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The following paper was published in 1996 by the Australian Archaeological Association in its journal Australian Archaeology Volume 42. Reproduced here with the permission.
The full reference is: Hiscock, P. and V. Attenbrow 1996 Backed into a corner. Australian Archaeology 42:64-65.




Peter Hiscock

(Department of Anthropology, Northern Territory University, Darwin 0909)


Val Attenbrow

(Division of Anthropology, Australian Museum, Sydney 2000)


Descriptive terms for those specimens which archaeologists described as backed seem remarkably varied. Historically recognised backed forms have been labelled using terms such as ‘Geometric microlith’ for symetrical specimens and ‘Bondi point’ for asymetrical specimens. In classificatory systems used during the middle of the twentieth century, such as that proposed by McCarthy, Brammell and Noone (1946), these forms were often regarded as separate: the former being classed as a sub-class of the ‘pigmy’ implements called microliths, while the later being regarded as a member of the point class. In the latter part of the century it has been more common to place these various backed forms together, thereby creating a need for terminology to refer to the class of backed artefacts as a whole.


More recent terminologies are diverse and reveal a varied conceptualization about the class. For example, some authors have emphasised smallness in their terminology, opting for labels such as ‘small tool’ (eg. Stockton 1982), ‘microlith’ (eg. Bowdler and O’Connor 1991). Others have emphasised the backing as a key defining characteristic, using labels such as ‘backed tools’ (eg. Stockton 1973) or ‘backed implements’ (eg. Johnson 1979). On some occassions the notions of small size and backing have been combined, such as in the labels ‘backed microliths’ (eg. Morwood 1981), or even ‘small microlithic backed implements’ (Johnson 1979). However, the most common label employed for this class remains ‘backed blade’ (eg.Bowdler 1981, Bowdler and O’Connor 1991; Flood 1995; Morwood 1984), a label which implies not only that the items were retouched in a particular way, but that only ‘blades’, not other kinds of flakes were worked in this way. While on many occasions authors have not discussed this implication of the term, there are many instances when it has been made clear that the label is interpreted literally as a description. For example, Morwood (1981:19) argued that,

The correlation between backed microliths and blades is not difficult to explain: the presence of a median ridge along the dorsal surface on the majority of backed microliths, indicates that these were manufactured on snapped blade sections.

In retrospect, the connecting of the blade concept with backed specimens in the term ‘backed blade’ seems dubious. In itself the existance of a dorsal arris, even one parrallel to the chord (ie. unretouched margin), is no indication that the flake being retouched was elongate and/or had parrallel margins. On some backed specimens it is clear that the flake was relatively squat and without parrallel lateral margins. Indeed many features taken to be typical, such as the hooked tip on bondi points, are not readily explicable as indicating manufacture on ‘blades’. Furthermore, Hiscock (1993:74-75) has demonstrated that in eastern Australia there is often no strong relationship between the production of elongate flakes and the presence of backed specimens, with assemblages almost without elongate flakes containing backing retouch. For all of these reasons it is clear that objects that have been identified as ‘backed blades’ are not necessarily made on ‘blades’.

In such circumstances the continued use of the phrase ‘backed blade’ as a label for this class is misleading. For example, it has allowed the ridiculous situation where authors actually discuss how the artefacts they continued to call ‘backed blades’ are not made on ‘blades’ (eg. Hiscock 1993). Similar concerns have been expressed in the past. Commenting on the situation in Sulawesi, White and O’Connell (1982:121) suggested that the term ‘backed flakes’ might be more appropriate in the absence of a ‘blade core technique’. However they continued to employ the term ‘backed blade’ in an Australian context. While the application of ‘backed flake’ as a label in Australia is tempting we consider that it still contains ambiguity, since in this context ‘flake’ could be misconstrued as being in opposition to, and hence excluding elongate forms (‘blades’). And so we advocate, and shall employ, the term ‘backed artefact’ as the most useful label for that class of objects that have been backed. As a label this emphasises the presence of a backed edge as a definitional requirement, while not suggesting the exclusion of particular flake sizes or shapes.





Bowdler, S. 1981 Hunters in the highlands: Aboriginal adaptations in the eastern Australian uplands. Archaeology in Oceania 16:99-111.


Bowdler, S. and S. O'Connor 1991 The dating of the Australian Small Tool Tradition, with new evidence from the Kimberley, WA. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1:53-62.


Flood, J. 1995


Hiscock, P. 1993 Bondaian technology in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. Archaeology in Oceania 28:65-76.


Johnson, I. 1979 The Getting of Data. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.


McCarthy, F.D., E,Bramell, and H.V.V.Noone 1946 The stone implements of Australia. Australian Museum Memoir IX.


Morwood, M. 1981 Archaeology of the Central Queensland Highlands: The Stone Component. Archaeology in Oceania 16(1):1-52.


Morwood, M. 1984 The prehistory of the central Queensland highlands. In F. Wendorf and A.Close (eds) Advances in World Archaeology 3:325-380. Academic Press.


Stockton, E.D. 1982 Comment. The Great Kartan Mystery. Archaeology in Oceania 17:156.


Stockton, E. D. 1973 Shaw's Creek shelter: human displacement of artefacts and its significance. Mankind 9: 112-117.


White, J.P. and J.F. O'Connell 1982 A Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul. Academic Press.




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Author: Peter Hiscock, Dept. Archaeology and Anthropology
Date Last Modified: Thursday, 1-May-97