Backed Artefact Use in Eastern Australia: A Residue and Use-Wear Analysis

01st June 2006

Gail Robertson

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, May 2005

This thesis addresses the question of backed artefact use in the mid- Holocene through an integrated residue and use-wear analysis of artefacts from six sites in eastern Australia. The probable use of these artefacts has intrigued archaeologists for more than a century and a number of hypotheses have been proffered. Backed artefacts appeared in the archaeological record in the late Pleistocene; there was an interim period of intense production from about 4000 BP to 1500 BP; and they had seemingly disappeared from use by the time of British colonisation. Backed artefacts therefore occupy a unique position in Australian archaeology in their potential for elucidating the nature and context of change in Aboriginal societies during this period. Various models for their efflorescence in the mid-Holocene have been proposed, the most promising of which involves the concept of a triggering event such as climatic change instigating a range of risk-reduction processes, including the possibility of an increased production of a highly maintainable and transportable toolkit. Until their purpose is known, however, explanations for the appearance, adoption and eventual disappearance of backed artefacts will continue to be speculative. This study, by revealing activities for which backed artefacts were used during the period of their most intense production, permits a fuller understanding of the factors influencing human behaviour and precipitating culture change in mid-Holocene Australia.

An integrated residue and use-wear analysis of 218 backed artefacts from sites in central coastal New South Wales and the Central Highlands in western Queensland clearly reveals their association with a range of craft and subsistence activities, several of which were not predicted by previous researchers. Tasks involved animal processing such as skin-working, bone-working, butchery, hunting and feather preparation, and work with plant materials such as wood, non-woody and/or starchy plants. A ceremonial context was also inferred for several artefacts. Use as scrapers, knives, incisors, awls, drills or piercers, depending on the task and sometimes basic tool morphology, was also established. Artefacts were frequently multipurpose and/or multifunctional, and more than half exhibited evidence for hafting. Different activities were emphasised at various sites, and some tasks, such as skin-working, were performed at one site only.

The most significant discoveries are the use of backed artefacts for incising and scraping bone, including bird bone, and clear evidence for use of Bondi points as awls and knives for skin-working. The use of Bondi points and geometric microliths as hafted incisors for wood-working is another important result, as is the identification of some feathers to species level, allowing conjecture on the role of duck, other water birds, and fowl in the Aboriginal subsistence regime and ritual life in central coastal New South Wales. Despite frequent speculation in the literature, and some previous evidence for the use of backed artefacts as spear barbs, only one artefact in this sample provides evidence for such activity.

This research not only tests the current hypotheses on backed artefact use by identifying many of their task associations and functions, it also makes an important contribution to our knowledge of site activities during a period of dramatic cultural change in the mid-to-late Holocene.

Gail Robertson
Backed Artefact Use in Eastern Australia: A Residue and Use-Wear Analysis
June 2006
Thesis Abstracts
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