Through a Glass Darkly: Finding Values in Obsidian Stemmed Tools from New Britain, Papua New Guinea
thesisposted on 05.12.2016, 15:28 by Paul Tyrrell Dickinson
The ways of life of the inhabitants of prehistoric New Britain were almost unknown to archaeologists until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Until recently, the people who lived there during the early to mid-Holocene period, and who left scant traces in the archaeological record, were assumed to have been residentially mobile foragers living in simple societies. More recent research has shown that people were making and exchanging large, highly worked, obsidian tools. The inference was that these tools carried a component of social value and were used to signal status, and that the societies of mid-Holocene New Britain were more complex than previously thought. My aim is to demonstrate that a detailed study of a distinctive class of obsidian stemmed tools supports the proposition that networks, in which concepts of social value existed and symbolic capital was exchanged, flourished in West New Britain in the period 5900-3600 BP. This is achieved primarily by using a high-magnification use-wear analysis which, together with supplementary typological and raw material provenancing evidence, enables use-lives of individual artefacts to be constructed. An exploration of both the nature of value and of archaeological evidence for the ways in which people behave in response to the social value of such as status, prestige and identity provides a basis for linking the object biographies of these objects with ways in which people acted in response to symbolic and social value. The results demonstrate that one group of stemmed tools were standardised products made by specialist craft workers acting within some form of social network and exchange system. The people who owned them treated them as ‘special’ objects, recognizing that some of the value attached to these tools was distinct from and separate to any value they may have had as practical utensils. Use-wear is customarily seen as a functional analysis approach which provides data about matters such as diet and subsistence. Employing use-wear to address more abstract concepts such as status, prestige and identity is innovative and marks a step forward in the way in which a high-magnification microwear study can contribute to archaeology.