A Record in Stone: The Study of Australia's Flaked Stone Artefacts

By Akerman, Kim | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2005 | Go to article overview

A Record in Stone: The Study of Australia's Flaked Stone Artefacts


Akerman, Kim, Archaeology in Oceania


A record in stone: the study of Australia's flaked stone artefacts. By Simon Holdaway and Nicola Stern Museum Victoria and Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004. ISBN 0 85575 460 5 Pp. xxiii + 376, plus CD-ROM. RRP $49.95.

Note: unless otherwise indicated, references to figures are those occurring in the book.

There has been a crying need for decades for a book on Australian stone tool technology to update the only signifi-cant volume on the subject, F. D. McCarthy's Australian Aboriginal stone implements, including bone, shell and teeth implements (1976). It was anticipated that A record in stone would meet this need, and to a degree it has. McCarthy's work was low on technology and high on typology. In contrast Holdaway and Stern have produced a volume in which the reverse can be said to be true.

Aimed primarily at university students, it will be of value to all archaeologists whose work brings them into contact with flaked stone technologies. In essence some 260 pages of text deal with historical and technical aspects of flaked stone tool studies while a scant 65 pages are dedicated to the examination of a number of types of Australian flaked stone tools.

As the authors note in their acknowledgements (xiv) the project 'to update McCarthy's typology of Australian stone tools began with the Lithics Workshop held in February 1995 at the Australian Museum, Sydney'. At that workshop I (and a number of other participants) were under the impression that the development of the project was to involve greater input from the group than subsequently occurred. I feel that the potential of the project as initially raised at the Workshop has not been met in this volume and consequently I will still be hanging on to my copy of McCarthy.

Australia is perhaps fortunate that it does not possess the great variety of pressure-flaked tool forms, points etc. found in the northern hemisphere. These tend to distort the focus of books about flaked stone artefacts produced in North America--e.g. Whittaker (1994). Australian archaeologists are also fortunate that stone points play such a small part in the socio-economic and technological aspects of much of the Australian archaeological record. We are free to a degree to examine other aspects of the lithic technology of the continent, secure in the knowledge that over the millennia Aboriginal people and their ancestors successfully developed rich and meaningful cultural systems generally using the simplest strategies to create a range of stone implements to assist their endeavours.

In the Introduction Holdaway and Stern firmly and succinctly set the tenor of the work, explaining the rationale behind its production, the structure, the illustrations and the use of the CD-ROM. A page within the volume on the set up of the CD-Rom would have expedited its use while the inclusion of a glossary at the end of a book would also have been useful.

Chapter 1 leads the reader through the value of stone artefact studies, the mechanics and techniques of flaking, the properties of flakeable stone, methods of distinguishing artefactual from naturally flaked lithic material and finally the products of flaking. Each section is provided with a summary that succinctly rounds it off.

While the text is elegant, I found problems understanding many statements, particularly in reference to a number of the images.

First is the (to me) ambiguous use of the term conchoidal initiation to describe flakes initiated by a Hertzian fracture. Geologically the term conchoidal is applied to the manner in which some minerals fracture, creating forms with curved concentrically ribbed surfaces such as those found on some molluscs. These are the ripples seen best on flakes of finer isotropic minerals such as obsidian, flint etc.; they may be seen on flakes initiated by either Hertzian or bending fractures.

In relation to the figures I do not understand why the authors chose the image they did, to illustrate the dorsal surface of a flake produced through conchoidal fracture (Fig. …

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