By Jacqueline Matthews. Based on a recent article in Australian Archaeology volume 75 by Beth White titled: Minimal analytical nodules and lithic activities at site W2, Hunter Valley, New South Wales. With thanks to Beth for giving permission to use her artefact illustrations and maps, and to Laila Haglund for generously suppling previously unpublished images of the W2 site and surrounding landscape for this blog.
Lithics (or stone artefacts) are ubiquitous in the Australian archaeological record, as they are one of the most durable forms of material culture. Much of the archaeological story of Australia is based on the study of lithics.
In Australia today the majority of archaeological work is carried out in the consultancy realm, i.e. as contract work in advance of development or mining-related projects, and this sort of work is one of the main ways we learn where archaeological materials (the remains of past human behaviour) are located across the landscape. Large survey and excavation projects such as the one described in this paper can result in the recovery of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of artefacts. The way that archaeologists deal with such vast amounts of material directly influences the kinds of questions they can ask, and the stories they subsequently construct about human behaviour in the past. Concentrations of artefacts, typically called artefact ‘scatters’ or ‘concentrations’, are of interest to archaeologists as they represent places where people carried out particular activities in the past—at least for a period of time.
Australian lithic analysts are well known for their ‘materialist’ based approach, focusing on how artefacts were made and the range of technological activities that led to the artefact forms we find in the archaeological record (i.e. the use-lives of artefacts; for details on how analysts achieve this click here). In AA75, Beth White employs a particular analytical approach, called minimal analytical nodule (MAN) analysis, which is not often applied in Australia, and demonstrates its potential to contribute to our understandings of past sites and landscapes. The site from which the artefacts analysed for this paper were identified and excavated during a consulting project, originally recorded and excavated by Laila Haglund.
MAN analysis is a way of categorising a lithic assemblage into smaller, manageable units based on differences in the raw materials. Usually a lithic assemblage is initially categorised based merely on the various lithic raw material types present (e.g. chert, quartz, silcrete); the MAN approach takes this process one step further and further divides each type of raw material based on such differences as texture, banding and inclusions. This allows artefacts that likely come from the same nodule (or cobble) to be grouped together. This approach then makes it easier for the analyst to attempt to ‘refit’ the artefacts, through which they reassemble the sequence of knapping actions (see here for more details on this process).
Beth White provides us with an informative application of the MAN technique, to a lithic assemblage recovered from a site called W2 in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. This area consists of open plains where stratified deposits are rare and most archaeological material occurs on the ground surface or immediately below it. In her paper Beth attempts to understand the range of activities that people carried out at W2. Examples of activities that can be identified through an examination of the stone artefacts left behind include the heat treatment of raw materials, tool use and maintenance (i.e. retouching tool edges), intensive flaking and transport of materials.
One of the major problems facing archaeologists who work on open sites such as W2 is the potential for artefacts to move around, as these sites are exposed to various taphonomic processes and are thus much more likely to be disturbed than those that have closed contexts (e.g. rockshelters and caves). The approach applied by White deals with this problem by tracking the movement of artefacts from the same nodule or conjoin group and recording where they end up across the site.
Another key issue dealt with in Beth’s paper, and an issue present in all archaeological contexts relating to the mobility of people, is the deliberate transportation of artefacts. Often flakes created in one area are then moved by people across the landscape, sometimes being used along the way and left elsewhere. As a result, the artefacts found at a particular place were not necessarily made or used there. This complicates the stories archaeologists can tell based on lithic assemblages, although our ability to recognise this complexity is part of the interest and human story of the past.
At the W2 site, White was able to identify several cores and tools that were brought in and not used or reduced there. These artefacts are interesting because they don’t tell us about the activities being carried out at W2, but rather, they tell us about the transport of artefacts as people moved about the landscape. As Aboriginal people were highly mobile in the past, moving frequently and widely throughout their own Country and sometimes into the Country of other people for exchange or ceremonies, this finding is important because it reflects the reality of mobile hunter-gatherers in the past.
The way archaeologists deal with the complexity and sheer volume of lithic artefacts in the archaeological record directly determines the inferences they make about past human behaviour. Developing new, or improving on existing, ways to understand the lithics that are ubiquitous throughout time and space in this country is an exciting and constantly expanding field of research.
For more information on Australian archaeology and lithics:
Clarkson, C. 2007 Lithics in the Land of the Lightning Brothers: The Archaeology of Wardaman Country, Northern Territory. Canberra: ANU E Press. (Available for free download here.)
Flenniken, J.J. and J.P. White 1985 Australian flaked stone tools: A technological perspective. Records of the South Australian Museum 36:131—151. (Available for free download here.)
Hiscock, P. 2008 Archaeology of Ancient Australia. London: Routledge.
Holdaway, S. and M. Douglass 2012 A twenty-first century archaeology of stone artifacts. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19(1):101—131.
Holdaway, S. and N. Stern 2004 A Record in Stone: The Study of Australia’s Flaked Stone Artefacts. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Cutting Edge Archaeology hosts has a range of excellent resources on their website for those interested in learning more about Australian lithics, including an extensive bibliography, a guide to artefact attributes and links to various online resources.