Review of ‘Lithics Down Under: Australian Perspectives on Lithic Reduction, Use and Classification’ edited by Chris Clarkson and Lara Lamb

01st December 2006

McNiven book review cover AA63Lithics Down Under: Australian Perspectives on Lithic Reduction, Use and Classification edited by Chris Clarkson and Lara Lamb. BAR International Series 1408, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2005, iv+125 pp., ISBN 1 84171 851 3 (pbk).

Ian J. McNiven

Programme for Australian Indigenous Archaeology, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton Vic. 3800, Australia

Lithics ‘Down Under’ assembles key papers on technological analyses of Aboriginal flaked stone artefacts. The focus on reduction reflects its central role in modern technological analyses of stone artefact assemblages. By definition, stone artefact manufacture, use and curation is a reductive process: each flaking event results in an artefact progressively becoming smaller and smaller. Thus, a focus on reduction emphasises the morphological dynamism of stone artefacts and embeds such dynamism within the contingencies of technological requirements usually linked to land-use strategies. If artefact engagement depends on place-specific requirements, then artefact reduction must contend with three dimensions – first, a matrix of differing functional requirements across a landscape; second, the fact that each flaking event reduces the size of the artefact towards a critical threshold of usability; and third, replacement raw materials for artefact manufacture are unevenly distributed across the landscape and have access costs. Significantly for archaeological enquiry, each reduction event produces a material signature in the form of flaking debris. While stone artefacts are not immune from taphonomic processes, it is likely that most flaking events by humans over the last 2.5 million years have an archaeological expression today. As Clarkson and Lamb point out, such tangibility allows stone artefacts, through reduction analyses, to provide powerful and unique insights in the dynamics of past human landscape engagements.

In an attempt to quantify degrees of assemblage reduction, considerable attention has been directed at retouched flakes. As Clarkson and Lamb discuss in their introduction (Chapter 1), such studies have rendered many typological studies moribund by revealing the mutability of retouched artefact forms and the existence of morphological continuums. Following pioneering work by Dibble on Mousterian scraper reduction continuums, Australian archaeologists have been producing robust studies documenting similar reduction continuums. Although the tula adze reduction continuum has been known for many decades, it is primarily with the conceptual and methodological advances of Peter Hiscock, Chris Clarkson and Val Attenbrow that Aboriginal retouched flake reduction continuums have gained an international audience. In Chapters 2, 3 and 5, these three scholars elaborate notions of reduction continuums to produce what I consider to be the centre-piece papers of the volume.

In Chapter 2, Hiscock and Clarkson reassess the validity and utility of a number of reduction indexes, particularly Kuhn’s Geometric Index of Unifacial Reduction, through their own experimental and controlled reduction of retouched flakes. Results, described in statistical detail, reveal that a strong positive relationship does indeed exist between amount of retouching (% of original weight lost) and the Kuhn Index. Other reduction indexes, based on platform area or platform thickness, are found wanting.

The Kuhn Index is put to good use in a number of papers in the volume, including Clarkson’s (Chapter 3) paper which I believe will become an instant classic. Clarkson applies a range of measures of reduction intensity to 338 retouched flakes excavated from four stratified rockshelters from Wardaman country in the Northern Territory. All measures reveal reduction continuums which fly in the face of typological approaches, including staged reduction models, which attempt to identify discontinuous and discrete scraper types. To further demonstrate this point, the same sample of retouched flakes was classified according to eight scraper classes defined by McCarthy. Results not only show considerable overlap between classes but also subsume artefacts from different parts of the reduction continuum. Clarkson makes the important conclusion that ‘the notion that types represent real, discrete and discontinuous ‘kinds’ that are tightly bounded and internally consistent must be rejected’.

In Chapter 5, Hiscock and Attenbrow crystallise a profound and paradoxical implication of reduction continuums – ‘How can implements be designed for, and be efficient in, a specific use if their morphology is continuously changing?’. It is similarly ironic that every resharpening event to extend the use-life of an artefact simultaneously decreases the size of the artefact and increases its likelihood of approaching a usability threshold. The paradox establishes a conceptual cul-de-sac for use-wear studies hoping to find discrete relationships between form and function. Continuing with their analysis of retouched flakes from Capertee 3 (excavated by Fred McCarthy), Hiscock and Attenbrow demonstrate that different ‘scraper’ types identified by McCarthy are arbitrary as they form part of a non-segmented, morphological/reduction continuum. In other words, the scraper types have no inherent meaning or discreteness and therefore any morpho-functional ascription is likewise arbitrary. It is pointed out that if function changed to accommodate morphological change with serial reduction, then we would be faced with the untenable proposition that artefact reduction drives function and by extension land-use strategies!

In Chapter 4, Lara Lamb looks at retouched artefact reduction, particularly backed versus non-backed, from the extraordinary South Molle Island quarry located off the central Queensland coast. Used for at least 9000 years, the quarry was a place where large backed artefacts (‘Juan Knives’) and other large retouched flakes were manufactured. Lamb demonstrates the distinctiveness of the backed artefacts as a retouched artefact class and argues that they were used largely as sources of small flakes across the Whitsunday archipelago. Oliver MacGregor (Chapter 6) examines through controlled experiments the issue of abrupt terminations and the problems knappers encounter if they wish to extend the use-life of artefacts through continued reduction. Taking a landscape approach, subsequent chapters explore the relationship between reduction intensity, raw material proximity, mobility and occupation intensity for the arid/semi-arid zones of NSW (Justin Shiner et al. – Chapter 7), central Australia (Boone Law – Chapter 8) and Queensland (Alex Mackay – Chapter 9). Of these three interesting papers, I found Law’s analysis of retouched flake reduction intensity at Puritjara particularly engaging because of its clarity and focus. This paper integrates nicely chronological changes in reduction intensity with changes in residential duration, mobility and climate. Michael Shott (Chapter 10), one of the big guns of international lithic studies, ends this ‘landmark’ volume with an authoritative, reflective and highly instructive overview.

Overall, the quality of production is good but a final proof read would have picked up a series of annoying typos. This volume should be mandatory reading for all Australian archaeologists. For those of you not into the intricacies of stone artefact technology, some of the papers will be hard going. However, your perseverance will be amply rewarded as the heavily referenced papers will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the current state of play of technological analyses both in Australia and abroad. For those wishing to take the plunge into technological analyses, the volume will become something of a bible. Lithics ‘Down Under’, reflecting the long-term commitment of Peter Hiscock and his students to technological analyses, consolidates Australia’s cutting-edge place in the dynamic international arena of lithic studies. The fact that the volume was skillfully assembled by two younger generation archaeologists (both students of Hiscock) demonstrates that the future of our discipline is in good

Ian J. McNiven
Review of ‘Lithics Down Under: Australian Perspectives on Lithic Reduction, Use and Classification’ edited by Chris Clarkson and Lara Lamb
December 2006
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