Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Australian Backed Artefacts – Multiple Uses

Key indicators of cultural practices in early Australia are backed blades, aka microliths or backed bladelets, the question was – what were they used for? Robertson et al. have reviewed a number of common ideas, including hunting, scarification, wood working, then subjected them to use-wear analysis and residue studies of 3 prehistoric assemblages. It was shown by these studies that they came into contact with a wide range of materials: wood, plants, bone, blood, skin and feathers. The results were unequivocal; the backed artefacts were hafted and used as versatile tools with many functions.

They are known as backed blades in Australia, and in many parts of the world they are called microliths or backed blades, and they have been used by archaeologists to demonstrate cultural change. In northeastern Australia they first appeared in the archaeological record in the Late Pleistocene, and were made in many regions across southern Australia and were produced abundantly in the southeast from about 3,500 BP to 1,500 BP, and by the time of British colonisation they seem to have no longer been made, there are no ethnographic observations of backed artefacts being used (Hiscock & Attenbrow, 1998; Slack et al., 2004; Hiscock, 2008). Archaeologists have been speculating about how they were used over the last century. Many of the earlier conjectures reflected expectations that prehistoric use of backed artefacts in Australia would parallel uses that were inferred for microliths in other parts of the world or the ethnographic use of other stone artefacts being used in composite tools, but they are often guesses, that are sometimes fanciful. There are several studies that have investigated use-wear and/or residue of backed artefacts in Australia in recent decades, though questions about the nature and uses of this tool form remain. In this paper Robertson et al. present an integrated use-wear and residue analysis which employed low and high magnification, studying large samples of backed artefacts from rockshelters in a valley in eastern Australia. A novel image of backed artefact use in Australia is provided which challenges models that have dominated over the last century of debate about this subject.

Models of backed artefact use in Australia

There are several models of the use of backed artefacts that have been discussed widely in Australia. It was hypothesised (Etheridge & Whitelegge, 1907) that they were scalpels used for scarification to produce circatrices such as those that have been observed historically on Aboriginal People. Several early researchers (e.g. Horne & Aiston, 1924), advanced the idea that these small implements were used primarily in ritual/ceremonial contexts, and it was argued that they were a symbol associated with the growth of ceremonial activities (e.g. Bowdler, 1981; Morwood, 1981; White & O’Connell, 1982). These views shared an expectation that backed artefacts would be used for only short-term single events, mainly on human flesh, and not necessarily hafted. The idea continues to be raised that backed artefacts were involved in ceremonies and rituals continues to be raised (e.g. McDonald et al., 2007).

Backed artefacts as domestic tools were advocated by a different set of models, probably hand-held or hafted. It wasn’t agreed what the use was likely have been. Included among the hypotheses of what the use was likely to be was wood-working tools (e.g. Mitchell, 1949) skinning or skin-working tools (e.g. Tindale, 1955; Stockton, 1970; Flood, 1980; Kamminga, 1980; Morwood, 1981; Fullagar, 1992). 1992). A single, dominant use for most or all backed artefacts, which the wear-residue should be uniform on most archaeological specimens, was implied by these models.

Those inferences were initially based on the morphology of the tools, though the presence of damage such as polish and/or plant tissue residue was being cited by researchers as evidence of use. In this literature the specimens being examined varied. Relatively thin varieties of backed artefacts were principally referred to as ‘bondi points’, ‘geometric microliths’, or collectively ‘backed blades’. Thick specimens, called eloueras, were examined by some researchers, though these were not always backed. These choices affected the conclusions of each study; consensus was often reached that eloueras had been used as woo-working tools, while there was no agreement that smaller forms had been used in that task. The focus in this study was on non-elouera forms exclusively.

The model that had backed artefacts as hafted to throwing spears and served as spear barbs and/or tips, was by far the most common and persistent model (e.g. Turner, 1932; Campbell & Noone, 1943; McCarthy, 1948; White & O’Connell, 1982; McDonald et al., 2007). It was very common for this proposition to be based on the assertion that though in historical times so-called ‘death spears’ were barbed with flakes, shells or bones, in the prehistoric period it was backed artefacts that were used as barbs. According to Robertson et al. this argument is flawed. There are no historical items labelled ‘death spears’ in museums in which retouched stone flakes were used for barbs (Flood, 1955). Of more importance the earliest colonial literature does not even use the term ‘death spear’ (Corkill pers. Robertson et al.); some people, such as Hunter (Hunter , 1793) simply commented that spears barbed with stone, shell or bone caused death. There is no support in ethnographic literature that backed artefacts were used as barbs on spears.

According to Robertson et al. models in which backed artefacts were used as spear points or barbs also relied on assertions that they were so small they would have been part of composite tools. The argument that specimens with indications of hafting resin must necessarily been on spears is tenuous; there were probably other composite tools on which the same resin would have been used and would have had the same resin residues. E.g., it was concluded (McDonald et al., 2007) that some backed specimens that had been buried with Narrabeen man had been spear barbs, and they were lodged within the body and had damage that was consistent with penetration and impact. All of these features are, however, equally consent with attack from any composite weapon, including daggers and thrusting poles/spears as well as projectiles.

Robertson et al. suggest that presumptions of backed artefacts being armatures on projectiles led to Kamminga (1980) to argue that it is indicated by a lack of diagnostic wear that was shown by his low power microscopic examination of backed artefacts that they had probably been barbs on composite spears. This conclusion is still widely accepted even though it is contradicted by evidence of residue on specimens that have been examined (Barton, 1993; Boot, 1993; Fullagar, 1994; Therin, 2000; Slack et al., 2004; Robertson, 2005). The model that has backed artefacts as solely, or principally, barbs and tips on thrown spears predicts that many specimens would display impact damage and have residue/wear that is distinctive for flesh/blood, as well as few traces of other uses.

The results of wear/residue studies in Australia have not yielded evidence that is consistent with that prediction. Rather, the emerging model is that backed artefacts were used in multiple ways for many uses, which include cutting, incising and scraping of plant and animal materials as well as stabbing/thrusting and/or projectile tools.

Hiscock (1994, 2002, 2006, 2008) hypothesised, for instance, that prehistoric foragers in Australia emphasised composite tools containing backed artefacts as a result of their readiness and multi-functionality, employing them for almost any task. The most detailed demonstration that Australian backed artefacts were multifunctional, multipurpose and frequently part of composite tools that were used in both subsistence and craft activities, prior to this paper, was the study by Robertson (2005). Wear and residues on backed artefacts from 6 sites in eastern Australia were examined by her, and she concluded that specimens had been used in various ways: working bone, wood, skin/hides and mica, as well as butchery and activities involving feathers. They also functioned for cutting, drilling/awling, and scraping tools. This study develops Robertson’s previous work, describing wear and residues on backed artefacts from 3 sites in Upper Mangrove Creek.


The interpretations of tool use by Robertson et al. differentiate between task and function. Tool use is described by task (or task association) in terms of the materials that are worked: plant working, wood working, bone working, flesh working (such as butchering), and skin working, and trimming feathers. For each tool the task(s) were recognised by the identification of unambiguous residues or remnants of materials which the tool made contact with during its use. There are resin residues and abrasion marks on the majority of specimens which Robertson et al. regards as probable evidence of hafting, though the main concern in this paper is with evidence for the tasks and functions involved.

Function describes the use of a tool in terms of the way in which an implement was used: for cutting, scraping, incising, drilling or thrusting/throwing. These actions were inferred for each tool for observations of patterns of use-wear and the location of residues that is task-related. An example is in cutting, where the tool is drawn longitudinally across some material while holding the edge parallel to the direction of use, it is likely use-wear will be apparent on both surfaces that are adjacent to the cutting edge, the type of damage depending on the material being cut. A likely result was striations parallel to the cutting edge, rounding of the tip and chord, and possibly fine flake scarring. If residues indicated the task that was performed, a function was inferred only if wear or distinctive residue location was observed. There it was sometimes possible to infer task association, though not function, and vice versa. Firm identification was often possible:

i)                   63% of specimens that were used have information on task association and function,

ii)                27% have information on either task association or function, but not both, and

iii)              10% could have neither task nor function that was identified.


Robertson et al. characterised task association(s) and function(s) using this conceptual framework involved in the use of each backed artefact, to quantify the frequency of different tasks and functions in each assemblage and the magnitude of variability in tool use between sites. They carried out this investigation with the explicit acknowledgement that there could have been more than a single use for any particular specimen. They describe a tool as multifunctional if it was used for more than a single function, as being used to both scrape and incise. Tools that were used for more than 1 material, such as working wood and skin, they described as multipurpose. An additional aspect of inter-site variability that was examined is the multiplicity of uses of individual specimens.

It is made clear by wear and residue that many backed artefacts recovered from Deep Creek, Emu tracks and Mussel were used, and the nature of those uses differed between localities. Backed artefacts had been used as tools for the working of several materials at all 3 sites, such as wood and other plant materials, bone, skin, feathers and flesh. The frequency with which specimens were used on these different materials varied substantially, however, between the sites. The majority of backed artefacts had been used on bone at Deep Creek, while there were no signs that were observed of skin being worked. Skin-working was the most frequent task at Emu Tracks and the least frequent was bone-working. At Mussel wood-working and plant-working were the common tasks, only infrequently there was bone-working and skin-working. According to Robertson et al. the pattern is of a distinctive combination and emphasis on tasks of backed artefacts at each location in the landscape, which possibly reflects the availability of different resources in the immediate neighbourhood of each site and/or different activities that were undertaken habitually at each site.

Robertson et al. say it is important to note that cutting flesh was a minor element of the use of backed artefacts at all sites, and therefore the evidence from Upper Mangrove Creek does not support models in which the main use of backed artefacts was to hunt and butcher game. Also, the majority of tasks the backed artefacts were used for at 2 of the 3 sites were probably maintenance rather than of an extractive nature, and involved in the production of goods instead of the production of food. Robertson et al. suggest that at Deep Creek the bone-working and flesh-working could indicate that backed artefacts were frequently involved in processing animal products; it appears more likely they were used in the production of bone artefacts rather than food preparation. At Emu Tracks the evidence of wood-working, skin-working and the use of feathers dominate at the site, and wood-working and plant-working at Mussel is a reason to conclude that many backed artefacts were used at those sites to make organic tools and clothing.

Little inter-site variation was displayed in the functions for which the backed artefacts were used, which confirms the interpretations of Robertson et al. that most tools in the Upper Mangrove Creek sites were used for domestic purposes and the production tools rather than to hunt or butcher game. Backed artefacts at all 3 sites were used most frequently to cut and scrape, but there were no fixed or strong association between cutting or scraping and specific tasks. The evidence produced by the study is that the backed artefacts were used for general purpose cutting or scraping on a large range of materials, which include wood, non-woody plants, bone and skin.

A function that was moderately common at all sites, but the frequently used materials that were incised differed between sites. At Emu Tracks, for instance, incising was associated significantly with

i)                   wood-working (x2 = 18.44, d.f. = 1, p < 0.001, V = 0.667), and

ii)                skin-working    (x2 = 4.67, d.f. = 1, p = 0.031, V = 0.356),

at Mussel incising was associated statistically with only wood-working:

x2 = 9.59, d.f. = 1, p = 0.002, V = 430,

while at Deep Creek incising was associated with only bone-working;

x2 = 7.16, d.f. = 1, p = 0.07, V = 0.471.

It was revealed by these analyses that incising was not tied to any specific material, and that any tough material that was being processed at a site was incised by backed artefacts. Also, the only statistically significant relationship between a task and a tool function at Deep Creek was between bone-working and incising; therefore the high level of bone working at the site is suggested by Robertson et al. to probably be a consequence of bone tool production instead of butchering, as suggested above.

Emu Tacks was the only site at Upper Mangrove Creek where drilling/awling functions were common. At this site it is statistically associated with only 1 task: skin working:

X2 = 8.73, d.f. = 1, p = 0.003, V = 0.478.

Therefore, at Emu Tracks, where skin-working was very frequent, backed artefacts were involved in some form of hide-working, possibly to perforate skins in the process of sewing them together.

Mussel was the only site where there was evidence of chord spalling, though only in 3% of specimens, that might indicate the use of backed artefacts as projectiles or thrusting tools. This does not conform to models in which backed artefacts were exclusively or predominantly spear barbs or tips. Also, projectile/thrusting-like damage was often associated with wood-working and plant-working at Mussel. It was therefore concluded by Robertson et al. that in these 3 sites at Upper Mangrove Creek there is no evidence that is unequivocal of any backed artefacts bring hafted on spears and projectiles. For these sites it is untenable that backed artefacts were primarily mounted as barbs on spears and as spear tips.

Finally, there is also a difference between sites in the level of multiple use that is present on backed artefacts. The percentage of specimens that were used for more than 1 task was 10.4% at Emu Tracks and 8.3% at Mussel, which is a relatively low percentage of specimens that were used for more than 1 task, whereas the frequency of a specimen being used for 2 or 3 tasks at Deep Creek was distinctly higher (20%). The differences in Multifunctionality between sites were even more marked. Only 9.2% of specimens at Mussel had more than 1 function, though the frequency of Multifunctionality was 41.7at Emu tracks and 60% of specimens at Deep Creek. The differences might reflect factors such as the cost of obtaining replacement backed artefacts, intensity/duration of occupation, or variation in time-stress, but statements about local causes of differential multifunctionality await further investigation, which included use-wear analyses of the component scrapers of the assemblages. However, it should be noted the few elouera that were recovered from these sites conform to the patterning for the other backed artefacts, being used for multiple tasks, i.e. working with wood, bone, plant and feather, and having multiple functions, e.g. scraping, incising and cutting, though not drilling or spearing/thrusting. It is clear that the idea that there was a single or even typical function for backed artefacts is untenable in the Upper Mangrove Creek sites. Robertson et al. infer instead that backed artefacts were used on multiple occasions and/or were often multipurpose and multifunctional.

Amplifications of the multiplicity of uses for prehistoric Backed artefacts

It was demonstrated by the data that in the shelters of the Upper Mangrove Creek backed artefacts were used in a number of ways, which included craft activities in which objects of wood, non-woody plants bone, hide, and feathers were manufactured and maintained, as well as subsistence activities which involved the preparation of plant and animal materials. Typically these backed artefacts were part of composite tools that were often multifunctional, and were possibly used and recycled on several occasions. Models in which backed artefacts throughout Australia had only a single use are refuted by this evidence, and especially models that claim a dominant use was to cut human flesh in rituals or as armatures on projectiles. According to Robertson et al. the only existing model surviving this investigation is one in which backed artefacts are reconstructed as elements in flexile, composite tools that are multifunctional that were used for various scarping, cutting, incising, and possibly occasionally, on throwing spears or thrusting weapons.

Robertson et al. find no unambiguous evidence that backed artefacts were used for this function at the sites at Upper Mangrove Creek where projectile/thrusting-like damage is more commonly found with wood-working and working with plant material, though it is believed by many Australian researchers that backed artefacts were barbs or tips. It is claimed that evidence in other parts of Australia is consistent with some backed artefacts having been employed as barbs./tips on spears but a projectile function, but Robertson et al. suggest a projectile function cannot now be generalised to all, or even most, archaeological backed artefacts. This study is claimed to have refuted the notion (Flood, 1995) that the primary use for backed artefacts was a weapon of war, and the period in which there was intense production of backed artefacts between 3,500 BP and 1,500 BP was a time when there was heightened conflict in Australia, is refuted. Based on the findings of this study it now seems the use of backed artefacts as weapons for violence against humans, even murder, was ubiquitous and could possibly been very rare or localised geographically (e.g. McDonald et al., 2007). Explanations for the widespread increase in manufacture of backed artefacts that Robertson et al. consider to be more plausible have been offered (Hiscock, 2008).

This study is suggested by Robertson et al. to also reject interpretations of backed artefacts that are items for symbolic display only and/or ritual knives, at least on a continent-wide pattern. The Upper Mangrove Creek sites retained residues that indicate craft and processing activities. It is entirely possible that some of the wooden, plant, bone, feather or hide artefacts that had been produced by these activities may have also had ceremonial or symbolic roles, though as part of multipurpose and multifunctional manufacturing tools there is no reason at the moment, according to Robertson et al. to believe that backed artefacts were regarded in a non-profane way. The evidence resulting from this study, therefore, is against backed artefacts necessarily or typically having only a symbolic purpose.

Also, in spite of their small size and fragile appearance the observations during this study are inconsistent with the ideas that backed artefacts were manufactured in abundance because they only used once, or for a very limited time. Evidence of extensive reuse at Upper Mangrove Creek, for different purposes, that was possibly accompanied by rehafting, has revealed that while some backed artefacts may have been employed for only a single activity others had a far longer and more elaborate history of use. Robertson et al. suggest that backed artefacts might have sometimes been modified by retouching, possibly associated with rehafting events, should be examined further in light of this evidence (Hiscock, 2003; McDonald et al., 2007; Attenbrow et al., 2008). The multiple uses of many specimens at Upper Mangrove Creek sites led Robertson et al. to reject claims of prehistoric uses of Australian backed artefacts can be simply described and generalised. The high level of variation between sites of backed artefacts that was found in this study, even within a small region, emphasises the multifunctional and multipurpose nature of this category of tool and reminds archaeologists that they cannot expect investigations of any single specimen or site to characterise the nature of the complex use of the tool.

Consideration of the diversity of backed artefacts in other parts of the world might be prompted by this conclusion. Though it is not clear that Australian backed artefacts are identical, technologically or morphologically, with ‘microliths’ from the Old World in Africa, Europe and Asia, use-wear and residue analyses there have also concluded that they often had multiple functions (e.g. Wadley & Benemann, 1995; Elston & Brantingham, 2002; Milisauskus, 2002). Questions are promoted by the evidence from Australia of whether multiplicity of uses and high levels of functional variability between sites is also typical in microlithic assemblages across the Old World.


Robertson, G., et al. (2009). Multiple uses for Australian backed artefacts.



Author: M. H. Monroe
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