Reassessment of Selected Middle Stone Age Artefacts from Rhino Cave and from White Paintings Rock Shelter, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana

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    Reassessment of Selected Middle Stone Age Artefacts from Rhino Cave and from WhitePaintings Rock Shelter, Tsodilo Hills, BotswanaAuthor(s): Laurel PhillipsonSource: The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 62, No. 185 (Jun., 2007), pp. 19-30Published by: South African Archaeological SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 16/08/2013 14:05

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  • South African Archaeological Bulletin 62 (185): 19-30, 2007 19

    Research Article



    LAUREL PHILLIPSON 11 Brooklyn, Threshfield, North Yorkshire, BD23 5ER, U.K.


    (Received April 2006. Revised February 2007)

    ABSTRACT This paper takes the resultsfrom the morphological analysis of Middle Stone Age material from Rhino Cave and White Paintings Rock Shelter, Botswana, by L.H. Robbins and his associates and compares them with the results of a new attribute cluster analysis. The extent to which the method of analysis may affect the conclusions drawn is demonstrated. The reanalysis of selected artefacts provides new evidence that Middle Stone Age points from these sites were serrated and it identifies the tools that were used to retouch these points. It is argued that the points were used as components of hand-held stabbing spears.

    Keywords: Middle Stone Age, lithics, lithic analysis, Rhino Cave, White Paintings Rock Shelter.

    INTRODUCTION In a number of papers published in the 1970s, D. Cahen,

    E Van Noten, L. Keeley and P. Martin presented the method of attribute cluster analysis as an alternative to ideal typologies as a tool for the assessment and description of lithic assemblages. Attribute cluster analysis is founded on a primary concern with lithic artefacts as tools rather than as abstract, topologically described objects. In defining artefact groups or categories, this approach attempts to give equal attention to all attributes, including working edge characteristics, rather than concen trate on the gross morphological features of overall shape and size. Even more fundamentally, instead of starting with the imposition of an a priori, extrinsically defined set of ideal artefact types, it begins each classification exercise anew and looks for actual clusters of artefact attributes inherent within the particular assemblage being considered:

    l'analyse de groupe n'est pas une classification automatique: la partition definit des classes dont les proprietes ne se justifient que par rapport a l'ensemble envisage. Des lors, chaque groupe n'est definissable que vis-a-vis de l'ensemble des elements pour determiner une classification qui se modifiera a chaque adjonction.... Les classes ne peuvent etre definies en dehors des elements qui les composent (Cahen &

    Martin 1972: 12).

    While the attribute cluster analysis approach has been used as a basis for the description and study of comparatively recent lithic material from Aksum, Ethiopia, this study of some Middle Stone Age points and associated lithics from Rhino Cave and from White Paintings Rock Shelter in northern Botswana is the first comparison of the results of such an analysis with the results of an independently undertaken standard typological assessment of the same material.

    Lithic artefacts have numerous characteristics that may be used to determine their typological classification. The possibilities are not exhausted by listing general and localized plan, profile and cross-section shapes, dimensions, colour, weight, material,

    cortex retention, flake scar configurations and micro-scarring. For the most part, African lithics are described according to standard typological criteria originally defined and adapted by Francois Bordes, Jacques Tixier, Desmond Clark and their students and associates. These place most emphasis on the gross morphological features of size and shape. For example, a typological boundary is imposed between bifacial points and handaxes which may resemble one another in all aspects other than their size. Similarly, there is a question of whether all crescents are necessarily microlithic. Terms such as 'concave sidescraper', 'convex endscraper', and 'denticulate' are based on an assessment of the artefact's plan shape, which is matched more or less closely to various of the mental templates which many of us acquired as student archaeologists. While not entirely disregarding their gross morphology, the present study recognizes that lithic tools are first and foremost tools designed to execute particular tasks and that the most reveal ing question we can ask of them is 'What evidence is there of how they were used?'. Such evidence will be found primarily on the tool's edges and working surfaces and can be identified as the areas of greatest modification, both by deliberate retouch and by utilization scarring. Therefore, detailed characteristics of the areas of greatest modification, retouch or utilization are treated as significant when assigning artifacts to particular classes. For example, whether an apparently deliberately modified flake may be classed as a point or as a scraper will depend more upon details of its edge and tip configurations than upon its overall shape.

    The second innovation of attribute cluster analysis concerns the way the typological framework is defined. The problem,

    which is not exclusive to archaeology, is how to conceptualize the patterning of a non-random complex of variables. If one imagines ink spots on a sheet of paper, we can either construct a predetermined grid and count how many spots fall within each square, or we can draw circles around each cluster of spots. Neither procedure is better than the other; each has its benefits and its difficulties. Standard or ideal typologies use the former approach. They take the data set and impose upon it an abstract, externally generated, a priori set of definitions. It is what we all do when we look at an object, match it to a mental template and say 'burin' or 'thumbnail scraper' or 'Sangoan'. Such an approach tells us something about the mindset and classificatory skills of the observer, but it is not at all clear that it gives any insight into the intentions of the artefact's producers and users. The construction and some of the limitations of standard lithic typology are discussed particularly in chapter four of Lithics: "this morphological typology is universal and general, and can therefore be used for all lithic artifacts.... [it] is based upon the recognition of standardized attributes that produce mutually exclusive types based upon shape" (Andrefsky 2005: 246).

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  • 20 South African Archaeological Bulletin 62 (185): 19-30, 2007

    In order to interrogate the lithics more directly, with fewer imposed assumptions, the search for natural or inherent attribute clusters entails a readiness to transgress generally accepted, observer-imposed boundaries. In some instances, what a standard typological assessment would identify as a single classificatory group may be seen to constitute parts of more than one attribute cluster; conversely, members of more than one standard typological group may be recognized on the basis of their edge or other characteristics as belonging to a single artefact type or group. Attribute cluster analysis does not try to match actual material to predefined ideal types. In this respect, the difference between a standard typological study and a cluster analysis is analogous to the difference between an excavation conducted according to artificial spits and one con ducted according to the natural soil stratigraphy. While each has its uses, they will not necessarily give the same results. The divergence in classification results is particularly apparent when considering the catch-all categories of 'scrapers' and 'miscellaneous retouched pieces'. Standard typologies tend to designate a wide variety of artefacts with unifacial edge modifi cation as 'scrapers' with subdivisions of the class dependent on the placement and gross configuration of the modified edge. The present study would apply the term scraper only to pieces which show plausible evidence of having been used as scrap ing tools or, if unused, which closely resemble other pieces in the same assemblage that have been so used; in fact, no such pieces were found.


    With the generous permission of L.H. Robbins, the assistance of A. Segobye and of the staff at the National Museum of Botswana in Gaborone, I closely examined and photographed a selection of 43 Middle Stone Age points and retouched artefacts excavated in the mid 1990s from Rhino Cave and from

    White Paintings Rock Shelter, both in the Tsodilo Hills of Northern Botswana, by L.H. Robbins of the University of Michigan and his associates. Information on the sites' strati graphies, excavation techniques, and dating evidence is contained in the excavators' published reports (Donahue et al. 2004; Robbins et al. 1996, 2005; Robbins & Brook et al. 2000). They record that White Paintings Rock Shelter had approxi mately seven metres of undisturbed deposits, for which they obtained a series of age determinations, with three Middle Stone Age stratigraphic units dated from 65 000 to more than 95 000 years ago. Rhino Cave yielded more abundant finds of lithics from shallower undisturbed deposits, but without reli able dating evidence. I concur with the excavators that the Mid dle Stone Age lithics from these adjacent sites appear so similar that it seems reasonable to assume that they were made by the same people and that the series of age determinations from the

    White Paintings Shelter can also be applied to the material from Rhino Cave. The excavators sorted the material into standard lithic types and, conveniently for subsequent researchers such as myself, the tools were separately bagged and labelled. The tools included bifacial, unifacial and broken points, concave, convex, notched and straight scrapers, burins, denticulates and miscellaneous retouched and utilized pieces. These have been tabulated and reported in the excavators' publications cited above. Except in a study by Donahue, Murphy and Robbins that included just eight Middle Stone Age pieces, little account was taken of artefact condition or of evidence of utilization or edge wear.

    Upon inspection of the lithics from the Middle Stone Age levels - as identified by the excavators of the two sites, while

    TABLE 1. Summary of the artefacts selected for analysis.

    Rhino Cave White Paintings Rock Shelter

    Complete points 14 sil 4 qtz 7 sil 1 qtz Point distal ends 1 qtz

    Point butts 2 sil 5 qtz 2 sil Fabricators 1 sil 4 qtz 1 qtz

    Burnisher 1 specularite

    sil = silicified sandstone, silcrete or chert; qtz = quartz.

    selecting the individual artefacts for closer study, it was noted that almost all of the lithic material appeared to be in pristine, unworn and unweathered condition. A very major exception was that every one of the bifacial and unifacial points was heavily worn, blunted and/or broken. The only other exception was a unique, chipped and polished specularite artefact which is described below. I also found that, when subjected to a non-mathematical, or intuitive, attribute cluster analysis, the assemblages contained no scrapers. None of the pieces labelled scrapers according to the standard typology used in the original description had the minute, unifacial, scaled edge retouch characteristic of a new-made scraper, nor the abraded arrises and hinged micro-fractures found on utilized scrapers. Some of the pieces, labelled as scrapers on account of their gross morphology, were in fact the proximal or butt ends of unifacial flake points (Fig. 1, RC k, n, o, q). Once they were recognized for what they were, it was found that, contrary to the tabulations in the original reports, the broken bases of points greatly outnum bered the broken tips. The few pieces designated as burins all appeared to me to be fortuitous. The tabulated artefact classifi cations given in Table 1, above, result from my reassessment of pieces selected for the purpose of the present study.

    It may be seen from Table 1 that the ratio of crystalline quartz to silicified raw materials is 3:2 for broken points and 4:1 for fabricators, but just under 1:4 for whole points. While quartz is locally available at Tsodilo, the specific sources of other lithic raw materials, principally various grades of silicified sandstone, sandy and homogenous chert, are uncertain (L.H. Robbins, pers. comm. 2005). The difference in material propor tions between the whole and broken points will reflect the brit tleness of quartz; it may also reflect the users' preferences for points made of silicified materials on account of their greater durability. Had the very limited time available for this study permitted, comparison of the proportions of raw materials among the cores and debitage might have allowed more infer ences to be drawn about this material. As these figures are based on the examination of selected artefacts, not on a study of the entire assemblages from particular excavation units, they

    must be understood to be suggestive, not descriptive. This same comment applies to the way in which artefacts from the two sites and various spits have not been distinguished in the analysis. The purpose of this study is not to provide a complete description of the excavated material, but to explore what new information might be derived from the cluster analysis of some

    Middle Stone Age points and associated lithics. Most of the 36 whole and broken points chosen for this

    study derived from square 3 of Rhino Cave. The original inves tigators reported that, "It was possible to classify 67 of the MSA points found in square 3 [of Rhino Cave] into the following groups. Finished points: 33; Point tips: 12; Point bases: 2; Unretouched point preforms or blanks: 5; Points in manufac ture: 8; Failed or rejected points:...


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