Aboriginal culture in early colonial Sydney is documented in written and pictorial sources, but a few artefacts from this period exist.

Indigenous Weapons - Sydney Region (1802-04)
Illustration by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, showing 'Sydney sword' in the middle of top row. Image: unknown
© Public Domain

The earliest drawings and paintings from the penal colony of New South Wales often depict Aboriginal people and their artefacts. Extending some distances to the south and north along the coastal areas of greater Sydney, they are repeatedly illustrated with fishing spears, shields, stone hatchets, a variety of clubs and swords.

At the time of contact, a wooden sword was a common weapon among the indigenous Australians of this region. Such swords were slightly curved, about 80cm long and nearly 7cm wide. Its handle, about 10cm long and narrow, was distinguished by a carved-in cross hatching to provide a firm grip. The other (distal) end was rounded, not pointy. This weapon is absent from sources produced after the few first years of the 19th century.

If my reading of evidence is correct, then the actual boomerang was introduced to the Sydney area from Blue Mountains during the first years of the 19th century. Its arrival was received with interest, if not fascination, by the Europeans and began functioning as an important indigenous symbol. Also, the foreign tools and materials, especially iron and glass, were adapted to indigenous technology and artefacts. For example, stone hatchets were replaced, whenever possible, by the metal ones – only a few of them survived because the valuable ‘iron’ was often reused and recycled to its limits.

New living conditions and tools, both indigenous and foreign, contributed to the early disappearance of the ‘Sydney swords.’ As a result very few were ever collected and made their way to museums or private holdings. But, the swords that were retained in any collection can be dated, with some degree of confidence, to the late 18th century or earlier.

Thanks to a passionate and thoughtful collector Mark Tunstall, I know about the existence of three other ‘Sydney swords’ in addition to one housed in the Australian Museum collection. Two of them are in a private collection and one at the Manchester University Museum in UK.

These swords are generally quite uniform in form, size and proportion. The patterns incised on their blade are dominated by long zigzagging lines and are strikingly similar to one another. Their likeness could be differently explained; however, it is tempting and justified to consider that these swords were made and used by closely related people or communities, perhaps even at a localised clan or language group level. Unfortunately, it is not possible to link the swords with any specific peoples in Sydney region.

These ‘Sydney swords’ demonstrate an amazing example of symbolism and cultural identity carved in weaponry. The next question is what does this pattern mean? Of course we do not know, but its form strongly suggests that these are not purely visual patterns, such as instantly identifiable emblems. Rather, it could be a form of ‘notation’ that represents a ‘story’ of greater complexity. Such stories may have combined narrative, exposition and instruction, parallel to the ‘stories’ of early Papunya painting tradition.

It was several decades later when illustrative motifs, people, animals and scenes, appeared on wooden artefacts, redefining the use of ‘pictorial language’ and a broader discourse on indigenous identity.