Open-air preservation of miniaturised lithics: experimental research in the Cederberg Mountains, southern Africa

  • Natasha Phillips
  • Justin Pargeter
  • Marika Low
  • Alex Mackay
Original Paper


Open-air archaeology plays a limited role in southern African Late Pleistocene research, with most studies focused on rock shelter assemblages. Recently, archaeologists have noted discrepancies in the composition of Late Pleistocene lithic assemblages between some of the region’s open-air and rock shelter sites. For example, although relatively abundant in rock shelters, Late Pleistocene Later Stone Age (LSA, c. 44–12 kcal. BP) bipolar cores are rare in open-air contexts. In this paper, we assess this discrepancy by testing for differential preservation of specific artefact classes and sizes in semi-arid open-air conditions. We placed a replicated assemblage of miniaturised cores and flakes on an archaeologically sterile sediment surface in the Doring River Valley (South Africa) and recorded their movements over 22 months. Our results indicate that bipolar and freehand cores moved comparable distances within the study interval and that surface slope is the strongest predictor of miniaturised tool movement. We also show that (1) relatively flat lithics move disproportionately more and (2) random artefact orientations do not preclude local (i.e. metre) scale artefact transport. In terms of the archaeology of our study area, the observed clustering of surface artefacts on sediment bodies likely results from their recent exposure. Our data suggest that the paucity of open-air bipolar artefacts in Late Pleistocene LSA assemblages may have more to do with human behavioural variability at landscape scales than differential preservation. Southern Africa’s rich rock shelter record is, therefore, unlikely to represent the full suite of prehistoric hunter-gatherer behaviours.


Open-air surface archaeology Formation processes Late Pleistocene Later Stone Age Lithic miniaturisation Orientations Experimental archaeology GIS R statistical platform 



The authors would like to thank Ben Marwick for his help with the R code; the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town for providing access to field equipment and storage space; Brian Jones for his analysis of our assemblage’s mineral composition; and Blair McPhee, Brian Jones, Aurore Val and Alex Blackwood for their assistance with the experiment’s data collection. A special thank you goes to the Pretorius family and Lilly Hough for their welcoming hospitality and land access in and around Uitspankraal 7.

Funding information

Funding for this research was provided by a University of Wollongong PhD Scholarship (Phillips), an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship (Low) and an Australian Research Council’s DECRA grant (Mackay, DE130100068).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018
corrected publication April/2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Natasha Phillips
    • 1
    • 2
  • Justin Pargeter
    • 3
    • 4
  • Marika Low
    • 1
    • 2
  • Alex Mackay
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Archaeological Science, School of Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyEmory University Centre for Anthropological ResearchAtlantaUSA
  4. 4.Centre for Anthropological Research & Department of Anthropology and Development StudiesUniversity of JohannesburgGPSouth Africa

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