Lithics in the Landscape in Western NSW

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Last week  I left my desk in the leafy harbourside of Sydney to explore the red soils, big skies and baking sun of Western New South Wales, along with colleagues from the Universities of York, Macquarie, LaTrobe and Auckland. These landscapes hold an abundance of artefacts left behind by Aboriginal populations over at least the last 6,000 years, presenting a brilliant opportunity to understand how people lived in and moved through a landscape susceptible to major environmental variation throughout the Holocene. As the Western NSW Archaeological Program (WNSWAP) directors, Trish Fanning (Macquarie) and Simon Holdaway (Auckland) developed new interdisciplinary methods to investigate this rich record. Close to the beginning of my work on SURFACE, where I am dealing with parallel issues of interpreting the distribution of stone artefacts in Saudi Arabia, the visit to two WNSWAP study areas – the University of New South Wales’ Fowler’s Gap Arid Zone Research Station and the Peery Section of the Paroo-Darling National Park – provided an excellent opportunity to discuss and further understand these methods through direct observation of the landscape and artefacts.

Studying past mobile hunter-gatherer societies through the artefacts we find today provides a unique set of challenges. The artefacts made, used and discarded by these populations are not confined solely to ‘sites’ or ‘camps’ – they have been distributed across the landscapes which groups inhabited and moved through. Analysing and interpreting these artefacts is not straightforward. The artefact distribution we see today isn’t a direct snapshot of activity that can be compared directly to observations of modern hunter-gatherer societies. Instead, the use and manufacture of stone artefacts are indicators of human activity that stretches over space and time. People made flakes and tools, moved them around the landscape to use for various activities in different locations, and deposited them when no longer useful, but not always where they were made and used. A discarded artefact could then have been picked up later by another person, and modified, used, and moved once more. These actions could sometimes be separated by long periods of time – the record we see is a product of all these activities ‘averaging’ into the distribution of artefacts we see and record today, not the actions of a single group who left everything exactly where they used it for us to compare to ethnographic studies.

Added to this, the record that survives for us to observe today is not just controlled by human activity, but also the geomorphic processes happening in the landscapes themselves. Over time, material can be exposed, eroded, removed or buried again, perhaps multiple times. When looking at these distributions, we need to be aware of the different impacts of these processes in different parts of the landscape, and over time, on the archaeology.

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Simon Holdaway, Matt Meredith-Williams and Trish Fanning stand on a ‘scalded’ (eroded) area of valley floor deposits, Fowler’s Gap. Photo: R. Inglis.

In response to these challenges, the WNSWAP team developed techniques for recording and interpreting these ‘time-averaged’ assemblages to examine Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer mobility – they focussed not on tracing individual groups or site types, but on understanding the broader ways in which stone tool artefacts were manufactured and moved around the landscape.

Geomorphological analysis was used to target areas of the landscape where artefacts are presently visible – for example, eroding areas or ‘scalds’ along valley floors where sediment deposits, and the archaeological record they contain, have built up over the past ~6,000 years or more. Within these areas, detailed recording of attributes of all the stone flakes and the cores they were struck from, such as size, volume, and surface area, are measured and calculated. The groups who manufactured the stone artefacts also built heat-retainer hearths, lining a pit with stones that were then heated by lighting a fire. The residual heat stored in the stones was then used to cook food once the fire had died out. These hearths were dated by radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence methods, providing ‘envelopes of time’ for human activity in the area.

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Trish Fanning photographs an eroding heat-retainer hearth first recorded by the original WNSWAP survey in Fowler’s Gap. Photo: R. Inglis.

After the archaeological survey, the data is analysed by comparing statistical measures of the attributes collected from the stone artefacts to those of a theoretical assemblage based on the size of the raw material nodules available to past populations. The researchers found that, overall in the archaeological record, there were fewer flakes (25% less, on average) than would be expected if all the material from their manufacture remained in the location where they were manufactured. The interpretation is that people were moving flakes to somewhere else in the landscape for use. By focussing only on concentrations of artefacts (or ‘sites’) in the landscapes, defining them as ‘camps’ or ‘living spaces’ and trying to examine activity within them, we are therefore missing the activities that took place away from these locations, and the artefacts they involved, which skews our understanding of past hunter-gatherer activity.

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Silcrete flake on eroding gravel lag deposits in Paroo-Darling NP. Photo: R. Inglis

The WNSWAP methodology allows an insight into the complex mobility strategies employed by Aboriginal groups in NSW over the last 6,000 or more years by detailed, painstaking work to fully understand the geomorphology and archaeology of the areas. The issues they have explored have major parallels to those I face with SURFACE in interpreting the distributions of Palaeolithic artefacts in SW Saudi. One of the major differences, though, is the depth of time covered by these distributions – in Saudi, the record may date up to 2 million years, and includes artefacts manufactured and used by both Homo erectus and H. sapiens, whereas the record in NSW covers a considerably shorter and more recent period of time and the product solely of the activity of modern humans (H. sapiens). Whilst these added challenges mean that it won’t be possible to apply the exact WNSWAP methodology to the Saudi record, the concepts behind these methods, or the importance of viewing stone artefacts as markers of a wider systems of activity and mobility, and an appreciation of the impact of landscape change and geomorphology on the observed record, are primary concepts that are directly relevant to the Saudi record.

Grateful thanks are extended to Trish and Simon for guiding us through their study areas and methods, as well as to the staff of the University of New South Wales’ Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station, and the National Wildlife and Parks Service at the Peery Section of the Paroo-Darling National Park. We also acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country in western NSW, and their elders past and present. We are grateful of the opportunity to learn a little about their long history of living in these challenging landscapes.

The above is a very short summary of WNSWAP, the results of which have been published through a long series of articles, the details of which can be found on Trish Fanning and Simon Holdaway‘s personal webpages. Results of the WNSWAP work at Fowler’s Gap can be found in: S J Holdaway and P A Fanning, 2014. Geoarchaeology of Aboriginal Landscapes in Semi-Arid Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

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WNSWAP 2016 Visit Team: Matt Meredith-Williams (La Trobe University), Robyn Inglis (Macquarie University, University of York), Geoff Bailey (University of York), Muznah Bailey, Simon Holdaway (University of Auckland) and Trish Fanning (Macquarie University).
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