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 Some of the historic wording may now appear outdated and even offensive.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.