A beautiful and expertly-flaked stone tool rescued from a house site opens up a world of meaning for a distant, poorly-known period.
An email received in October 2010 from the General Manager at Barema oil palm plantation on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea (PNG) sent me hurrying to the airport.
Bulldozing the side of a hill to make a terrace for a new local manager’s house had uncovered a group of stone tools made from obsidian, a volcanic glass. A workman had recognized 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 sent to me showed that it belongs 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. What was even more amazing is that the stone was flaked into a shape whose profile is unmistakedly 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., on the north coast of the island near Bialla, a long dusty drive from Hoskins airport.
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 overemphasised. 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.
I am very grateful to Graham King, General Manager Hargy Oil Palms, Ltd for his invitation to do this research, for transport, accommodation, subsistence and overall support.
Dr Robin Torrence
Senior Principal Research Scientist
Torrence, R., White, P., Kononenko, N. 2013. Meaningful stones: obsidian stemmed tools from Barema, New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Australian Archaeology 77: 1-8.
Also see: Torrence, R., Kelloway, S. and White, P. 2013. Stemmed tools, social interaction, and voyaging in early-mid Holocene Papua New Guinea. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 8: 278-310.