Review of ‘Australia’s Eastern Regional Sequence Revisited: Technology and Change at Capertee 3’ by Peter Hiscock and Val Attenbrow

01st December 2009

Australia’s Eastern Regional Sequence Revisited: Technology and Change at Capertee 3 by Peter Hiscock and Val Attenbrow. British Archaeological Reports International Series S1397, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2005, xiv+151 pp., ISBN 184171836X.

Chris Clarkson

School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia Qld 4072, Australia

Although published for several years now, Hiscock and Attenbrow’s 2005 monograph on the Capertee 3 site continues to be an important landmark in Australian and international lithic studies. The research presented is this BAR provides a detailed and rigorous exposition of important issues in Australian archaeology by focusing on a key site in the construction of pervasive, though problematic, eastern and pan-Australian industrial sequences. The issues they tackle include building a detailed understanding of Holocene retouching strategies, exploring typological boundaries and morphological continuums, documenting the temporal boundaries of key temporal markers and exploring the nature, rate and meaning of cultural and technological change in the Holocene period. While each of these issues is dealt with in detail, the monograph remains very readable and its conclusions go well beyond description of an old collection to provide a new framework for analysing and depicting cultural change in Australia.

Hiscock and Attenbrow begin with an excellent introduction outlining the focus of the research. The authors’ justification of the importance and theoretical positioning of the research clearly identifies the problematic nature of more traditional typological analyses, both for the way Australian prehistory has been constructed, as well as for archaeological practice more generally. Leading on from this, they identify a profitable direction for investigating issues of technological and cultural change in this region that is free of many of the problems inherent in typology. The discussion of the underlying materialist perspective the authors adopt is well informed and they deftly avoid laboring the theoretical points they raise. They pinpoint a key problem that has stymied productive archaeological research in Australia – that widely employed typological studies are not only an antiquated system founded on a problematic set of assumptions, often technologically inconsistent, limited in analytical power for addressing certain questions and badly in need of revision, but in some cases, may also be responsible for masking important aspects of cultural change, such as whether change is sudden and transformative or gradual and continuous in Australian sites. The direction they outline for the monograph sets out to resolve this issue for Capertee 3.

The review of the chronology, site formation and evidence for vertical disturbance at Capertee 3 presented in Chapter 2 is comprehensive and convincing. The authors make good use of a novel study of patination on stone artefacts to demonstrate the vertical integrity of the site and outline the problems that have arisen from McCarthy’s selective sampling strategy for the analysis. I was disappointed not to see a graph of weathering severity on backed artefacts themselves over the depth of the site like that presented for all retouched flakes, as this would be particularly interesting given the importance of vertical integrity for claims the authors have made here and elsewhere that the deepest backed artefacts in Sydney Basin sites are in their correct stratigraphic position and that backing is therefore a technology with greater antiquity than has previously been recognised.

Methods for the analysis of retouched artefact size and form are clearly set out in Chapter 3 and comprise a suitable battery of techniques to investigate patterning and change in the kinds of manufacturing technology they are dealing with. There are always more measurements and attributes that can be recorded on stone artefacts, but the authors are judicious and include only those that are appropriate for detecting significant patterning in their data. The analysis presented toward the end of the chapter provides thorough descriptive statistics for the main categories of retouched flakes found in the site, and summarises important background research related to the selection of appropriate methods of measuring retouching intensity that have been published elsewhere. Their approach here clearly takes quantitative analysis of stone artefacts in an important new direction by exploring the relationships between shape, size and retouch variables and determining levels of covariation and independence between them. This is a logical step in determining the contribution of each variable in creating patterning in retouched flakes, and one that might not have proved so successful had cluster analysis been attempted without a sound understanding of the interactions between measures of reduction and various aspects of artefact form.

Chapter 4 continues the exploration of type construction and turns to multivariate statistics and an examination of McCarthy’s illustrated specimens to explore bias and technological inconsistency in his classifications. This chapter is an interesting stand-alone piece of research that builds a convincing argument for a technological viewpoint as an internally consistent way of describing and classifying chipped stone artefacts. Owing to the fundamental differences in outlook between McCarthy’s classification and that of the authors, a point the authors are careful to reiterate, their analysis does not come across as a misplaced critique of research from another era, but as a systematic exploration of the consequences of emphasising similarities in shape over technological criteria in classifying stone artefacts. As McCarthy’s typology continues to play an influential role in Australian archaeology, the conclusions that arise from this study are extremely pertinent and Australian lithic analysts would do well to pay close attention to them. The simple metric and non-metric descriptions employed here mean that this approach could well form the basis of detailed examinations of problematic classificatory systems in other Australian assemblages and in other parts of the world.

Hiscock and Attenbrow turn next to a detailed quantitative exploration of manufacturing processes involved in backed and non-backed retouched flake production in Chapter 5. Their analysis compiles and builds on their own published material which documents continuums in implement morphology as reduction continues. It extends this research by carefully teasing out the parameters of blank selection and discard that set apart the various categories of retouched flakes found at the site. The result is in fact the most thorough and well presented consideration of the complete range of manufacturing steps (excluding raw material selection) involved in retouched implement production that has ever been assembled. This analysis also examines instances of implement reuse that took place long after implements were first discarded. Their primary observation, one that has now been stated many times in the literature though without such compelling data to back it up, is that broad changes in implement morphology over time may perhaps reflect as much, perhaps even more so, the oscillations in reduction intensity that are so clearly responsible for drastic alterations in flake form, as they do stylistic or other cultural changes. This is a bold statement, but it nevertheless follows from their findings. Even so, Hiscock and Attenbrow do not make any such claim for Capertee 3, or not yet at least, but merely demonstrate that it might be so, and that we should be ready to interpret some of the typological changes McCarthy noted at Capertee 3 in this light.

Hiscock and Attenbrow end the analytical section of their monograph on a high note. They turn from examination of atemporal trends in implement morphology related to reduction intensity, to a close examination of changing production rates through time. Their research yields an impressive conclusion – that many of the chronological changes in type frequencies noted by McCarthy do not reflect the addition or deletion of techniques in the manufacturing repertoire (with the exception of burinate reduction which seems to appear later in the sequence), but the differential creation of retouch features (such as serrations, notches and high edge angles) that emerge or are obliterated through changing degrees of reduction. Furthermore, their recalculation of discard rates using z-scores arrives at a new and extremely significant conclusion, that production rates for backed and non-backed artefacts are largely in sync. This is a revelation that is in stark contrast with McCarthy’s findings and one that clinches their argument for a trend toward a mid-to-late Holocene peak in reduction intensity in all classes of retouched implement. They attribute this peak to a likely extension of reduction during this c.1800 year period which was aimed at getting the most possible out of the high quality raw materials that are increasingly brought to the shelter at this time. The apparent introduction of burinate reduction just previous to this peak in reduction fits neatly with this trend the authors argue, by representing a new means of extending the reduction of flakes that are heavily battered and would otherwise be approaching discard thresholds. Since this technique is known to have also provided suitable blanks for backed artefact production, burinate reduction is likely to have been an extremely profitable way putting otherwise ‘spent’ flakes to good use.

In their final chapter, the authors draw on Hiscock’s previously published extendability/maintainbility spectrum model to provide a plausible explanation for the use of alternative retouching strategies. Their suggestion that the two techniques may have existed in unison at Capertee 3 makes sense in the context of mid-Holocene increased climatic variation.

In all, this study is a first of a kind, but one that will hopefully be emulated and expanded upon by many archaeologists interested in this approach. The monograph is very well written and presented with figures consistently prepared to a very high standard. The work sets a new standard in reporting lithic assemblage variability and will be something of a bible for lithic analysts for years to come.

Chris Clarkson
Review of ‘Australia’s Eastern Regional Sequence Revisited: Technology and Change at Capertee 3’ by Peter Hiscock and Val Attenbrow
December 2009
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