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

By Odell, George H. | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Odell, George H., Archaeology in Oceania


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

Simon Holdaway and Nicola Stern have written a provocative book, one with which not all Australian archaeologists are likely to agree. In their words,

   More than thirty years ago, Australian archaeologists
   abandoned the methodological and theoretical frameworks
   employed by archaeologists in other parts of the world, on
   the grounds that the Australian archaeological record is
   unique, and therefore not amenable to description or
   interpretation by means of methods used elsewhere. (p. 275)

Archaeologists failed to replace these frameworks with any kind of unifying theory (p. 219), a situation that caused confusion and lack of direction. The authors propose to "put the identification, description, analysis and interpretation of Australian stone artifact assemblages back on track" (p. xvii). They do this by 1) presenting ideas and concepts from other parts of the world; 2) suggesting a return to approaches, especially tool typologies, that can provide a basis for comparing regions with one another; and 3) enabling a more profound understanding of lithic assemblages by explaining concepts of technology that underlie their formation.

The authors focus on macroscopic features of chipped stone tools. Despite ground-breaking work by Australians such as Jo Kamminga, Richard Fullagar and Tom Loy, coverage of microscopic approaches such as use-wear and residue analyses consists of one text box (pp. 41-2). The authors also omit flaked and ground pieces because their technology does not fall within the scope of the book (p. 249). The real intent of the volume is to update Fred McCarthy's classic Australian Aboriginal Stone Implements and to be a manual of Australian lithic technology (p. xiv). This is a tall order, but the book largely succeeds. In this review I will pick some nits but my overall impression of this volume is favorable.

Some chapters are very strong indeed. In fact, the last chapter, which provides an historic overview of stone tool studies in Australia and justification for their reanalysis, is one of the best such synthetic treatises I have seen in print. The authors are at their best when they show how the material they are explaining is useful to know (e.g. their descriptions of retouched edges, pp. 165-6). Often they do this through the device of text boxes. For example, when describing the measurement of certain variables, they often explain how doing so aided the analysis of an archaeological assemblage (e.g. Text Box 3.4). In TB 3.6, the measurement of cortex vs. non-cortex flakes at Bone Cave allowed them to conclude that local quartzite cobbles were being flaked inside the cave, etc.

I like the concept of text boxes and have written a few myself, but they have to be employed judiciously. If they are over-used, the reader has a hard time keeping the story line straight because there is too much to keep track of. That is the situation here: there are too many of them and occasionally they occur at inappropriate junctures. In some cases (e.g. TB 2.6 on Evolutionary Ecology), the concepts discussed in the text box--in this case, optimality, cost-benefit analysis, etc.--have already been discussed in the text. At other times the text boxes are very long (e.g. back-to-back boxes on chaine operatoire and social systems, pp. 88-92), making it difficult to integrate them with the text and with each other.

The authors are apparently aiming for comprehensive coverage of every technique that has ever been applied to a stone tool in Australia. This has the unfortunate consequence of including a lot of detritus that retains some historical interest but is no longer very analytically productive. Thus, for example, they feel compelled to include concepts such as "chattering" of an edge through crushing, a term that was previously employed by use-wear analysts but has long outlived its usefulness. …

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