Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

A Revised Sequence of Backed Artefact Production at Capertee 3, New South Wales

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

A Revised Sequence of Backed Artefact Production at Capertee 3, New South Wales

Article excerpt


Re-analysis of the artefact assemblage from Capertee 3, an Australian rockshelter excavated by F.D. McCarthy in the 1950s and 1960s, yields a revised image of chronological changes in backed artefact production. A technologically-defined sample of backed retouched flakes gives a new depiction of the vertical distribution of backed artefacts in this site. Analysis of artefact weathering indicates most specimens were probably altered in situ, with minimal large-scale vertical displacement. Calibration of radiocarbon dates provides refined age-depth estimates for the site. The result is identification of backed artefacts up to 6000 to 7000 years old, documentation of many backed specimens prior to 3500 cal b.p., and observation of only a relatively brief period, between 1500 and 3500 cal b.p., in which backed artefact production rates were extremely high. Changes in production rates are similar to those previously reported from Upper Mangrove Creek.

KEY WORDS: lithics, variability, technology, typology, Australia


In this report we present a revised chronological sequence of backed artefact production rates from Capertee 3, a rockshelter immediately west of Sydney in the headwaters of the Hawkesbury River drainage basin. Revision of archaeological interpretations of the Capertee 3 site is important for several reasons. Firstly, this site, excavated by McCarthy in the 1950s and 1960s, yielded a large sample of retouched flakes from the Holocene. It was the artefact assemblage at Capertee 3 that served as a basis for McCarthy's (1961, 1964) recognition of a pre-Bondaian phase in the archaeological sequence of eastern New South Wales. The transition from assemblages in the lower levels in the deposit said to contain 'roughly' retouched flakes but no backed artefacts, which McCarthy (1961:98-99) named the Capertian, to assemblages in the upper levels said to contain abundant backed artefacts, named the Bondaian, was viewed as a rapid, distinct and dramatic change in prehistoric tool kits. This interpretation was reflected in Mulvaney's (1969:111) early formulation of a tripartite industrial sequence for Australia.

Decades later Capertee 3 remains an important site in discussions of Holocene assemblage change in Australia because multiple investigators have argued that backed artefacts at the site are restricted to the late Holocene. Johnson (1979) estimated the initiation of the Bondaian to less than 3,100 years ago, while McCarthy (1964) implied a similar, if slightly earlier date. The image of a rapid Capertian/Bondaian transition at Capertee 3 played a central role in debates about the antiquity of early and late backed artefacts, and variation in backed artefact production rates through time. These issues have long been a focus of archaeological debates about technological change in Australia (e.g. Bowdler 1981; Bowdler and O'Connor 1991; Dortch 1975; Hiscock 1986, 2001, 2002; Hiscock and Attenbrow 1998; Hughes and Djohadze 1980; Johnson 1979; Morwood 1984; Mulvaney 1985; Mulvaney and Joyce 1965; Pearce 1974).

It has now been established that backed artefacts were made, at least at low rates and in some locations, in the early Holocene (Hiscock and Attenbrow 1998). However, variation in backed artefact production between regions and through time is poorly defined. This issue is complicated by the small sample size of assemblages recovered from many sites--so small they may be inadequate for investigating the presence and frequency of backed artefact production before about 3500 to 4000 b.p. at many sites (Hiscock 2001). Stratified sites with a long chronology and large artefact samples are one key to understanding variation in temporal patterns. Capertee 3 is such a site and since this site has been offered as evidence for the restriction of backed artefacts to the late Holocene (e.g. Johnson 1979), it is crucial that its assemblage be accurately and systematically described. …

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