Variance in the response of silcrete to rapid heating complicates assumptions about past heat treatment methods
Heat treatment of silcretes in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa has been taken to indicate complex behaviour among early modern humans. This inference is based on the apparent sensitivity of silcretes to rapid changes in temperature, requiring well-regulated heating and cooling rates, and controls over maximum heating temperatures. Alternative arguments have been made that silcrete can effectively be heat treated with limited control over heating rates such that heat treatment may have been a relatively simple process. These apparently contrasting points of view elide the fact that different silcretes may respond differently to heating, and that no single approach may be appropriate in all cases. To test this proposition, we undertook a series of controlled experiments in which silcrete from two sources on the south coast of Australia were prepared into blocks of specific sizes and heated rapidly to a range of maximum temperatures in a muffle furnace. In addition to potential differences in response between sources to heat, our experiments test two factors—stone volume and maximum heating temperature—that were advanced by past explanatory models to account for the probability of sample failure (fracture) during heating. The results of our experiments suggest that the tolerance of silcretes to high heating rates is highly variable between sources within regions, and that the effect of variation between sources is stronger than the other factors examined. Additional tests on limited samples from sources in South Africa support the general relevance of our findings. From these results, we infer that optimal approaches to heating in the past were probably sensitive to the silcretes being heated.
KeywordsSilcrete Heat treatment Australia South Africa
We thank Prof. Teresa E. Steele for enabling this research at Varsche Rivier 003, and Jacob Noblett for helping collect silcretes in NSW.
AM’s research was funded by an Australian Research Council DECRA grant (DE130100068). Identification of sources around Varsche Rivier 003 and our campfire experiments occurred during the project ‘Varsche Rivier 003: A new Middle Stone Age site (Namaqualand, South Africa)’ funded by a National Research Foundation grant (Award #1324719) to Teresa E. Steele. AFB was funded by the Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler Travel Award.
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