University governance & academic freedom
Gold stolen on a massive scale

What we don’t see under our feet

Chert sago choppers
Chert sago choppers


TUMBY BAY - I pick up quite a bit of money off the ground as I wander around the place. Mostly it’s coins but occasionally notes.

Sometimes other things, like jewellery and useful nuts and bolts. You name it, I find it.

Keeping my eye on the ground is a habit I developed after going to work for the South Australian Museum when I returned from Papua New Guinea.

I originally started out with the museum recording sacred sites and the mythologies they represent in what was then the North West Aboriginal Reserve.

However, as time went by and my duties spread to cover the rest of the state, I developed the skills to recognise and record a wide range of Aboriginal heritage.

One of the particular types of site I spent a lot of time recording were surface scatters of stone tools and other debris.

Some of these sites are massive in extent, particularly in desert areas, where small groups of people busily knapping stone to make tools over thousands of years built up the scattered deposits.

I spent many happy hours with modern day Aboriginal people scouring these sites for the purposes of recording them.

Finding a particularly fine example of a pirri point, a sort of arrow head shaped tool whose exact purpose is still unknown but was probably used for wood working, was always a thrill. These were photographed and then left where we found them.

I took this habit and set of skills back to Papua New Guinea when I went there to work in the 1990s. Prior to that, during my kiap years, I never took much notice of what was lying on the ground beyond avoiding slipping over or stepping in something unsavoury.

In about 1997 I visited a village located on a ridge above the Hegigio River between Mount Bosavi and Lake Kutubu. The Hegigio is the major tributary of the Kikori River

Like a lot of villages it had a cleared area between the houses. In that area I saw thousands of pieces of flaked brown chert.

Australian stone tool scatter; a pirri point in the exact centre
Australian stone tool scatter; a pirri point in the exact centre

Chert is a hard flint-like stone found as nodules in limestone. When properly knapped or flaked it provides a sharp cutting edge not dissimilar but not as hard as obsidian.

Around Lake Kutubu and the Upper Kikori River area it was used to make sago choppers. The nodules were flaked to a horse hoof shape and then hafted in the same way that stone adzes were hafted.

The people had obviously brought the nodules of chert back to their village from where it was exposed in the limestone cuttings in the river to knap into suitable shapes.

However, among all the flaked debris, I also noticed what appeared to be other discarded stone tools, including blades, scrapers and points.

There were also river pebbles made of other stone among the chert which had been used to knap or flake the chert. These were obvious because of the peck marks on their striking surfaces.

If I had picked up the whole assemblage and dumped it in the Australian desert it would have looked just like an Aboriginal archaeological scatter, except perhaps for the uniformity of the stone; in Aboriginal sites you tend to find a mixture of stone types.

When I expressed an interest in the chert a few of the older people went rummaging around under their houses to find their old sago choppers.

The existence of the flaked chert in the village and especially the mixed assemblage of stone tool types indicated that the village had been on the same site for a very long time. This made sense because the ridge overlooking the river was in an excellent defensive position.

After that I paid particular attention to cleared areas in other villages I visited and, sure enough, began to notice other archaeological debris in the older villages.

There must be thousands of these sorts of sites in Papua New Guinea. However, because of the dense vegetation, they are not as noticeable as they are in Australia.

When we think about archaeological sites we tend to think about deposits that have to be excavated to reveal their treasures or places like stone axe quarries where past activity is evident.

In that sense we tend not to think about what might be under our feet.

While I often pick up coins in my wanderings I very occasionally pick up ancient stone tools. Finding a nice pirri point, blade or scraper beats finding an old penny every time.    


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