Multiple Uses for Australian Backed Artefacts

By Robertson, Gail; Attenbrow, Val et al. | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Multiple Uses for Australian Backed Artefacts

Robertson, Gail, Attenbrow, Val, Hiscock, Peter, Antiquity


In Australia, backed artefacts, called microliths or backed bladelets in many parts of the world, have been employed by archaeologists to demonstrate culture change. We know they appeared in the archaeological record of north-eastern Australia in the late Pleistocene, were made in many regions across southern Australia and were abundantly produced in the south-east from about 3500 BP to 1500 BP, and had seemingly ceased to be made by the time of British colonisation; there are no ethnographic observations of backed artefact use (Hiscock & Attenbrow 1998; Slack et al. 2004; Hiscock 2008). Over the last century archaeologists have speculated about how they were used. Many earlier conjectures reflected expectations that prehistoric use of backed artefacts in Australia would parallel inferred uses for microliths elsewhere in the world or the ethnographic use of other stone artefacts in composite tools, but often they were guesses, sometimes fanciful. In recent decades several use-wear and/or residue studies have investigated backed artefacts in Australia, but questions of the nature and diversity of uses of this tool form remain. In this paper we present an integrated residue and use-wear analysis, employing both low and high magnification, which studied large samples of backed artefacts from three rockshelters in a valley in eastern Australia. This study provides a novel image of antipodean backed artefact use which challenges models that have dominated the last century of thought on this subject

Models of backed artefact use in Australia

Several models of backed artefact use have been widely discussed in Australia. Etheridge and Whitelegge (1907) hypothesised that they were scalpels used in scarification to produce cicatrices such as those seen historically on Aboriginal people. The idea that these small implements were primarily employed in ritual/ceremonial contexts was advanced by several early researchers (e.g. Horne & Aiston 1924), and in the 1980s it was argued that they were a symbol associated with the growth of ceremonial activities (e.g. Bowdler 1981; Morwood 1981; White & O'Connell 1982: 123). These views shared an expectation that backed artefacts would be used for only short-term single events principally on human flesh, and not necessarily hafted. The idea that backed artefacts were involved in ceremonies/rituals continues to be raised (e.g. McDonald et al. 2007).

A different set of models advocated backed artefacts as domestic tools, probably handheld or more likely hafted. There was no agreement on what the likely use might have been. Hypotheses included wood-working tools (e.g. Mitchell 1949: 56); skinning or skin-working tools (e.g. Tindale 1955; Stockton 1970); and cutting tools, perhaps in composite knives or saws (e.g. Turner 1932; Stockton 1970; Flood 1980; Kamminga 1980; Morwood 1981; Fullagar 1992). These models implied a single dominant use for most or all backed artefacts, which predicated that wear and residues should be uniform on most archaeological specimens.

Initially those inferences were based on the tools' morphology, but researchers also cited the presence of damage such as polish and/or plant tissue residue as evidence of use. In this literature the specimens being examined varied. Many authors principally referred to relatively thin varieties of backed artefacts, which were labelled as 'bondi points', 'geometric microliths', or collectively 'backed blades'. Some researchers examined thick specimens, called eloueras, though these were not always backed. These choices affected each study's conclusions; there was often consensus that eloueras had been wood-working tools, whereas there was no agreement that smaller forms were for that task. In this paper the focus is exclusively on the non-elouera forms of backed artefact, and our analysis excludes eloueras.

By far the most common and persistent model has been that backed artefacts were hafted onto thrown spears and served as spear barbs and/or tips (e. …

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