Inert, inanimate, invaluable: How stone artefact analyses have informed of Australia’s past

Simon Munt

Department of Archaeology, Flinders University

Download full-text article

Dig It: The Journal of the Flinders Archaeological Society
Volume 2, Issue 1, June 2014

Print: ISSN 1440-2475
Online: ISSN 2203-1898


This paper analyses the contribution of stone artefact studies, or ‘lithic analyses,’ to understandings about the Indigenous occupation of Australia. It explores their significance in informing about both the timing of initial colonisation and the nature of the subsequent spread of settlement. Lithic analyses are discussed as having been central in providing evidence for spatial and temporal occupation of regions around the country. A case study from the mid-Holocene is examined for its value in demonstrating a manner of response by Indigenous people to changing environmental conditions. Stone artefact studies are seen to inform valuably about past Indigenous lifestyles and an example from north Queensland outlines much about the nature of trade and exchange between groups. Specific approaches to the study of stone artefacts are examined, such as use-wear and residue analyses and a more anthropological perspective known as the chaîne opératoire.


Andrefsky, W. 2009 The analysis of stone tool procurement, production and maintenance. Journal of Archaeological Research 17:65–103.

Bowdler, S. 1977 The coastal colonisation of Australia. In J. Allen, J. Golson and R. Jones (eds), Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia, pp.205–246. London: Academic Press.

Bowdler, S. 1996 The human colonisation of Sunda and Sahul: Cultural and behavioural considerations. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 14:37–42.

Close, A. 1978 The identification of style in lithic artefacts. World Archaeology 10(2):223–237.

Colley, S. 2002 Archaeology in Australia. In S. Colley (ed.), Uncovering Australia: Archaeology, Indigenous People and the Public, pp.1–21. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Cotterell, B., and J. Kamminga 1987 The formation of flakes. American Antiquity 52(4):675–708.

DATSIMA 2013 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Database and Reports Catalogue:

Dickson, F.P. 1977 Quartz flaking. In R.V.S. Wright (ed.), Stone Tools as Cultural Markers, pp.97–103. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Dickson, F.P. 1981 Australian Stone Hatchets: A Study in Design and Dynamics. Sydney: Academic Press.

Dobres, M. 2010 Archaeologies of technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics 34:103–114.

Domanski, M., and J.A. Webb 1992 Effect of heat treatment on siliceous rocks used in prehistoric lithic technology. Journal of Archaeological Science 19:601–614.

Field, J., and R. Fullagar 1997 Pleistocene seed-grinding implements from the Australian arid zone. Antiquity 71.272:300–304.

Field, J., M. Fillios and S. Wroe 2008 Chronological overlap between humans and megafauna in Sahul (Pleistocene Australia–New Guinea): A review of the evidence. Earth Science Reviews 89:97–115.

Fillios, M., J. Field and B. Charles 2010 Investigating human and megafauna co-occurrence in Australian prehistory: Mode and causality in fossil accumulations at Cuddie Springs. Quaternary International 211:123–143.

Flood, J. 2010 Archaeology of the Dreamtime (revised edition). Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Fullagar, R. 1994 Traces of times past: Stone artefacts into prehistory. Australian Archaeology 39:63–73.

Geneste, J-M., B. David, P. Hugues, J-J. Delannoy and F. Petchey 2012 The origins of ground-edge axes: new findings from Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land (Australia) and global implications for the evolution of fully modern humans. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(1):1-17.

Gould, R., D.A. Koster and A.H.L. Sontz 1971 The lithic assemblage of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia. American Antiquity 36(2):149–169.

Hallam, S. 1985 Microlithic industries in Western Australia: Some aspects. In Misra, V.N and P. Bellwood (eds), Recent Advances in Indo-Pacific Prehistory, pp.219–229. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co.

Hiscock, P. 1994 Technological responses to risk in Holocene Australia. Journal of World Prehistory 8(3):267–292.

Hiscock, P. 1998 Revitalising artefact analysis. In T. Murray (ed.), Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia: A Reader, pp.257–265. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin.

Hiscock, P. 2005 Standardised axe manufacture at Mount Isa. In I. Macfarlane, M.J. Mountain and R. Paton (eds), Many Exchanges: Archaeology, History, Community and the Work of Isabel McBryde, pp.287–300. Aboriginal History Monograph 11. Canberra: Aboriginal History.

Hiscock, P. 2008 Archaeology of Ancient Australia. London: Routledge.

Hiscock, P., and P. Veth 1991 Change in the Australian desert culture: A reanalysis of tulas from Puntutjarpa rockshelter. World Archaeology 22(3):332–345.

Hiscock, P., and S. Mitchell 1993 Stone Artefact Quarries and Reduction Sites in Australia: Towards a Type Profile. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Holdaway, S., and N. Stern 2004 A Record in Stone: The study of Australia’s flaked stone artefacts. Melbourne: Aboriginal Studies Press and the Museum Victoria.

Holdaway, S., and M. Douglass 2012 A twenty-first century archaeology of stone artefacts. Journal of Archaeological Method Theory 19:101–131.

Laughlin, J.P and R.L. Kelly 2010 Experimental analysis of the practical limits of lithic refitting. Journal of Archaeological Science 37:427–433.

Lombard, M., and L. Wadley 2007 The morphological identification of micro-residues on stone tools using light microscopy: progress and difficulties based on blind tests. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:155–165.

McBryde, I. 1987 Goods from another country: exchange networks and the people of the Lake Eyre Basin. In D.J. Mulvaney and J.P. Wright (eds), Australians to 1788, pp.252–273. Sydney: Fairfax, Syme and Weldon.

McCarthy, F. 1976 Australian Aboriginal Stone Implements. Sydney: Australian Museum Trust.

McCarthy, F. 1977 The use of stone tools to map patterns of diffusion. In R.V.S. Wright (ed.), Stone Tools as Cultural Markers, pp.251–262. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Moore, M. 2011 The design space of stone flaking: implications for cognitive evolution. World Archaeology 43(4):702–715.

Mulvaney, D.J. 1975 The Prehistory of Australian Prehistory. Ringwood: Penguin Books.

Mulvaney, D.J. 1985 Australian backed blade industries in perspective. In V. Misra and P. Bellwood (eds), Recent Advances in Indo-Pacific Prehistory, pp.211–217.   New Delhi: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co.

Mulvaney, D.J., and J. Kamminga 1999 Prehistory of Australia. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

O’Connell, J.F., and J. Allen 2004 Dating the colonisation of Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea): A review of recent research. Journal of Archaeological Science 31:835–853.

Roberts, R.G. 1997 Thermoluminescence dating in archaeology: From origins to optical. Radiation Measurements 27 (5/6):819–892.

Roberts, R.G., R. Jones and M.A. Smith 1990 Thermoluminescence dating of a 50,000 year-old human occupation site in northern Australia. Nature 354:153–156.

Roberts, R.G., N.A. Spooner, R. Jones, S. Cane, J.M. Olley, A.S. Murray and J. Head 1996 Preliminary luminescence dating for archaeological sediments on the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia. Australian Archaeology 42:7–16.

Roth, W. 1897 Ethnological Studies Among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines. Brisbane: Government Printer.

Slack, M.J., R.L.K. Fullagar, J.H. Field and A. Border 2004 New Pleistocene ages for backed artefact technology in Australia. Archaeology of Oceania 39:131–137.

Smith, M.A., J.R. Prescott and M.J. Head 1997 Comparison of 14C and luminescence chronologies at Puritjarra rockshelter, central Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews 16:299–320.

Tibbett, K. 2006 When east is northwest: Expanding the archaeological boundary for leilira blade production. Australian Archaeology 62:26–30.

Tolstevin, G.B. 2011 Special Issue: Reduction Sequence, Chaine Operatoire, and Other Methods: The Epistemologies of Different Approaches to Lithic Analysis. PaleoAnthropology 2011:351–375.

Torrence, R. 2005 Valued stone – how so? In I. Macfarlane (ed.), Many Exchanges: archaeology, history, community and the work of Isobel McBryde, pp.357–372.   Canberra: Aboriginal History Inc.

Wallis, L., D. Smith and H. Smith 2004 Recent archaeological surveys on Middle Park Station, northwest Queensland. Australian Archaeology 59:43–50.

White, P. 2011 Backed artefacts: useful socially and operationally. Australian Archaeology 72:67–69.

Zazula, G.D. 2000/2001 The Pleistocene peopling of Greater Australia: A re-examination. Nexus 14:109–123.

Let ArchSoc know what you think:

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s