Papua New Guinea – Tools

The tools here include everything from stone adzes and axes to a needle used for making fishing nets.

You can click on the links below see the different sorts of tools from Papua New Guinea (PNG) in Plymouth’s collections and find out more detail below.

Many of our catalogue records were created in the past and have yet to be updated. Some of the historic wording may now appear outdated and even offensive. Please be aware that the database may include records for objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities. If you see anything that concerns you, please get in touch with us.

adze from PNG

Adze (PLYMG AR.1983.1164)

Adzes and axes

Stone tools fascinated collectors. They understood that they were salvaging objects that would soon be consigned to the past. Stone tools soon went out of use when metal tools were obtained through trade with Europeans. Before metal tools were introduced, stone tools were widely traded throughout New Guinea. These stone tools remind us of similar ones found ancient in British and European archaeology. But in the archaeology, only the stones remain. By looking at these PNG examples, we can imagine how ancient stone tools may have been bound to wooden shafts and handles, now decayed.

View the stone tools in the collection

Stone axes were hafted using a split piece of cane wrapped over the end of the wooden shaft and bound with rattan (palm fibre). As the cane dried out, the haft would become less secure and it would need to be replaced. Adzes, too, were bound onto wooden handles. Some of the examples in the Museum’s collection have the stone heads still bound to the wooden handles with split cane and rattan string or thread. In many of the examples, the head has become detached from the haft.

Stone axes were used for cutting down trees, and adzes were used for carving wooden planks – to make houses or canoes, for example. There are also smaller stone tools in the collection, which would have had their own specific uses. Other examples are too large for practical use and very finely made – they may have been valuables for trade, or had a ceremonial purpose. Examples like these at other museums are said to have been used as grave markers.

bag from PNG

Bag (PLYMG 1909.417x)


The Museum has three netted bags made from fine plant fibre thread. Two of these were collected by Dauncey. One has brightly coloured stripes, while the other is plainer and may have belonged to the village sorcerer and been used to contain his magical objects, now in the Plymouth collection. The third bag, not Dauncey’s, has a more elaborate pattern of dyed squared and long tassels and a longer, narrower strap. It may have been used more like a modern handbag.

There is also a carrying frame in the collection, made from two hoops of bamboo, criss-crossed with a web and bound together at one edge. Things can be carried between the two hoops, which are used as handles.

View the net bags and carrying frame in the collection

Black and white photo of a baby sleeping in a net bag

[1] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Intitute (RAI 33309)

The flexible, looped net bags – called bilums in PNG – are made by women, using hand-spun bark-fibres formed into a strong two-ply string. They are used for carrying all sorts of things – from bones to babies. They are worn on the back, with the strap across the top of the head. When not being worn, they can be hung up as storage, or as a baby’s cradle as seen in the photograph [1]. An empty net bag can be worn over the back and shoulders, like a cloak. Women use the biggest bags to carry firewood and food from their gardens. Babies may be carried in them and ancestral bones kept in them – they are associated with the womb, with birth and with death. Small, tightly woven net bags contain personal hunting charms and amulets – like the sorcerer’s equipment mentioned above. Other bags, decorated with special feathers, are associated with men’s ritual status.

dagger from PNG

Dagger (PLYMG 1923.44.9x)


The two ‘daggers’ in the Plymouth collection are made from sharpened cassowary leg-bones (a large flightless bird). These were used as tools rather than as weapons. Each has holes around the top, where decorations such as feathers would have been attached.

View the bone daggers in the collection

fire drill from PNG

Drill (PLYMG 1909.373x)


This fire drill comprises two wooden sticks bound together at right angles with a bamboo strip. A smaller stick is attached with a plant fibre string to one end. The traditional method of making fire in PNG was to pull a length of split cane back and forth round a split stick, the split held open with a wedge and the tinder placed in the split at the point of friction. In this example, you can see that the longest stick is split at one end. A different method was to strike two pieces of iron pyrites together to shoot a spark into a handful of tinder.

View the record for a fire drill in the collection

fly-whisk from PNG

Fly whisk (PLYMG AR.1984.1421)


There are two objects labelled as fly-whisks in Plymouth’s collection. One has a wooden stick for a handle, with a bundle of rags at the end made from strips of European cotton cloth. The other is a large bundle of plaited, blackened plant fibre, bound together with strands of undyed fibre. Fly-whisks are held in the hand to swat off flies, but they are also used to swagger with.

View the fly-whisks in the collection

headrest from PNG

Headrest (PLYMG 1909.300x)


There are two PNG headrests in the Plymouth collection, one collected by Dauncey and one by Gertrude Benham.

In New Guinea, people slept on hard surfaces, such as floors or the ground. Many people had elaborate hairstyles, and resting the head on a headrest prevented the hairstyle from being spoilt while sleeping.

View the headrests in the collection

net-making 'shuttle' from PNG

Shuttle (PLYMG 1909.333.1x)


Dauncey’s collection at Plymouth includes a bundled-up fishing net. It is made from thin, light plant fibre, and originally may have had shells attached as sinkers and floats made from coconut husks or wood. Fishing nets are made using wooden needles and wooden mesh gauges. They are communally owned, and kept hung up on racks behind the men’s house.

The Museum has two wooden objects called ‘shuttles’, collected by Dauncey. In fact, these are probably large wooden needles used for making nets. Each has a hole at one end. A similar example at the British Museum is made from the wood of a tree fern. The Plymouth collection also contains a sample of raw flax and a sample of fibre string.

View the records for the net, needles and fibre samples in the collection

Black and white photo showing a net being made

[2] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34332)

The photograph [2] shows a man making a net, using long wooden needles. Nets with different mesh sizes are also made for catching pigs and large birds. Pig nets are made of strong, thick cord and have a large mesh size. Nets like these are kept inside the men’s house, together with other equipment for hunting and fighting.

former for pottery making from PNG

Former (PLYMG 1909.290.1x)

Pottery production

There are three chunky shell tools in the collection labelled as ‘formers’. They were probably used for forming pots, as wooden formers were also used for this purpose.

View the pottery production tools in the collection

canoe paddle from PNG

Paddle (PLYMG 1934.21.2)

Water transport

There is one paddle from PNG in the Museum, which may or may not have been Dauncey’s. It is made from dark hard wood, and would have been used for paddling a canoe.

View the record for the paddle in the collection

Water was the main form of transport in Oceania and in New Guinea, around its coast and on its rivers. Dauncey took photographs of impressive sailing boats and outrigger canoes used at Delana. The sailing boats had pandanus-leaf sails. Canoes were imported from the Siassi Islands, but paddles were made locally.

shark skin covered tool

File(?) (PLYMG 1909.420x)


A piece of wood wrapped with stingray skin was used for filing wood. A file such as this would have been used to create the fine curves on a drum, for example.

View the record for the file in the collection