Diversity in Mastic-Mounted Stone Adzes and the Use of Mastic in Precolonial South Africa: Evidence from Steenbokfontein Cave. (Special Section)

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Composite tools and hailed tools were used world-wide over the last 35,000 years, and possibly earlier than that (Boeda et al. 1996; Holdaway 1996). Evidence for the use of composite tools in South Africa is provided by a small number of arrows from ethnohistorical and archaeological collections (Binneman 1994; Deacon & Deacon 1999: 158-9), a handful of mounted stone artefacts, and a significant number of mastic stained stone artefacts from archaeological sites (Deacon & Deacon 1999). On the basis of the limited sample of near intact mounted artefacts found in South Africa, it appears that small scrapers were side-mounted (at almost 90 [degrees] to the axis of the handle) and fixed asymmetrically by surrounding resin (Deacon & Deacon 1980: 31-2). Adzes, on the other hand, were end-mounted (on one extreme, and along the same plane, of the handle) and held by a large ovoid lump of mastic (Hewitt 1921; Goodwin & Van Riet Lowe 1929: plate 42; Sampson 1974: figure 105). From their analysis of the available material two decades ago, Deacon & Deacon (1980: 37) concluded that the size and form of the insert was determined largely by the mode of hafting.

Mounting resin, or mastic, was obtained by hunter-gatherer groups from a range of plant species growing in different environments (Hewitt 1921; Clark 1958; Deacon 1966). This resinous substance is still extracted and processed by contemporary Kalahari foragers (Silberbauer 1981). Ethnohistorical sources and museum collections also show alternative uses for mastic and plant resins. Among Bantu groups of the Eastern Cape and Zambia, mastic was used as an adhesive for fixing metal spearheads into shafts and mending holes in water and cooking vessels (Clark 1958: 151). Mastic was also used for various purposes among Khoisan groups: for attaching arrow heads and feathers to shafts (Hewitt 1921; Deacon & Deacon 1999; South African Museum collection), for repairing wooden vessels (South African Museum accession numbers: SAM-AE 1350, 2330) and cosmetic tortoise boxes (South African Museum collection), for making poison sticks (e.g., SAM-AE 5013, 7954), and also for bead manufacture (SAM-AE 655, 3361). Mastic was also used as part of plugs to seal the apertures of ostrich eggshell water containers (Walker 1995: figure 61; G. Avery pers. comm.).

The first intact or near intact mounted stone artefacts reported in South Africa were recovered from rather crude excavations (Peringuey 1911: figure 150; Hewitt 1912; 1921; Goodwin & Van Riet Lowe 1929: plate 42). The lack of proper contextual information for most of these cases has impeded the dating of three complete mounted adzes (SAM-AA 5535 and SAM-AA 1588, Albany Museum accession number A 1543). Until recently, these were the only known examples of mounted adzes in South Africa. Good stratigraphic control and radiocarbon dating, however, helped establish the age of two mounted artefacts recovered in subsequent years. A broken mounted scraper found in Boomplaas Cave dates to between 1700 and 2000 (uncalibrated) years BP (Deacon 1979; Deacon & Deacon 1980), and a mastic-mounted quartz flake found in Die Kelders dates to 1960 [+ or -] 85 BP (uncalibrated) (Schweitzer 1979: 177). Stone artefacts showing remnants of mastic adhering to their surfaces, however, date to at least 12,000 years ago (Mitchell 1995) in Lesotho and, perhaps, even earlier in Namibia (Vogelsang 1998: 83-4).

Despite these important finds, archaeologists still have limited information on the mode of hafting of many stone tool types used during precolonial times in South Africa. Also, until now, the archaeological record suggested no alternative use for mastic other than that for setting and repairing composite stone artefacts. New finds from Steenbokfontein Cave expand this knowledge and help elucidate the relationship between the mode of hafting, type of stone artefact and the size of the stone bit, as well as throwing some new insights on alternative uses made of mastic in the past. …