with raw materials to maintain a constant supply of tools and/or tool-making potential.

In documenting changing land-use practices, the project aims to incorporate multiple lines of evidence, such as changes in reduction technology, resource acquisition, procurement, use and discard, as well as changes in foraging range, diet breadth, and intensity of site occupation. Understanding the spatial dimensions of behaviour is an integral aspect of this research, and aims at characterising change within the context of the broader foraging and land-use system. The approach adopted has so far involved analysis of spatially segregated rockshelter deposits, open site surveys and GIS analysis, phytolith analysis, construction of generalised reduction sequences, and stone sourcing studies. Some of the procedures employed in each of these facets of the project, and some preliminary results, are discussed below.

Field surveys

Spatial analysis of stone artefact manufacture was undertaken to understand the admixture of different provisioning strategies implemented in different environments. This requires understanding how the economics of stone tool production varied, given different constraints on raw material utility and abundance across the landscape.

The 1999 field surveys managed to complete a total of 12 one-kilometre-square strategically located survey quadrats, resulting in the location of 188 sites and the recording of a wide range of attributes on over 4000 stone artefacts. The 1999 season augmented an earlier one in which 65 km of transects were surveyed, 109 sites located and 5920 artefacts recorded. Survey quadrats and transects obtained a sample of land-use practices and reduction behaviour for the four distinct land units that exist in the study area. Multiple collections of knapping floors were also made for analysis of reduction sequences.

Survey quadrats were placed at differing distances to critical resources, such as permanent water, shelter, lithic material, and level ground above seasonally inundated watercourses. The study also identified areas of differential abundance of raw materials and hence differing degrees of stone artefact transport, reduction and curation. …