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A Record in Stone: The Study of Australia’s Flaked Stone Artefacts, by Simon Holdaway and Nicola Stern.
Museum Victoria and Aboriginal Studies Press, Melbourne and Canberra. 2004. 376pp, many illustrations, with CD, ISBN 0 85575 450 5 (AU$49.95)

A stated aim of the authors of ‘A record in Stone…’ is to bring the study of Australian stone artefacts into alignment with the analytical and interpretive approaches employed elsewhere. They claim that over the past thirty years Australian researchers have abandoned or ignored many of the theoretical and methodological developments which have influenced the interpretation of stone artefacts in other parts of the world. Given that flaked stone artefacts are a major part of Australia’s archaeological record this represents a loss of archaeological potential. A second aim is to provide a text for students based on Australian examples.

The first chapter of this work is given to terminology and the description of flakes, cores, hammerstones, flake production methods, raw materials, and, finally, flake breakage patterns. The ambiguities of defining a tool are discussed, as is use wear. Attributes used to describe flakes, tools and cores are given detailed treatment in chapters 3, 4 and 5. While much of the content of these chapters is definitional and descriptive, useful points for further discussion are raised in text boxes.

It is in the second chapter, that the authors set out a thematic framework for the study of stone artefacts and locate Australian studies within this matrix. The Bordes–Binford debate, regarding the relative importance of cultural affinities versus tool function as an explanation of assemblage composition, is briefly discussed, as is the impact of the knowledge that the resharpening of implements reduces their size and can make a major contribution to their final morphology. As elsewhere, Australian researchers have moved away from the idea of stone tools as cultural markers. On the other hand, studies of artefact technology or function have not filled this vacuum. The loss of confidence in typological schemes has led to their rejection in favour of attribute analyses. Furthermore, while tool reuse and resharpening have been recognised as significant factors, the analytical techniques required to define these process have only rarely been put to use. Similarly, the authors note that little use has been made of raw material variability or flaking techniques (studied through reduction and refitting) as determining aspects of the Australian evidence.

The second part of chapter 2 is devoted to the integration of data concerning artefact variability, the distribution of different categories of debris both across the landscape, and within sites, subsistence activities and settlement patterns. These interpretive frameworks are discussed, firstly, in terms of functionalist approaches, and, secondly, idealist approaches to artefact analysis. Only a few Australian studies have made use of functionalist analyses defined as including, ethnoarchaeology, behavioural chain, evolutionary ecology and cost-benefit approaches, to explain artefact changes. Those studies which have been done mostly make use of the concept of risk. Detailed studies of tool design or site function have been carried out only rarely for Australian assemblages. Similarly, idealist approaches to artefact analysis, which seek to examine artefacts within a social context, such as chaîne opératoire, or the comparison of artefact distributions with Aboriginal linguistic and social boundaries, are also unusual, though an exception is the work of Isabel McBryde. In many cases, explanations for artefact and assemblage variability in Australia have been based more on ethnographic models of seasonal or subsistence shifts, than on the assemblages themselves. The final section of chapter 2, takes students through the process of planning a research design in terms of the approaches previously discussed.

Australian artefact types are discussed in chapter 6, where the authors again note the contemporary absence of detailed descriptions of assemblages from Australian sites and the rarity of studies which employ a consistent and well-defined typological scheme. This makes documentation and comparison of regional variations in stone tool assemblages in Australia almost non-existent. A number of themes introduced earlier in the book are taken up again, the difficulty of defining scraper types, of sorting out utilised flakes from flakes showing post-depositional damage, and, finally, of separating cores used to produce flakes from nuclear or core tools. Artefacts with bipolar edge damage (fabricators – pieces ècaillèes) associated with the reduction of quartz are also noted. Extended discussion is given to three tool types, adzes (in the Australian case, these are flaked stone artefacts, hafted somewhat like a chisel), backed tools (Bondi points, geometric microliths), and points (drills, unifacial and bifacial points, including pressure flaked leaf-shaped examples).

The final chapter (chapter 7) discusses the contribution that Australian artefacts might make to an understanding of the human past. Many of the themes discussed earlier in text boxes return here to be given extended treatment. This chapter represents an excellent historical perspective on the use of stone artefacts to characterise periods in Australian prehistory. The authors’ assertion that Australian lithic analysts (with a few notable exceptions) are out of step with their contemporaries elsewhere gives this chapter further weight. They identify a crucial moment when Australian archaeologists adopted an attribute approach to the characterisation of stone tools but failed to use this approach to identify recurring artefact forms or to identify variations in contemporaneous assemblages. Where statistical analyses of artefacts were attempted, the results, given a lack of an understanding of core reduction, tool resharpening, and contextual factors, were inconclusive. This reinforced the idea that Australian assemblages lacked discrete types, that patterning in an assemblage was the outcome of opportunistic rather than systematic factors, and, finally, that there was little relationship between artefact form and function. This latter assumption was extended to Holocene assemblages that did contain recurrent forms, such as backed artefacts or projectile points. In these cases, it was asserted that the new artefact forms were not more efficient than, for instance, barbed wooden points manufactured with simple stone flakes, and therefore represented stylistic rather than technologically-based change.

The predominant discourse in Australian archaeology was, and remains, concerned with human – environment interactions, as in the fire and extinction debates. Given that most Australian archaeologists of the time (the 1960s and 70s) had been trained at Cambridge (or, as in my own case, were themselves trained by Cambridge-trained archaeologists), this represented the ascendancy of the Eric Higgs / Graeme Clark school of environmental archaeology over the statistical analyses of stone artefacts pioneered by Charles McBurney. The problem was not the reproduction of Cambridge archaeology in the Antipodes, so much as its partial reproduction, a feature that is common in colonial situations.

Moving away from the study of stone tools, and placing an environmentalist framework at the centre of the discipline’s concerns has it dangers. Natural scientists are better equipped to study these things than are archaeologists. While archaeologists supply historical problems (the first arrival of humans, the dating of human remains, Aboriginal impacts on the environment, Pleistocene environmental changes and human responses, extinctions and vegetation changes), the methodologies to solve these questions come mostly from the natural sciences. Australian archaeological publication lists, and the score-rates in nationally competitive grants for archaeology, are now dominated by natural scientists, with little concern for questions regarding a historical understanding of humans who are organised socially.

My interest in reading this book, and in writing this review, stems from the fact that, as a new PhD student, I was a minor player in Rhys Jones’ characterisation of the stone tool assemblage from the Lake Mungo I site as belonging to the Australian core tool and scraper tradition. Since then, I have wrestled with the complexities of defining Pleistocene and Holocene stone tool assemblages from sites in western Arnhem Land. I remain, however, convinced that the current archaeological understandings of the Pleistocene Willandra Lakes and Lake Mungo rest on very shaky foundations, particularly as regards the stone implements which blanket portions of the landscape (Allen 1990; 1998; Hiscock & Allen 2000). While the surface nature of these assemblages is a problem, it is not the determining problem, which remains the lack of detailed description of the Pleistocene stone artefacts and of how they are distributed across the landscape. The failure of Australian archaeology to achieve definition here lies at the heart of the poor understanding of regional variations in Pleistocene stone tool assemblages in Australia (with good comparable data restricted to Tasmania), and also, of the failure of the archaeological project in south western New South Wales over many years.

A Record in Stone is a lively encouragement that the task of determining the technological and typological character of stone artefacts from the Willandra Lakes is both possible and urgent. While the original Lake Mungo I assemblage may not have survived the recent disastrous fires in the ACT, other collections, made in 1969-1972 remain available for reanalysis. A Record in Stone provides the methodological and technical approach to do the job, much as the Burkes Cave stone artefacts, collected at the same time, have been re-analysed recently (Shiner et al. 2005).

This volume has a very useful CD with 400 or so photographic images of Australian stone artefacts and figures. The clarity is excellent, well above that of printed photographs. Generally I am not a fan of attached CDs as either my system refuses to open them or they have been removed from the library copy. The quality and ease of use of this CD will make it a prime candidate for such purloining. I hope the contents of this CD will also be made available in another format, possibly web-based.

Simon Holdaway and Nicola Stern are to be congratulated on their achievement in making A Record in Stone available to a wider audience. They have turned what could have been a technical treatise into a punchy and important document.

Harry Allen
University of Auckland

Allen, H., 1990. Environmental History in Southwestern New South Wales during the Pleistocene, in Soffer, O. and Gamble, C. (eds), The World at 18000 BP: Volume 2, Low Latitudes . London: Unwin Hyman, 296 321
Allen, H., 1998. Reinterpreting the 1969-72 archaeological surveys of the Willandra Lakes. Archaeology in Oceania 33, 207-220
Hiscock, P. & Allen, H., 2000. Assemblage Variability in the Willandra Lakes. Archaeology in Oceania 35, 97-103
Shiner, J, Holdaway, S., Allen, H. & Fanning, P., 2005. Stone Artefact Assemblage Variability in Late Holocene Contexts in Western New South Wales: Burkes Cave, Stud Creek and Fowlers Gap, in Clarkson, C. & Lamb, L. (eds), Lithics ‘Down Under’: Australian perspectives on Lithic Reduction, Use and Classification. Oxford: BAR International Series 1408, 67-80

Review Submitted: November 2005

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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