Summary | Raw material | Raw material procurement | Hammerstones | Nodule reduction and technology | Refrain said when knapping chert | Selection of flakes for use | Locations where men work with chert tools | Use and terminology | Storage and discard | Ritual uses of stone

4.9 Storage and discard

Unused flakes and cores were sometimes kept for years. Small flakes with fine edges were sometimes stored in a small tin and carried in a man's string bag, along with tobacco, and other small objects. Previously, men carried such small flakes in a bark cloth roll, along with tobacco and other things. Occasionally, used flakes were kept for future use though, given their relatively short use-life, they were more often kept for further knapping. Large flakes and cores, like that from nodule A (Fig. 3), were stored carefully in the corner of a house, under the eaves by the side of the house, at the base of trees, or buried just below the surface at some other readily identifiable spot.

When a man had finished with a chert tool (i.e. its edge was too dull to be of further use, or he had finished the job in hand), he would probably dispose of it carefully (e.g. at the base of a tree, cane grass stump, or by a fence stake or other protected spot). Sometimes people just tossed tools away, though this was considered irresponsible both because of the risk of injury if people trod on flakes disposed of carelessly and because a man might have wished to find the chert again.

The wood shavings or other waste debris left after a job was completed were left to rot, blow away or be trodden in to the soil.

Understanding the nature of artefact discard is one of the most important issues in archaeology. There is ample evidence from many areas of the world that sharp objects related to chipped stone or glass are carefully stored or discarded away from working areas specifically to avoid the danger of people cutting themselves on this waste (e.g. Clark 1991; Deal and Hayden 1987; Gallagher 1977; Torrence 1986), and the evidence from the Wola confirms this.

The concept of stone tool curation was first developed by Binford (1977; 1979) as a way of understanding prehistoric hunter-gatherer stone tool assemblages and consequently certain aspects of hunter-gatherer behaviour. It has subsequently been widely used and, despite suggestions that its use has been stretched to the point where it means different things to different people (Nash 1996), it remains, with its counterpart, expediency, in use today as the most common theoretical way of examining lithic technologies or assemblages.

Despite Odell's comment that ethnographic highland New Guinea lithic technology was significantly dissimilar from prehistoric technologies (Odell 1996), this is not the case, at the very least for New Guinea. Additionally, the absence of relevant ethnographic data for hunter-gatherers has meant that there is nothing suitable with which to test hypotheses on stone tool manufacture, use or discard (Shott 1989). Though the Wola do not provide us with detailed information regarding highly curated hunter-gatherer mobile technologies, they have provided us with a detailed insight into their flaked stone tool tradition that includes what may be perceived, within the context of the curation and expedient constructs, as idiosyncratic behaviour regarding their storage of raw material and tools. An examination of Wola behaviour in the context of this theoretical framework may hopefully be useful not least by highlighting the fact that human behaviour does not always make logical sense to an outsider.

Hayden (1987) states that non-curated items are by definition not stored, basing his statement on the dictionary definition of 'curator' which is synonymous with guardianship and implies storage. Binford's earlier definition of curation was more elaborate and included items that were manufactured in anticipation of use, used for a range of tasks, transported and recycled, while expedient tools are those that are manufactured, used and discarded at the same time (Binford 1977; 1979). with the extent of curation being one way of examining 'planning depth' (Binford 1989). Torrence (1983) defines curation specifically as production of tools in advance of use.

Bamforth (1986) suggests that curation, specifically maintenance and recycling, are closely related to raw material availability, while Shott (1989), examining the ways in which tool-class use-lives can be assessed in archaeological assemblages, suggests that it is caching of tools that may be the most relevant indicator of a high degree of curation and long use-life. Odell (1996) suggests hafting is a criterion by which to measure curation.

Table 19 itemises the various criteria used to measure curation and examines them in relation to the Wola.

Table 19. Measurements of curation in relation to the Wola
Criteria used to explain curated and expedientWhose definition InterpretationWola use
Manufactured in anticipation of use Binford/Torrence Curated Sometimes
Used for a range of tasks Binford Curated Not usually
Transported Binford Curated Not relevant
Recycled Binford Curated Sometimes
Manufactured, used and discarded at the same time Binford Expedient Sometimes
Storage of tools Hayden Curated Sometimes
Local raw material Bamforth Expedient Yes
Caching Shott Curated Yes
Hafting Odell Curated Yes when required
Technological simplicity Binford Expedient Yes
Technological sophistication Binford Curated No

Examination of Table 19 suggests that Wola behaviour does not fit into either the curated or expedient formats. An archaeological interpretation of Wola lithic technology, without information on storage, caching and hafting would label it expedient as its technology is simple and raw material is locally available, yet this is simplistic. The Wola did not maintain their flaked stone tools nor did they have any which they considered individually important. They used them once generally, sometimes not at all, and sometimes stored them, sometimes even going to the effort of digging small holes for them. They not only stored (cached) nodules of chert but also flakes, both unused and sometimes used, on a regular basis. These items sometimes represented materials which were big enough to be reworked to produce more new flakes. Small, sharp-edged, unused pieces could also be stored. Some tools were hafted, tools were sometimes recycled and sometimes made in advance of use.

There are many reasons for storing surplus items. According to Reich, all behaviours can usually be explained at either the psychological, energy or physiological level (Reich 1949). In order to understand in a specific case why a society or an individual stores things, it is necessary to understand the reasons for that storage. In order to understand why the Wola stored raw material and old tools, when this was so clearly not necessary from a practical point of view, would require a detailed psychoanalysis of the culture, to complement the socio-economic information available. This has not, to our knowledge, occurred. Storage of apparently surplus supplies has been observed ethnographically in many other parts of the world and is a feature of many western households today.

The list of 117 artefacts which were given or sold to us, as opposed to having been knapped on the spot, illustrates this point. Of these, 29 had been used within the last five years and were given either by the people who had stored them or by close relatives or friends. Eight artefacts had been used around ten years ago; all these were given by the man who had used and stored them. Eighty artefacts were dated to thirty years ago or more. The makers and users of 18 of these were not known and the artefacts were believed to be very old. Eighteen of the remaining 62 artefacts (nos 32–44 and 65–69) had been used by someone who was killed in a war and it was possible that they had been stored rather than discarded and would have been recovered had the man not been killed. Similarly, the 44 remaining artefacts had all been used by people who had died. Six different artefact storage locations were involved. Twenty-eight artefacts were found under the surface of a present or past house, 28 were found buried at the base of a tree or bamboo clump, 6 were found near a rock face, 5 were found near an oven (ovens are located within houseyards, about 3–4 metres from houses) and 40 were found at the sides of houses. In none of these cases was it clear that artefacts had been permanently discarded.

'how can we be sure that any item is truly discarded?'

Archaeologists have tried, in the past, to determine activity areas on the basis of stone artefacts (e.g. Flannery 1986; Grace 1992). It is more likely that artefacts found within archaeological activity areas may represent the tiny sample which have been inadvertently lost or broken during use or transport and become buried. Deal and Hayden (1987) mention that glass items sometimes became inadvertently lost in houses and gardens. This also occurred in New Guinea and people often turned up polished axe heads as well as old flakes and caches of flakes when clearing gardens, building houses etc. Ethnographic information on the proportion of stone tools lost in this way in a sedentary context would be interesting. Gould (1980) estimates that stone tools occurring at habitation base camps in hunting and gathering western Australia represent only 0.05% of used tools with an estimated 99.95% of tools discarded outside habitation zones.

Among the Wola, no regular procedures apply either with regard to the knapping waste or debitage. If knapping is carried out in an area where people are not likely to walk, then the waste is left where it falls. If knapping is carried out near frequented areas, sharp pieces are removed and disposed of somewhere safe. White and Modjeska (1978) think that among the Duna most waste or used artefacts would be found around men's houses, in the oven area, in gardens, along tracks and rockshelters. These were speculations as they found that men were unable to remember where they had stored stone artefacts. Our evidence suggests that, among the Wola at least, this was not the case and, on the contrary, used artefacts were discarded not only in safe but also recallable places.

Brody notes that, in north-east British Columbia, the jumbled scatter of paraphernalia lying in front of houses, 'this blur of stuff' apparently discarded in a random and messy fashion, is in reality 'a minor store of all manner of spare parts' (1981, 5); objects left purposefully nearby that could be found, modified and reused at some later date. The hazy parameters of Wola attitudes to the storage and discard of stone tools suggests a similar attitude to their objects.

Did hunter-gatherers treat their tools in the same way? Hunter-gatherers normally lived and moved within a territory, returning habitually to the same sites (e.g. Brody 2000). It is likely that they left behind objects that retained usefulness, of some sort or another, as well as discarded and lost tools. Hayden (1979) points out that in Australia, artefacts were frequently placed around campsites in what would appear to us an apparently random fashion, in order to facilitate retrieval. Hardy (in press) examining use-wear traces on artefacts distributed over the Mesolithic site of Camas Daraich, Scotland, found that many appeared to have been used in a minor way. It is possible that these artefacts represent an archaeological example of informal storage. This has implications for the study of depositional behaviour and begs the question, how can we be sure that any item is truly discarded?


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003