This silcrete backed microlith is from near Mount Gambier in South Australia. Backed microliths in Australia were used to arm spears or were elements of composite knives. Most were made after ca. 5000 BP.
The backed microlith in this model was found on the surface of an undated archaeological site in South Australia. It is made from fine-grained silcrete. The microlith was shaped mostly by single-backing, with double-backing used to refine the shape at each end.
The artefact is part of the Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology teaching collection, University of New England.
‘Backing’ is the term used for retouching the edge of a flake opposite the edge intended for use. Backing dulls the edge and, for hand-held tools, prevents the fingers being cut. Backing is also done to shape the edge of a tool to prepare it for hafting. The retouched surface provides a broader area for hafting resins or glues to purchase. A variety of techniques were used for backing, such as direct percussion retouching; anvil retouching by placing the flake flat on on anvil and trimming the edge by percussion; rolling pressure where a stone or bone is dragged or rolled along a sharp edge; or anvil-supported pressure flaking. When an anvil was used, flakes might sometimes be initiated both from the hammerstone or pressure tool as well as the spot where the flake contacts the anvil. The resulting edge is ‘double-backed’, with platforms on two sides of the backed edge. Anvil backing can produce a flat retouched face that is oriented at or near 90 degrees to the ventral face of the backed flake.
A recent analysis of backed microliths found in the Late Bronze Age site of Saruq al-Hadid, in the United Arab Emirates, showed that the flintknappers there backed their microlith arrowheads in distinct stages, demonstrating that the backing technique can be technically complex. Another widespread technique was to notch the blank and then snap it by a bending fracture, with the snapped faces serving as the backed edges. This is known as the ‘microburin technique’. The shapes of microliths have been found to vary in consistent patterns through time and space in many parts of the world. They range in shape and angularity, ranging from equilateral or scalene triangles to crescents or half-moon shapes. These are often referred to as ‘geometric microliths’.
The blanks for microliths were sometimes simple flakes struck by hard-hammer percussion, but often were parallel sided blades—specialised flakes that are twice as long as they are wide—struck by soft- or hard-hammer percussion, or made by a pressure technique. Hafted examples of backed microliths have been found at a few sites, particularly in Northern Europe, showing that they were often affixed in a row against a wood or bone shaft to create spear tips, arrow tips, or cutting knives. In this way, it is possible to create long cutting edges from interchangeable cutting elements struck from small pieces of stone. This is called ‘microlith’ technology because the segments are usually very small. Microlith technology was discovered independently many times in prehistory after first appearing in South Africa about 60,000 BP.
Backed microliths were independently invented by Aboriginal flintknappers in Australia. They may have appeared by ca. 24,000-30,000 BP at Warratyi rockshelter in the desert of South Australia, although the dates from there are unusually early and to be confirmed at additional sites. Backed microliths were dated to ca. 15,000 BP in a rockshelter in Lawn Hill Gorge in northwest Queensland, but the stratigraphy there has been questioned. Backed artefacts may have appeared as early as 8500 BP at Mussel Shelter in New South Wales and dramatically increased in numbers from ca. 1970-3300 BP. At other sites, microliths become relatively abundant after about 5000 BP. This Late Holocene increase in microlith abundance appears to be a trend that occurred across much of Australia and particularly in the east and southeastern parts of the continent. In some parts of Australia backed microliths are found in the thousands, but in other areas they are uncommon or absent altogether. They were made on small blades or blade-like flakes struck by hard-hammer percussion.
Some archaeologists see the Late Holocene increase in backed microliths in Australia as a technological response to environmental changes associated with intensifying El Niño environmental pattern, and associated climatic unpredictability, while others view this shift in technology as a change in social relations between Aboriginal groups, but these explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Backed microliths drop from the archaeological record a few hundred years prior to the European invasion of the continent, but unmodified flake barbs were used as microlithic elements on death spears and taap knives into the historic period.