Impact: Revealing the importance and sophistication of shell tools in our region

Much of the discussion around early human behaviour and evolution centres on the analysis of stone tools.

This is not only because they are durable, but because they show shifting patterns in their shape, refinement and techniques of production through time.

Against this backdrop, the enduringly simple nature of stone tool technologies through time in the Australian and East/Southeast Asian regions has led to negative assessments of the innovativeness of ancient peoples in our region.

However, research by Associate Professor Katherine Szabó in 2007 gave the first hints that, in coastal zones of Southeast Asia and the Australia-New Guinea region, stone tools were accompanied by tool production using marine shell as a raw material.

These artefacts had not been recognised before, and further study and comparison with stone tools revealed that the shell tools were both more complex in their production, and diverse in their forms.

The sticking point was that there was no research detailing how different types of shell fracture, and how people could manipulate this to make shell tools. This lack of information meant shell tools were hard to distinguish from ordinary bits of trampled, discarded shells from meals.

Analysis of shell tools was made more complex by the fact that different types of shell are put together in radically different ways. Viewed with a high-power microscrope, lattices of crystals run in different directions, and fracture paths can be very complex.  

Drawing on techniques used in engineering to assess fracture patterns in different types of shell and conducting experiments to see how different types of shell wear and degrade through use as tools and over time buried in archaeological sites, Professor Szabó and a team of honours and PhD students, known as Team Shell, began to build a picture of the production and use of shell tools in our region.

They used this information to analyse archaeological shell assemblages from sites in Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia dating back to the last Ice Age, finding that shell tools are much more common and varied than previously thought, and sometimes outnumber stone tools at the same sites.

Most importantly, though, the new analytical methods to identify and interpret shell artefacts that Team Shell developed are being picked up around the world. Research into archaeological shell artefacts is exploding, and UOW’s Team Shell took the fundamental first steps that prompted much of this activity.

    Associate Professor Katherine Szabo
    Brent Koppel
    Claire Perrette
    Annette Oertle
    Katherine Woo (PhD co-supervised by A/Professor Szabo)
    Erica Weston (Hons co-supervised by A/Professor Szabo)