Research project: Evolution of technology and tool use in 10,000 years of Aboriginal prehistory


Start date:
Backed artefacts from Mussel Shelter, NSW central coast

Backed artefacts from Mussel Shelter, NSW central coast
Photographer: Carl Bento © Australian Museum

Museum investigators

External investigators

  • Professor Peter Hiscock, Archaeology and Anthropology, ANU
  • Dr Gail Robertson, Research Assoc School of Archaeology and Anthropology, ANU

Funded by

  • Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (ARC)


For many years the timing of and reasons for the introduction, proliferation and decline of backed artefacts in south-eastern Australia has been much debated. Recent research indicates they were made at least 8500 years ago in south-eastern Australia, that they gradually increased in number, and that around 3500-3000 years ago proliferated to the extent that they are found in numerous sites and recorded in large numbers in individual sites. After around 1600 years ago, backed artefact numbers decreased markedly, and by the time of British colonisation were either not used or used to such a limited extent they were never seen or described by the first colonists.

Two models used to explain their proliferation after 3500 years ago are that (a) they alleviated greater subsistence risk brought about by ENSO-intensified climatic pattern, and (b) their increased production reflected their symbolic value at a time of social re-organisation within Aboriginal societies, in which climatic change may be implicated in the construction of economic and social risk. Two prominent explanations of their use are as barbs or tips in spears and to cut human flesh in rituals.

Our study is testing such assumptions by systematically examining assemblages of backed artefacts from selected Sydney Basin sites to ascertain their function through integrated use-wear and residue analyses. Our work to date indicates that backed artefacts were used in numerous ways, including activities in which objects of wood, non-woody plants, bone, hide and feathers were made and maintained, as well as subsistence activities in which animal and plant materials were prepared, being used variously for scraping, cutting, incising, and perhaps occasionally, on throwing or thrusting spears. Furthermore, backed artefacts were typically elements in composite tools which were often multi-purpose and multi-functional, perhaps used and/or recycled on several occasions.

See publication as PDF online

Dr Val Attenbrow , Principal Research Scientist
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