Stone Artefacts and the Transition

By Holdaway, Simon | Antiquity, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview

Stone Artefacts and the Transition


Holdaway, Simon, Antiquity


Stone artefacts are made central in Australian prehistory by their dominance in the material we have from the field. Their contribution to this prehistory comes in the form of an unchanging tradition that spans the transition and changes only in the mid Holocene. This makes the Australian record almost unique in the world; but it is a uniqueness that may owe more to archaeological methods than cultural conservatism.

Studies of stone artefacts from Australia and New Guinea that date between 15,000 and 7000 b.p. are dominated by two related themes: the slow rate of change - if change can be identified at all; and the marked contrast in the technologies and typologies of artefacts from this early period when contrasted with assemblages dated to the late Holocene. These two themes are played out through the study of raw-material differences, technology, function, and long-term change (White & O'Connell 1982; 85-6).

Typology has played a more variable role because of the perceived lack of formal types among retouched tools and their low overall proportion in assemblages. The early work on typological definition seen in the writings of Tindale and McCarthy (Mulvaney 1975) has been superseded by studies which emphasize continuities in formal variation in major classes of retouched implements or in the technology of the non-retouched component. Attention is focussed on site-based sequences which are sometimes generalized to pan-Australian models.

Other papers in this volume deal with stone artefact assemblages in terms of regional prehistories. In this paper a more thematic structure is adopted. The current tendency to emphasize single-site sequences over regional patterns makes it hard to determine whether the claimed lack of change in stone artefacts is a true reflection of prehistory or is an artefact of the approach.

Trends in the history of Australian stone

artefact analyses

In the modern literature, three main theoretical approaches have affected the way lithic studies are undertaken in Australia:

* the rejection of the type-fossil approach and the application of metrical analyses to stone artefact studies, pioneered by Mulvaney (Mulvaney & Joyce 1965); * a redirection of attention away from tool form toward the study of worked edges, developed by White (1967; 1969); and * a concern with ethnographic observation of actual tool manufacture and use, emphasized by White as well as Gould (1967; 1968), Hayden (1977a) and Tindale (1965).

Aspects of these approaches stretch back to the beginnings of stone artefact studies in the continent. Key problems of today - sites dispersed over wide areas, assemblages that lack large numbers of retouched tools, and the place of ethnographic observations in analyses - were identified early on. And they illustrate significant differences between Australian stone artefact studies and those in the Northern Hemisphere.

Typological approaches and beyond

As Mulvaney (1977) observed, Tindale and McCarthy developed independent industrial schemes in the 1930s and 1940s for organizing stone artefact assemblages by diagnostic marker types, on the Northern Hemisphere model; both men were influenced by European scholars, particularly Noone who visited Australia in the late 1930s. By the 1960s, Australian studies had departed significantly from the continental European pattern and were following the tradition of archaeology as taught at Cambridge (McBryde 1986). In a landmark paper, Mulvaney (1961) criticized Tindale's attempts to extend his industrial scheme to the whole of Australia. Rather than replacing Tindale's scheme with one based on a more extensive typology, as was happening in Europe (e.g. Bordes 1961), Mulvaney applied a metrical analysis to artefacts recovered from Kenniff Cave, the first site in Australia to have a demonstrated Pleistocene age (Mulvaney & Joyce 1965) (see Figure 1 for site locations). …

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