Kimberley Glass / Stone point, red opaque.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria, Indigenous Collections
Question: What tools did Indigenous people use before European contact? What types of stone tools are we likely to see in Australia?
Answer: There are two main types of stone tools in Australia – ground-edge and flaked tools. Stone tools were used for a variety of purposes, in ways similar to those of the steel knives, axes, hammers and chisels we use every day.
Flaked edge tools are made from a variety of materials (including the spectacular and innovative glass Kimberley points), typically high-silica stone such as flint or quartz. A piece of this stone, known as a core, was held and struck with another stone called a hammerstone. The resultant sharp fragment or flake could then be further shaped or sharpened as required. Pressure flaking is a method of shaping the tool where a bone or hardwood tool is pressed against the stone to remove smaller flakes.
Ground-edge tools are made from fracture-resistant stone, such as basalt or greenstone. These materials are able to withstand repeated impact, and were thus suitable for use in objects such as stone axes. The stone was quarried, and then roughly shaped into a tool blank with blows from a hammerstone. The edges were then sharpened and refined by grinding the tool against a coarse, gritty rock. Deep grooves from this grinding can sometimes be seen on sandstone outcrops, usually near water. Ground-edge tools could be held in the hand, or fashioned to be fixed onto a haft or handle.
The most commonly found variety of stone tools in Australia is a variety known as “scrapers”. This is a fairly broad category of wood-working tool, with variations in manufacture and shape dictated by the tool’s use.
Tools were often refashioned into a different purpose, with smaller implements being created from the fragments when a larger tool broke. The process of sharpening and reworking an existing tool is known as retouching.
There are natural processes that can create stones that resemble created stone tools, such as rockfalls and natural weathering. However, if you find what you believe to be a stone tool, you should leave it in place. Aboriginal artefacts and sites are protected by law, as the archaeological significance of a find can be destroyed if an object is removed from its original place. Additionally, stone tools - and the sites where they are found - are important links for Aboriginal people with their culture and history. Removing stone tools from their place can damage the cultural significance of both the site and the object itself.
A number of good examples of Indigenous stone tools are on display in the Discovery Centre at Melbourne Museum.
Holdaway, S. and N. Stern, 2004, A Record in Stone: the study of Australia’s flaked stone artefacts. Canberra: Museum Victoria and Aboriginal Studies Press.