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A record in stone: the study of Australia's flaked stone artefacts.

A record in stone: the study of Australia's flaked stone artefacts. By Simon Holdaway and Nicola Stern Museum Victoria and Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004. ISBN 0 85575 460 5 Pp. xxiii + 376, plus CD-ROM. RRP $49.95.

Note: unless otherwise indicated, references to figures are those occurring in the book.

There has been a crying need for decades for a book on Australian stone tool technology to update the only signifi-cant volume on the subject, F. D. McCarthy's Australian Aboriginal stone implements, including bone, shell and teeth implements (1976). It was anticipated that A record in stone would meet this need, and to a degree it has. McCarthy's work was low on technology and high on typology. In contrast Holdaway and Stern have produced a volume in which the reverse can be said to be true.

Aimed primarily at university students, it will be of value to all archaeologists whose work brings them into contact with flaked stone technologies. In essence some 260 pages of text deal with historical and technical aspects of flaked stone tool studies while a scant 65 pages are dedicated to the examination of a number of types of Australian flaked stone tools.

As the authors note in their acknowledgements (xiv) the project 'to update McCarthy's typology of Australian stone tools began with the Lithics Workshop held in February 1995 at the Australian Museum, Sydney'. At that workshop I (and a number of other participants) were under the impression that the development of the project was to involve greater input from the group than subsequently occurred. I feel that the potential of the project as initially raised at the Workshop has not been met in this volume and consequently I will still be hanging on to my copy of McCarthy.

Australia is perhaps fortunate that it does not possess the great variety of pressure-flaked tool forms, points etc. found in the northern hemisphere. These tend to distort the focus of books about flaked stone artefacts produced in North America--e.g. Whittaker (1994). Australian archaeologists are also fortunate that stone points play such a small part in the socio-economic and technological aspects of much of the Australian archaeological record. We are free to a degree to examine other aspects of the lithic technology of the continent, secure in the knowledge that over the millennia Aboriginal people and their ancestors successfully developed rich and meaningful cultural systems generally using the simplest strategies to create a range of stone implements to assist their endeavours.

In the Introduction Holdaway and Stern firmly and succinctly set the tenor of the work, explaining the rationale behind its production, the structure, the illustrations and the use of the CD-ROM. A page within the volume on the set up of the CD-Rom would have expedited its use while the inclusion of a glossary at the end of a book would also have been useful.

Chapter 1 leads the reader through the value of stone artefact studies, the mechanics and techniques of flaking, the properties of flakeable stone, methods of distinguishing artefactual from naturally flaked lithic material and finally the products of flaking. Each section is provided with a summary that succinctly rounds it off.

While the text is elegant, I found problems understanding many statements, particularly in reference to a number of the images.

First is the (to me) ambiguous use of the term conchoidal initiation to describe flakes initiated by a Hertzian fracture. Geologically the term conchoidal is applied to the manner in which some minerals fracture, creating forms with curved concentrically ribbed surfaces such as those found on some molluscs. These are the ripples seen best on flakes of finer isotropic minerals such as obsidian, flint etc.; they may be seen on flakes initiated by either Hertzian or bending fractures.

In relation to the figures I do not understand why the authors chose the image they did, to illustrate the dorsal surface of a flake produced through conchoidal fracture (Fig. 1.4.1). This flake demonstrates to a marked degree the waisting said by them to be a criterion distinguishing bending-initiated flakes from flakes initiated by conchoidal fractures. Waisting on the conchoidally-initiated example is far more dramatic than that shown on the bending-initiated flake illustrated (Fig. 1.38.1). An examination of the debris on my own knapping floor suggests that waisting is not necessarily diagnostic of flakes initiated by bending fractures and, like the waisting on the conchoidally flaked piece in Fig. 1.4.1, simply reflects the topography of the original core surface.

This leads to another problem. The feature on bending-fracture initiated flakes, identified by the authors as the platform (Fig. 1.38.1) thus implying that it received the impact of the percussor, is in fact the rear edge of the core, or piece being flaked, and as such could possibly be considered a part of the ventral surface of the flake. Platforms on bending-initiated flakes made by direct percussion are, in fact, the point of interface of the two surfaces that would make up the axes of the platform angle (as per Fig 3.15.1) in a flake produced through conchoidal fracture. The flake produced by a bending fracture tears away from the core behind the point of impact, whereas on a conchoidally produced flake, the platform lies between the point of impact and the dorsal surface of the flake.

I also had problems with what the authors describe as cross-sections. In most cases these appeared to be lateral views, e.g. Figs 6.28.1 and 6.29.1, or distal views, as in Figs 6.4.1 and 6.25.1. Sections, whether transverse or longitudinal, in conjunction with plan and lateral views, should convey information that allows one to visualise the complete artefact.

Chapters 2-5 are straightforward and will I hope lead to a greater degree of standardisation within the literature. I did find that the discussion on nuclear or core tools was spread through the text rather than being discussed coherently--why was the brief reference to 'horsehoof cores' relegated to Chapter 5, Attributes used in describing cores, rather in Chapter 6 under the section on Nuclear tools? I would not consider the small core (Fig 5.19.1) provided an illustration of a horsehoof core tool and suggest that the artefacts illustrated by Cooper (1943: Figs 2-3) are radically different objects.

As horsehoofs have been considered by some (including myself) as one type of nuclear tool used for chopping and adzing, an element of mass is required. The example shown would probably not weigh more than 150g and does not reflect the more massive artefact originally considered. I have (Akerman 1993: 125-7) discussed in detail the problems many archaeologists seem to have in distinguishing between the horsehoof cores with their deliberately knapped sets of step fractures and other cores which exhibit some stepped flakes that are usually quite clearly the result of platform preparation or failure in the knapping process. The lack of use wear on most horsehoof cores such as those illustrated by Cooper from South Australia can be attributed to the material used and subsequent weathering. At this point I checked on where the illustrated specimen originated. It was disappointing to find that original provenances of the illustrated artefacts were not recorded in the appendix providing the captions for both text and CD.

My main reservations lie with Chapter 6. Focusing on some Australian stone implements the authors examine the literature and discuss, rather unsatisfactorily, a number of Australian artefact 'types'. Four sections deal with: Scrapers, notched tools, burins and nuclear tools; Adzes; Backed tools and finally Points. To demonstrate the problems I have with this chapter some discussion is required.

I must query the inclusion of the discussion of leilira blades within the scraper category. In my mind, one of the problems of understanding the large (usually) quartzite or silcrete blades used as knives, spearheads and picks, is that Australian archaeologists generally have little understanding of the actual processes of stone tool manufacture. In a forthcoming paper I deal with the production of leiliras as distinct from other smaller pointed flakes and blades of silcrete etc. (Akerman n.d.). There is a deliberate strategy used to produce these blades, often involving the creation of the core face by the removal of either one or two intersecting plunging flakes. Plunging flakes are also deliberately used to rejuvenate a core, resetting the platform angle to an angle more appropriate for the successful removal of blades (Akerman 1976: 119, 121). There are macroblade industries found within northern and central Australia that were not primarily focused on producing scrapers. Moore (2003: 23-36) has started to clarify some of the issues related to the production of chert blades (not leilira) in western Queensland, and it is obvious that a technological approach is required in order to clearly understand and differentiate between Australian blade production strategies. I fail to see how the illustration of a leilira (Fig. 6.1.1(c)), evidently a pointed, trigonal-sectioned scraper made on a blade, as defined according to Holdaway and Stern and by Allen and Barton (1988), differs from other pointed macroblades recognised in the past, both in ethnographic and archaeological specimens, as spearheads or knives.

Leiliras used as spearheads invariably do have some functional retouch about the platform area. The retouch is used to remove the extreme lateral margins of the platform and adjacent edges to facilitate hafting in either a split or hollowed out spear shaft. Fig. 6.1.1 (c) appears to possess this modification at the proximal end. Such modification is not necessary for resin-hafted knives or picks, although it is apparent that more recent indigenous knappers may create a morphological likeness to some blade tools by more extensive retouching than occurred in the ethnographic past.

A further problem is noted in the subsection relating to waisted tools. Although stems (or tangs) and waists are both strategies to facilitate hafting, they operate in different ways. Holdaway and Stem's Fig. 6.9.1 illustrates a stemmed rather than a waisted tool. A waist implies a median constriction rather than the overall reduction of one end of the tool as is illustrated.

Section 6C: Adzes, discusses some of the problems relating to the identification of adze-flakes as distinct from scraping tools. The implication is that adze-flakes are hafted and scrapers are used without a haft. The actions of scraping and adzing are mechanically different and a hafted adze may also serve as a scraper. To me the most basic way to separate adze-flakes from scrapers is the presence of repeated step-flaking on flakes used as adzes. As a person who has made and used hafted tula and other adzes for many years, it is clear that the step flaking on the retouched dorsal surface is a result of a careful resharpening strategy whereby the blunted flake edge is knapped with short sharp raps, rather than full strokes. This is done to avoid breaking the adze-flake from the hafting mechanism which both supports it and provides inertia to ensure that flaking can occur. These raps generally mean that flakes do not resolve by feathering but either step or hinge out. It is a pity that the caption for Fig. 6.23.1 does not make it clear whether we are looking at adze-stones from two different hafted tools, or two views of the same set of adze flakes. However the lower hafted stone elements in both cases appear to be engravers rather than adzes--possibly pirri gravers.

The discussion relating to the general morphology of tula adze-flakes is most interesting but again does not deal sufficiently with the technology generally used to create tula adze-flakes. Examination of tula flakes from many areas of Australia including the Eyre Basin and the Barkly Tableland have convinced me that the V-shaped platforms (called by Moore (2003: 28) gull-winged platforms) are deliberately created by initially removing a flake from a core surface, situating the impact point of the blow immediately behind the concavity of the negative scar left by the first flake removal. There has to be sufficient depth to the platform to avoid splitting the flake longitudinally. As ridges on the core surface assist in controlling the shape and dimensions of a flake, so too does the negative bulbar scar ensure that the bulb of the second flake removed is accentuated--producing a wide platformed flake with the deep bulb sought after when creating tula adze-flakes. Tula cores are generally short so that most of the energy of the knapping blow is directed into the formation of the bulbar area. Examination of deep-bulbed, plunging flakes with concave dorsal surfaces on sites in the Barkly, remote from stone sources, suggests to me that these are preforms for tula adze-stones. Using the technique of serially-running flakes this way allows the creation of nested flakes each larger than the former. On a tabular core however the flakes may have similar dimensions to each other. This strategy ensures efficient and economical use of good stone material. As with most overhang removal on the core edge prior to knapping, the process on the intended adze-flake is a strategy that allows the knapper to ensure that the platform is strengthened and the target area clearly defined prior to striking the core. Moore (2004) ably presents the tula reduction sequence as it occurs in in the Camooweal area of Queensland.

I also have yet to notice that anyone working in some areas where tula adze flakes occur, particularly in the Channel country of Queensland, the Eyre Basin and southern Kimberley, has recognised the relatively high proportion of these flakes with double bulbs of percussion. This indicates to me that the original knapper made at least two attempts to strike the flake, initially creating a ring crack and incipient bulb that is only revealed when the second blow releases the flake from the core. I am undertaking replicative work in order to understand why this phenomenon occurs in some areas and not in others. It may be a reflection of the material being knapped, or due to subtle variations in the core setup and knapping technique.

Backed tools is the next subsection. The basics are covered well but there are a few points that need to be challenged. First, asymmetric backed blades--i.e. Bondi points--do occur in southern Western Australia (Butler 1958; Akerman 1969, 1971). Second, I am not quite sure how the idea of juan knives as simply large Bondi points arose, as illustrations of hafted implements were published as early as the 19th century (Evans, 1872: 264). Both Darbyshire (1903: 33) and Tindale (1957: 28-9), have also illustrated hafted juan knives. The Queensland Museum has examples of post-contact, hafted, glass, backed-blade knives from Eastern Queensland in its collections. Juan knife backing does not reflect any hafting strategy, which may be either a piece of hide wrapped and tied about the proximal end of the flake or a moulded resin handle.

Finally in the section on eloueras a glaring(!) error is made in a brief statement that northern eloueras (i.e. those from the Alligator Rivers area) do not have silica gloss. The presence of silica gloss on the backed flakes from this region has been recognised since 1948 (Setzler and McCarthy 1950: 1-5; McCarthy and Setzler 1960: 261,269-70). In 1998 I suggested that these flakes were used for processing stems of the spike rush for use as a craft fibre (Akerman 1998: 179-88).

Moving on to section 6E, Points, Holdaway and Stern indicate that there is still a lot of work to done in dealing with certain categories of Australian stone point industries. The pirri point problem is in my view an area that needs some airing. Eyre Basin and southwest Queensland pirri points do need to be examined alongside unifacial point types from other areas in northern Australia. Basically I notice that Eyre Basin pirris are manufactured by pressure flaking removing one or two series of bending flakes. Platforms for pressure flaking are created by initially creating an obtuse edge working from the ventral to the dorsal surface of the flake, rather than creating a pressure platform by flaking from the dorsal to ventral surface. In many cases flakes are removed with bending initiations--which creates a relatively straight fracture edge that requires only minimal marginal retouch to create the clean symmetry and neat edges these points exhibit. Most northern unifacial points appear to have been made by direct percussion, rather than by pressure flaking, except in the southern Kimberley where pressure flaking was used to create both unifacial and bifacial points. Questions that do not seem to be raised are 'why are there so many basically pristine, undamaged (except for the occasional trampled artefact), Eyre Basin points, when in other areas where point industries occur, broken butts (proximal ends) abound?" showing that the latter points were used and broken with constant regularity. Does this mean that the Eyre Basin pirris were elegant aesthetic expressions of more complex social relationships rather than made for more mundane functions?

Holdaway and Stern, having raised the issue of unifacial pirri points being used as engraving tools, do not deal in more detail with Kamminga's excellent paper on the pirri graver (1985: 2-25). This would have been a marvellous opportunity to again clarify the distinction between the two implement types. Pirri gravers are intimately associated with recent tula adze industries wherever they occur.

On the whole, the book exhibits a reluctance to integrate Australian stone artefact studies with research into other areas of Aboriginal material culture. For example, having examined the form and distribution of both receptacles, softwood shields and tula adzes over the past few decades, I would suggest that tula adzes, usually presented as a response to the need to work arid zone hardwoods, reflect much more in terms of the general economy and the environment. After all, people in most areas of Australia worked many hardwoods without requiring the use of tulas. Similarly, an examination of ethnographic adzes from the Western Desert and the literature relating to the material culture of this region clearly show that tulas were neither made nor used in historic times. Archaeologically, however, tula adzes and slugs are found throughout this area Tula adzes are, on the other hand, found ethnographically in the Pilbara region, the southern Kimberley, across the Tanami and central Australia, the Barkly Tablelands and south through the riverine areas of western Queensland into the Eyre Basin. In these areas there is a more intensive working of both hard and soft woods, than occurs in the Western Desert.

In the final chapter, Chapter 7 '... an attempt is made to understand the origins and implications of the isolationist mentality that has characterised the study of Australian stone artefacts' (p. 275). Rather than ending the book the bulk of this chapter should perhaps have occurred earlier in the volume. It is more a history of Australian stone artefact studies. The final section of this chapter The future of Australian stone artefact studies could have then formed a brief, but reasonably satisfying, conclusion to the work.

Those areas of A record in stone dealing with the technical aspects that need to be considered when examining stone artefacts provide a most welcome drawing together of terms and definitions. Hopefully it may lead to an accepted standardisation of terminology. Similarly, the general history of stone artefact studies permits students to view their own work within the perspective of the various phases through which Australian stone tool studies have passed. Unfortunately however, analyses of the findings of the various players in Australian ethnoarchaeology do not go far beyond reporting their disparate views.

It is, however, on the matter of Australian stone tools that the book is weak. A saving grace is that the authors acknowledge that recurring forms are a feature of the Australian record (p. 315). There is a need for deeper regional studies to distinguish changes over time as well as adequately describing the technologies present. There is also a need for further replication studies in order to determine the processes utilised to produce apparently morphologically similar types of artefacts--e.g. pressure-flaked as opposed to percussion-flaked unifacial points.

This book will certainly be of value to students involved in stone artefact studies generally--particularly if their mentors are familiar with lithic studies. As to providing a better understanding of Australian stone industries and tool types it is clear that much more is required and the subtitle is perhaps not justified. I would suggest that as the book has some merit in relation to the historical, technical and interpretive information provided in the bulk of the text, the authors should look to preparing for a second edition. By accessing a wider range of the expertise available on Australian lithic technology, Written in stone may indeed become a truly valuable reference for students of Australian Australian flaked stone tools.


I am extremely grateful to a number of colleagues including Richard Fullagar, Mark Moore, Judy Birmingham and Jane Balme who read initial drafts of this review.


Akerman, K. 1969. Walyunga--an Aboriginal site near Perth. Ilchinkinja. 3:12-9.

Akerman, K. 1971. A note on Aboriginal artifacts from the south Bullsbrook area. Western Australian Naturalist. 12(1): 17-20.

Akerman, K. 1976. Notes on the experimental manufacture of long blades and points by percussion flaking. Occasional Papers in Anthropology. Anthropology Museum University of Queensland. 6:117-28.

Akerman, K. 1993. The status of the horsehoof core. Records of the Australian Museum. Supplement. 17:125-7.

Akerman, K. 1998. A suggested function for western Arnhem Land polished flakes and eloueras. In Fullagar, R. (ed.), A closer look: Recent Australian studies of stone tools. Sydney University Archaeological Methods Series 6, pp. 179-88.

Akerman, K. n. d. To make a point--ethnographic reality and the ethnographic and experimental replication of Australian macroblades known as leilira. In H. Nami (ed.) Experiments and Interpretation of Traditional Technologies: Essays in Honour of Errett Callahan (possibly Texas University Press).

Allen, H. and Barton, G. 1989. Ngarradj Warde Djobkeng. White Cockatoo Dreaming and the prehistory of Kakadu. Oceania Monograph 37. Sydney.

Ashwin, A. C. 1932. From South Australia to Port Darwin with sheep and horses in 1870-71. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, SA Branch. 32:47-93.

Butler, W. H. 1958. Some Previously Unrecorded Aboriginal Artifact Sites near Perth, Western Australia. The Western Australian Naturalist, 6(6): 133-136.

Cooper, H. M. 1943. Large Stone Implements From South Australia. Records of the South Australian Museum 7(4):343-69.

Kamminga, J. 1985. The Pirri Graver. Australian Aboriginal Studies 198512:2-25.

McCarthy, F. D. 1976. Australian Aboriginal stone implements, including bone, shell and teeth implements. Australian Museum, Sydney.

McCarthy, F. D. and Setzler F. H. 1960. The archaeology of Arnhem Land. In Mountford C.P. (ed). Records of the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land. vol.2. Anthropology and Nutrition. Pp 215-295. Melbourne University Press.

Moore, M. 2003. Flexibility of stone tool manufacturing methods on the Georgina River, Camooweal, Queensland. Archaeology in Oceania 38: 23-36.

Moore, M. 2004. The tula adze: manufacture and purpose. Antiquity 78(299): 61-73.

Setzler, F. H. and McCarthy, F. D. 1950. A Unique Archaeological Specimen From Australia. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 40(1): 1-5

Tindale, N. B. 1957. Culture succession in south eastern Australia from late Pleistocene to the present. Records of the South Australia Museum. 13(1):1-49.

Tindale, N. B. 1965. Stone implement making among the Nakako, Ngadadjara and Pitjandjara of the great Western Desert. Records of the South Australia Museum. 15(1): 131-164.

Whittaker, J.C. 1994. Flint knapping: making and understanding stone tools. University of Texas Press, USA.


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Title Annotation:flaked stone artefacts
Author:Akerman, Kim
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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