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Ancient ceremonial stone tool is rescued from the bulldozer

ROBIN TORRENCE | Australian Museum

Obsidian stone toolAN EMAIL I RECEIVED from the General Manager at Barema oil palm plantation in New Britain in Papua New Guinea sent me hurrying to the airport.

It was October 2010 and bulldozing the side of a hill to make a terrace for a new manager’s house had uncovered a group of stone tools made from obsidian, a volcanic glass. A workman had recognised the obsidian as something belonging to the time of his ancestors and rescued a large tool before it could be crushed by the bulldozer.

The shape in the photo I was sent showed that it belonged to a group known as ‘stemmed tools’ because they have handles that resemble the stem of a leaf. These are very rare artefacts and date to between about 10,000 and 3,000 years ago, a period for which there is very little archaeological information from the island regions of PNG.

Even more amazing, the stone was flaked into a shape whose profile was unmistakably meant to be a penis.

Based on my astonishment at the find and my advice that it was extremely important, the general manager stopped work at the site until I and my colleagues Dr Peter White and Dr Nina Kononenko from the University of Sydney could travel to Hargy Oil Palms Ltd near Bialla, a long and dusty drive from Hoskins airport.

Dr Robin Torrence (Peter White)By the time we arrived late one afternoon, the workmen had recovered a number of broken parts of other tools identical to the complete artefact. All in all there were two definite and two possible tools with the same phallic shape.

These brought into perspective a stemmed tool collected in the 1980’s from the Apugi Island offshore from the south coast of New Britain and another I had only recently discovered in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.

The set suddenly came together to create a definite type that might have been widely used on New Britain. Using a portable x-ray fluorescence instrument set up on the veranda of the plantation guest house, I measured the chemical composition of the tool.

The results showed that all the tools collected at Barema had come from the Kuatu-Bao obsidian source located some 100 km away by sea, where they were probably made and then reached Barema through trading networks.

What was the function of these tools in the past? The high level of skill required to make the smooth rounded end of the tool and then retouch the stem cannot be over-emphasised. Modern knappers with long experience are unanimous in their praise of the prehistoric tool makers. This suggests that they were used to create and support status differences within local groups.

What about their meaning? They could have been used to signify male potency or within initiation ceremonies for either sex. The finding of a group in one small location (a cache) may indicate a high status burial (bones do not preserve in these acidic volcanic soils) or perhaps a place where powerful objects were stored, such as a men’s house. From the shape it seems that the male sexuality was among the traits that played a significant role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of the ancient people at Barema.

There is much that we do not know at this stage. Archaeological research in PNG is still in the pioneering phase, particularly in New Britain. We have not yet excavated a village from this time period. Still this remarkable find opens up an ancient world peopled by individuals with meaningful and creative lives, some of whom skilfully crafted beautiful objects and others who used these to show off their prowess or wealth, to increase fertility, or through initiations to ensure perpetuity for their clan.

The stemmed tools from Barema are now housed at the National Museum of PNG in Port Moresby.

Dr Robin Torrence is Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum


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Michael Lorenz

Hi Phil, yes it does look like a lot of work for a tang but another tool found in the area appears to have a similar configuration.


It looks like a crescent knife, and it too has what I take to be a similarly knapped tang. Note that the outer curved cutting edge also appears to be the original stone surface. Perhaps there was some advantage in utilizing the original rock profile for the work surfaces, ...more durable perhaps.

Or maybe I have just got the wrong end of the tool. :-)

Phil Fitzpatrick

In the technical parlance it's a "waisted blade", or as my old archaeological friend, Tom Power, called them a "dissipated rake". Common as muck.

The tang is shaped that way so binding can be looped around the two protruding notches to stop it slipping out of whatever it is hafted into. The bound notches also act to stop the hand slipping onto the blade (obsidian is harder and sharper than steel). A knife or spear thus bound can be thrust into something and then withdrawn without becoming embedded.

Waisted blades are common in Australia but not so common in PNG.

And, yes, Steven, places like the one you found need studying. There are ancient sites on the Huon Peninsula and one would expect them to occur along the Markham Valley and over into the Ramu.In the above case the obsidian probably came from around Woodlark Island. There is no reason to doubt it would also have been traded up the Markham.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think it's too flash to be a mere digging tool Michael.

Steven Gimbo

About 25 years ago, as a teenager, hunting birds in the jungles of Ramu, I stumbled upon a site, that was washed clean the previous night by the flooded river, exposing what looked to me like a fireplace and many pieces of these stone tools.

I just picked out one stone axe-head that was not too big and heavy and put it in my pocket, brought it back, and forgot about it.

I never thought it was of historical and archealogical significance, until I advanced in my education. I now regret it.

Though I can still remember clearly the site, it may have been washed away completely or over-ridden by bush. I hope I will have the opportunity to look for that site, mark it out and bring in the experts to study.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Thanks Michael.

The stone tool has got nothing to do with a penis. The bit that looks like the glans of a penis is merely the part of the tool designed for hafting. It's either a knife of a spear point.

The Australian Museum had us going there for a while. It's researchers need to get out and meet people a bit more.

Michael Lorenz

"... the stone was flaked into a shape whose profile was unmistakably meant to be a penis ..."

Not necessarily, the tool maker may have had food rather than sex in mind when he or she selected this rock.

It may be that a piece of obsidian with the required tool profile was chosen by the maker -that's the smooth pointy end, and a tang (stem) was then knapped to fit it to a handle.

From the shape of the business end it looks like it may have been intended as a digging or planting stick, in my opinion.

Michael Lorenz

There is a photo of the obsidian tool here http://www.australianarchaeology.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/LR-Manuscript-2012098-Figure-2.jpg

Phil Fitzpatrick

It would be nice to see a photograph of the stone tools.

Luke Johnson

Thanks for posting these stories, Keith.
Fascinating pieces in the multilayered puzzle of human existence in Melanesia.

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