Treasures podcast ep 6: The pestle that changed the world
One of the most significant objects in the Australian Museum’s collection is a humble, hand-crafted bird-shaped pestle. Its invention marked a crucial moment in human history, upon which entire civilisations grew.
Behind every object is a story – join Charles Wooley and Kim McKay as they reveal some of the Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Charles Wooley: One of the world's most important objects is small, simple and made of stone. Its invention marks a crucial moment in human history when people began planting crops and growing their own food. The shift to farming sustained larger populations, villages became towns became cities. Entire civilisations grew in no small part due to the creation of the humble stone pestle.
Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Kim, increasingly as I immerse myself in the Melanesian aspects of this amazing collection, I'm finding things that are exotic but at the same time strangely familiar. Why is that?
Kim McKay: Well, of course Melanesia has one of the longest histories of agriculture in the world, and so the objects that you are looking at were used in day-to-day life, and I think probably one of the most significant objects in the museum's collection is this bird-shaped pestle. It's believed to be between 3,000 and 8,000 years old.
Charles Wooley: And oddly I have seen things almost exactly like this in the Middle East and also in the west coast of Africa. I mean, a pestle is a pestle, isn't it.
Kim McKay: A pestle is a pestle, it's a tool for pounding plants, and it reminds us that for most early farmers producing food was as much about survival as it was about ritual and religion, and multiple layers of meaning are revealed here as we learn more of the place where humans, nature, story and science are entangled here in Melanesia.
Charles Wooley: And of course always remembering as you go through this remarkable collection that we all came out of Africa 50,000 or 60,000 years ago and already brought cultural influences with us.
Kim McKay: Exactly, it's the story of human survival and development, and of course the people in this area of Melanesia have one of the oldest histories of food production in the world. They began exploiting plants like yams and taro soon after arriving there some 40,000 years ago. And crops were being grown by 9,000 years ago, and the agricultural practices form part of a complex and abiding relationship with nature. Of course in coastal communities this also includes the life in the sea. They were excellent fishermen and seagoing people.
Charles Wooley: If you're going to hunt and fish and farm, you need something sharp, don't you. And without metal, what do you use?
Kim McKay: Well, the whole area, Charlie, was volcanically active. You look at the geology of the area and this is where this incredible obsidian was found.
Charles Wooley: It's a beautiful jet black material, isn't it.
Kim McKay: It sure is…
Charles Wooley: It's a volcanic rock, and when it splits it creates very sharp edges.
Kim McKay: Indeed, and Dr Robin Torrence here at the Australian Museum has been doing some ground-breaking research on the use of obsidian, and even tracing to see if there are blood fragments left on the cutting edge of these beautifully styled implements.
Charles Wooley: Yes, knives and long, long, long spearheads. They're lovely, aren't they.
Kim McKay: They really are, but intricate details. So you can see that culturally everything was thought about, time was taken. Each of those particular shapes mean something. So we know that the zigzag shape is quite an assertive symbol right throughout Melanesia and the Pacific.
Charles Wooley: Yes, these are the hilts you're talking about, which are decorated. I mean, you pretty much just…it's trial and error splitting obsidian to get something that looks like a good knife or a spearhead, you just keep doing it until it occurs. But then you decorate, you spend enormous amounts of time decorating.
Kim McKay: So these are the implements held in the hand, and of course you need a handle, you need something that then you can use the cutting edge with.
Charles Wooley: And these are…are they woven? It looks to me like material has been wrapped around and around and around in a lot of squares and triangles…
Kim McKay: And painted.
Charles Wooley: And then painted.
Kim McKay: They're really beautiful objects, they're stunning.
Charles Wooley: Can you put a value on them? I know that's a mercenary thing to ask here in this hallowed precinct, but what's it worth?
Kim McKay: Well, objects like this of course are traded on the open market around the world, and when we value the collections of the Australian Museum we do have reference points, but to us, Charlie, we don't want to replace them through selling them.
Charles Wooley: So they are literally invaluable.
Kim McKay: They're priceless.
Charles Wooley: Show me this…it looks like five blokes holding onto each other's shoulders on the prow of a boat.
Kim McKay: In fact they are five brothers and they are from the Asmat tribe in New Guinea, in West Papua and of course this is the famous headhunting tribe that we've all read about in books. They earlier practised cannibalism. In fact you might have heard of the story of Michael Rockefeller who in the early '60s it has been demonstrated now was killed by Asmat people at that time. It was a revenge killing where people in their own tribe had been killed by some Dutch colonialists and so seeking revenge. Michael Rockefeller was sort of collecting Asmat tribal symbols at the time, a lot of them you can see in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But here we've got an example of a beautifully carved canoe prow, and of course…what do you think those heads are? They're hornbills. So the heads of the five brothers are actually more like a bird.
Charles Wooley: Michael Rockefeller was…the whole family were great philanthropists, supporters of the arts and culture and he was a collector.
Kim McKay: He was. He was only in his early 20s at the time he was killed. He was fascinated by Papua New Guinea, as most of the world was. This was the last place on earth undiscovered, where savages, as they called them, lived.
Charles Wooley: Remembering how excited the young David Attenborough was when he first went there.
Kim McKay: Well, exactly, just any young explorer who ended up there had new tales to tell. Of course the museum had been going to these areas for many years. Frank Hurley the photographer of course had been there since the 1920s, but this was in the '60s, so in living memory of when Michael Rockefeller was trying to collect there and of course met his end.
Charles Wooley: So these fellows speared him and ate him?
Kim McKay: We believe so. There was a book produced recently called Savage Harvestwhich researched how this happened and has found the evidence that this is exactly what happened in the local community.
Charles Wooley: Rockefeller was one of the richest men on earth, a multibillionaire, the most expensive meal and they ever ate, I bet.
Kim McKay: Well, probably, although in the last photographs that are in the book that I saw of him he was pretty skinny, so I don't know how satisfying it might have been.
Charles Wooley: Above it there's a wonderful bird and I think it's a stork of some description. It's ornate, it's beaded and woven and carved of wood and it looks like it might almost fly, the wings are like the balsa-wood model that a child might throw into the air, aren't they.
Kim McKay: This is a spectacular example of a stork, heavily beaded, as you said. And recently it has undergone extensive conservation here at the museum in our conservation lab. It's a very fragile, beautiful depiction of a bird and used in ceremony of course, and associated with specific totems in the community. So we have this extraordinary conservation lab downstairs in the basement of the museum where a whole team of highly trained conservators work to look after all sorts of objects in the collection. And as you can see, this is a very delicate object that they've really worked on extensively.
Charles Wooley: How do they possibly source the material to restore? The more I look at it, the deeper and more complex it is. People can't actually get an idea about it, can they, unless they come here and look at it as we are, but there's a myriad of little shells. So if you are missing a few of those, where do you get them?
Kim McKay: Well, you don't replace them, that's the first thing. What our conservators do is they ensure there is no further deterioration, so they're not actually going out and sourcing something new.
Charles Wooley: They're not restoring.
Kim McKay: They're not in the traditional way you would think.
Charles Wooley: In which case this is in pretty bloody good condition then, isn't it.
Kim McKay: It is, and now it's in even better condition.
Charles Wooley: From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.
Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.
Join veteran journalist Charles Wooley and Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay as they explore the astounding objects and specimens of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition, housed in the nation’s oldest museum gallery, the Westpac Long Gallery.