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Crossing the Great Divide: a ground-edged hatchet-head from Vaucluse, Sydney.


The raw material, method of manufacture and modification of a ground-edged hatchet-head found at Vaucluse in Sydney provides evidence for the movement of stone tools from west of the Great Dividing Range to the coast. Such evidence adds new knowledge about social relationships between different groups in southeastern Australia and patterns of exchange that existed in the past.

Finding evidence for the source of raw materials from which Aboriginal artefacts are made is essential in reconstructing relationships between people and resources. Such evidence is also crucial to gain a better understanding of social relationships between peoples of different regions and patterns of exchange that may have existed in the past. By the time information about these aspects of Aboriginal life began to be recorded in the Sydney region (1), pre-colonial exchange systems and social networks had virtually collapsed and there are limited historical descriptions (Attenbrow 2002:122-24) compared to other parts of southeastern and central Australia (e.g. McBryde 1984, 1997; McCarthy 1939; Mulvaney 1976).

Archaeological support for the movement of tools or raw materials to coastal Sydney from a source outside the region is provided by ground-edged hatchets, including one found at Vaucluse which was brought to the Australian Museum for identification. As the hatchet's shape and rock type appeared unusual for the Sydney region and it had some uncommon wear patterns, it was worthy of further investigation. The purpose of this paper is to present evidence on the likely geological and hence geographic source of this hatchet-head. The limited evidence for Aboriginal exchange networks in the Sydney region, and the history of its manufacture, modification and use are also presented.

Historical evidence for movement of tools/implements and/or raw materials within and into the Sydney region The eadiest historical records for the Sydney region indicate that material suitable for making ground-edged hatchets was obtained from the Nepean River gravels at the foot of the Blue Mountains eastern escarpment (Collins 179811975]: 487). In April 1791, Governor Phillip's expedition met a group of people on the Nepean River who were there to collect stone to make hatchets (Bradley 179211969]:170; Phillip in Hunter 1793:513-25). These were local people, and there are no recorded observations of coastal people travelling to collect stone from the Nepean River, of hinterland people taking stone to coastal communities, or of stone from this source being exchanged between the two groups. Nor are there any early historical reports of Aboriginal people collecting stone from any other location in the Sydney region.

For southeastern New South Wales, later historical sources describe only a few small-scale exchanges between coastal and inland groups east of the Great Dividing Range (the Divide). The most detailed descriptions are for Port Stephens and Lake Macquarie on the NSW central coast, and the NSW south coast. The items exchanged included tools, weapons and stone materials, as well as ceremonial objects, items of 'special value' such as an ancient shield which came from 'some distant place'; songs were also 'exchanged' (McCarthy 1939:406-409).

Late 19tb century historical accounts mention contact between groups living on both sides of the Blue Mountains, particularly between people at Belmont (Kurrajong) in the east and the Capertee Valley and Pipers Flat in the west (Brook 1999:27, 59-60). However, movement or exchange of tools or raw materials was not reported as part of these travels.

In 1939, lacking detailed documentary evidence for movements of people or exchange networks in eastern New South Wales, McCarthy proposed an east coast 'trunk route' along the land east of the Divide. He added that at various points, such as 'the Hawkesbury--Nepean--Warragamba--Coxs River system ... there were connections between the coastal and interior tribes' (McCarthy 1939:99-100, 406-409). Trunk routes was one of 'three categories of barter and exchange' that McCarthy described as present throughout Australia: local barter, hand-to-hand exchange and trunk routes. In the first two, items were bartered over wide areas whereas trunk routes connected distant parts of the continent and were created by the cumulative effects of hand-to-hand exchanges (cf Renfrew's [1977:72, 84] down-the-line exchange).

Recent archaeological sourcing studies

In archaeological studies the only locations in the Sydney region identified as probable raw material sources for specific ground-edged hatchet-heads are the Nepean River between Richmond and Penrith, and Dundas Valley or Prospect (Figure 1). Other known or potential sources have been identified outside the Sydney region: along the south coast, the Upper Shoalhaven River, and at Bathurst west of the Divide.

The Nepean River gravels

In describing the archaeology of the Emu Plains-Castlereagh area near Penrith, McCarthy (1948:23-25) referred to the Nepean River as 'an inexhaustible supply of pebbles ... the most favoured material among the Nepean pebbles for the large implements is hornfels, although a wide range of other stones is present'. He added: 'Axeheads of the same kinds occur in the whole area eastward to the coast ...'.


McBryde & Watchman's (1993) study of a hatchet-head found on the wreck of the 'Sirius' at Norfolk Island, which they reason was part of an officer's collection of 'curiosities', concluded that the raw material from which this hatchet was made came from the Nepean River gravels. Its blank was a pebble of spotted pelitic hornfels (cordierite hornfels), which they said 'are abundant in the Nepean River gravels, coming from a bedrock source in the upper Coxs River'. Where and how the officer obtained the hatchet is unknown.

Corkill's study of 326 ground-edged hatchet-heads from the Sydney region found 90% were made of water-rolled cobbles which are available in present-day river channels and palaeo-channels at least 20km but up to 50km from the coast (Corkill 2005:48-49). Most hatchet-heads (78%) were made of metamorphic rock, with spotted hornfels being commonest (59%). Hatchets of igneous rocks were also identified but the majority of these had pebble blanks indicating that gravels beds were a preferred source (Corkill 2005:47). Corkill concluded that most hatchets found within the Sydney region were likely to have come from a local source (Corkill 2005:41,48) particularly the Nepean-Hawkesbury River which forms the Sydney region's western boundary.

Volcanic dykes and diatremes

Several volcanic dykes and diatremes occur in the Sydney region: e.g. at Bondi, Barrenjoey Peninsula, Dundas Valley, Prospect and Luddenham. Of these, Dundas Valley or Prospect has been identified, using non-destructive PXRF technique, as the likely raw material source for a groundedged hatchet (Australian Museum [AM] Reg. No E.54859b) found at Mangrove Mountain ~60 km to the north (Grave et al. in press).

Suggested sources outside the Sydney region

Of the several hundred ground-edged hatchets that McCarthy (1948:23-25) examined from the Emu Plains--Castlereagh area, he said there was 'one of a dark-coloured igneous material' which 'appears to be an axe traded from the [Blue] Mountains'. Another five he described as 'typical of the pecked round-axe found throughout eastern New South Wales, but their scarcity on these workshops suggest that they came by trade, a conclusion supported by the dark igneous material of which they are made'. In this article, McCarthy made no suggestions as to a likely source or sources of these hatchets. However, elsewhere McCarthy identified these 'pecked axe-heads' as a specialised type, describing them as 'The elongate Wuradjuri round axe of the central and southern tablelands of New South Wales' with an oval to round section, the butt of which was used for hammering (McCarthy et al. (1946:50, Fig. 271; McCarthy 1976:50, 52, Fig. 33[2]). He added that '[T]his axe was traded across the mountains ...'.

Other bedrock outcrops outside the Sydney region that have been suggested as suitable materials for making hatchet-heads are along the NSW south coast at places such as Thelma Head, Macquarie Rivulet, the Minnamurra area, Milton, Moruya and Bodalla; and inland in the Upper Shoalhaven River Valley (perhaps Yalwal district or Marulan); or further inland at Bathurst (Branagan & Megaw 1969:14-15, Table 5; Megaw & Wright 1966:33). Material from outcrops in the upper Shoalhaven River Valley would also be available in beach gravels along the south coast after they travelled downstream as cobbles and discharged into the sea. Bateman's Bay, some -250 km away, was the furthest location from which it has been suggested that stone materials were obtained for hatchet manufacture in the Sydney region.

Two matches have been made between Sydney region ground-edged implements and sources outside the region: (a) a hatchet from Curracurrang 1 rockshelter in Royal National Park is made of tinguaite, an unusual rock known to crop-out along the south coast only in the Minnamurra area (Branagan & Megaw 1969:14-15); and (b) a ground-edged implement found at Botany Bay (AM Reg. No E.57826) was shown during the pilot PXRF study to be made of basalt probably from a source near Mangrove Mountain in the NSW Central Coast (Grave et al. in press).


The Vaucluse ground-edged hatchet

The Vaucluse hatchet (AM Reg. No. E.094391) was found at Milk Beach (Figure 1), where it had eroded out of an Aboriginal shell midden.

Morphology and dimensions

The hatchet is 122 mm long by 58 mm wide by 40 mm thick, and weighs 469 grams, with a rounded cross-section (Figure 2). Its weight is a little below the average of 678g for a ground-edged hatchet (Dickson 1972:206; Dickson 1981:113-15). Although its dimensions are within the range of Sydney region hatchets (L=60-260 mm, W=35-130 mm, Th=10-55 mm) and its length is close to average (114_+37 mm), its width is much lower than the average (74+_21 mm) and its thickness is much higher than average (30_+10 mm) (Corkill database; see also Dickson 1981:Table 7; McBryde & Watchman 1993:Table 1). Its shape thus appears somewhat unusual for a Sydney region hatchet, and suggests that it is what McCarthy referred to as a 'Wuradjuri axe'.

Use-wear analysis

In addition to the ground edge, it has a relatively large percussion pit on each side, as well as pitted areas and a small polished area on one side (Figure 2). Outside these modifications, its surface is hammer-dressed (pecked) all over--an uncommon feature on Sydney region hatchets.

The use-wear analysis by Nina Kononenko revealed a history of use which suggests that, after its initial manufacture, the tool was re-sharpened (re-ground), rehalted and re-used several times including its use as an anvil and hammerstone. The ground surfaces of the tool (D, Figure 2) are covered with dense, long, and shallow striations which are the result of abrasive treatment to form the cutting edge. These striations are generally oriented in a diagonal direction to the edge on both sides of the tool. The cutting or working edge has continuous micro-scarfing as well as dense, short and deep striations which appear to be the result of use. These striations have a 'patchy' distribution on both sides of the edge and are distinguished from the abrasive striations by their short length and mostly perpendicular or slightly diagonal orientation to the edge.

Halted ethnographic and archaeological specimens indicate the hatchet would have been bound to a wooden handle, but no resin or other adhesive material survives on the Vaucluse hatchet-head. The area of contact between the stone and wood (A) has a 'soft', penetrating, and lustrous polish. This indicates contact with soft pliable materials and suggests the hatchet-head was bound to its handle with hide or skin/leather (perhaps kangaroo/wallaby or possum). Wear polish would be expected to extend further around the artefact if a fibrous or split withy handle was employed. There are very few descriptions in the Sydney and southeastern NSW historical records as to how groundedged hatchets were constructed, and none with any specific details of how the handles were secured to the hatchet-head. Binding hatchet-heads to handles with skin or leather was not recorded anywhere ethnographically, though Dickson (1981:57--60) describes Australian specimens where no adhesive was used and others where 'packing' material was used to create a tight fit between the stone and handle. The age of the Vaucluse hatchet-head is not known and it could be up to 3500 years old. Using historical descriptions and observations from other parts of Australia and ethnographic specimens as an analogy for how hatchet-heads were hafted in the past in the Sydney region and immediately adjacent regions, does not allow for unseen or abandoned methods of manufacture to be considered.

A number of secondary uses of the hatchet are evident:

* a percussion pit (B1) on one side which is characterised by dense micro-pits with smashed edges. Striations resulting from abrasive treatment of the edge, overlay micro-pits together with the smooth transition boundary between the pits and the ground surface, indicates this surface was possibly used as an anvil before the last resharpening of the cutting edge by abrasion of the adjacent surfaces;

* on one margin a dense, linear distribution of pits (Cl) suggests this part of the tool was used as a hammerstone after re-sharpening and not as an anvil;

* a percussion pit on the other side (B2) which appears 'fresher' in contrast to percussion pit B 1. The micro-pits were formed after the surface was ground and the boundary between the percussion pit and polished area is sharper and clearer;

* on the other margin, pitted area (C2) also looks 'fresh' indicating that this side of the tool was used as a hammer after the surface was ground;

* dense, shallow pits with smashed and smoothed edges as well as light abrasion at the distal end of the tool (F). Most likely this end was used for pounding relatively soft material such as the stems of plants or roots, but not meat. If it had been used to pound meat, a very smooth and a penetrating lustrous polish would be visible. It could also have been used as a 'hammer' when inserting wooden wedges to split timber or bark (cf. Dickson 1981:Fig. 9).

On the basis of the observed differences between the ground surfaces, percussion pits and halting polishes, it is possible to suggest that the tool was re-hafted, re-sharpened and re-used several times, perhaps at different places.

The amount of work evident in making and reworking the Vaucluse hatchet suggests it had a relatively long use-life. This distinguishes it from a large proportion of Sydney region hatchets in the Australian Museum Archaeology Collection. Most are made from river cobbles and many simply have one end ground to form the cutting edge--the amount of time involved in their manufacture was probably not great (cf. Dickson 1972: 207-08, 210-11; Dickson 1981:41,47).

Raw material

The material from which the Vaucluse hatchet is made was initially identified macroscopically by Ian Graham as meta-dolerite (amphibolite). PXRF analysis, during a recent provenancing study including 76 hatchets and 40 geological specimens, places it in a compositionally-spread but relatively discrete group comprising rock specimens and hatchets that range from metamorphosed rocks to relatively depleted volcanics (Figure 3) (Grave et al. in press). The Vaucluse hatchet is the only amphibolites type in this group. Most of these hatchets in this group come from the south coast; two of the three rock specimens are from the southern tablelands and one from the Sydney region. A larger sample of rocks of group B type compositions would be required to determine whether the Vaucluse amphibolite could be more precisely provenanced.

The nearest bedrock sources of meta-dolerite (amphibolite) to Vaucluse are (1) on the western slopes of the Divide in the Bathurst and Sofala districts; (2) in small-scale outcrops in the Hartley-Jenolan area and Budthingeroo near Kanangra Walls in the southern Blue Mountains; and (3) in the Upper Shoalhaven River Valley in the NSW south coast ranges (Figure 1). Other possible minor sources of amphibolite are Early Permian glacial tillites which occur near Lithgow on the western side of the Blue Mountains, in the central Hunter Valley, and in the Shoalhaven region.

From the Budthingeroo and Hartley-Jenolan sources, pieces of this rock could possibly find their way into the current Cox-Warragamba--Nepean River system. There is thus a slight chance that meta-dolerite (amphibolite) may be present amongst the Nepean River gravels and thus be available for collection as cobbles in the west of the Sydney region. An argument against meta-dolerite being collected from the Nepean River is the fact that the Budthingeroo and Hartley--Jenolan outcrops are very small and so the chance of cobbles of this material getting into the Nepean River gravels is low and the proportions in which they would occur would be extremely low. Thus, the chances of someone finding meta-dolerite (amphibolite) cobbles in the Nepean River gravels for hatchet manufacture are minimal. Materials from the Bathurst, Shoalhaven River and Hunter Valley sources cannot reach the Nepean River/Sydney region in this way as they are in different river catchments. The likely presence of meta-dolerite xenoliths in Sydney region diatremes is also extremely low, as is the possibility of such material being in the older known palaeochannel remnants such as at Newington and Newtown. As far as we know there have been no reports of meta-dolerite (amphibolites) in any of these gravels (e.g. McBryde & Watchman 1993:136-37); John Byrnes is not aware of any definitive geological studies of the raw materials present in the Nepean River gravels.


The Vancluse hatchet is thus unusual in a Sydney region context in that the raw material from which it is made points to an origin outside the region. Its identification as a Wuradjuri hatchet indicates a source west of the Divide. Future work to identify and characterise further likely sources of altered basaltic materials is required to confirm this opinion, but no other ground-edged implements have been identified as coming from this area to coastal Sydney.

The Vaucluse hatchet provides further evidence for the acquisition of objects and raw materials from outside the Sydney region--for the areas from which objects/raw materials came and the distances that may have been involved in the exchange of objects in coastal Sydney.

Discussion and conclusion

Creating the ground edge, the hammer-dressing and anvil pits have removed all evidence of the original rock surface. Consequently, whether it was made from a cobble or a piece of rock quarried from a bedrock source is not evident. Hammer-dressing was often used to roughen smooth surfaces on pebbles and remove flake scar ridges (McCarthy 1976:50), but the overall hammer-dressing on the Vaucluse hatchet strongly suggests that it was originally a piece of quarried rock.

This Wiradjuri hatchet would have been made west of the Divide, but other modifications occurred sequentially and possibly in different localities during its life history before and after it reached Vaucluse. The meta-dolerite (amphibolite) from which the Vaucluse hatchet is made was most likely obtained in the Bathurst district, and further studies are planned to investigate this conclusion. If correct, to reach Vaucluse the hatchet must have been transported by people over a distance of at least 180 km, probably via the Blue Mountains along trade routes hypothesised by McCarthy in 1939. Depending on its age, its movement perhaps involved groups referred to in the early historical accounts, and if so it may have passed through the country of more than one language group. Rather than being obtained by someone travelling from coastal Sydney to the source of the raw material and having direct access or bartering with the owners, it more likely reflects down-theline exchange between partners. The extensive modifications to this hatchet compared to most others found in the Sydney, suggest it was a valued piece--valued either because of the uncommon nature of the raw material from which it is made (at least in the Sydney region), or perhaps because of the social relationships created and maintained by the exchange of this object from a distant place (cf. McBryde 1984).

The probable distance involved in the movement of the Vaucluse hatchet (maximum 180 km to Bathurst) is not great in comparison with the trading networks and movements described in other studies (up to 800 km, McBryde 1978:355; 'hundreds or even thousands of kilometres', McBryde 1997:588), but exchange systems were probably not as extensive in the well-watered country east of the Divide as they were in the drier arid and semiarid country of western New South Wales. The Vaucluse hatchet-head is clear evidence that supports the movement of objects to coastal Sydney from outside the region. It adds to our knowledge of the social and economic relationships that existed in the past and the directions and distances over which they extended in eastern New South Wales.


Many thanks to Mr Guy Innes of Vaucluse for agreeing to this study.


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(1) The Sydney Region is defined here as the area bounded by the Hawkesbury-Nepean River on the north and west, and south as far as Stanwell Park on the coast and Picton in the hinterland.


VA, NK, TC: Anthropology Unit, Research Branch, Australian Museum, 6 College Street, Sydney South, NSW 2010, Australia. Email:; IG: University, of New South Wales; JB: Lachlanhunter Geological Services, PO Box 121, Burwood NSW 1805; PG: University of New England.
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Author:Attenbrow, Val; Graham, Ian; Kononenko, Nina; Corkill, Tessa; Byrnes, John; Barron, Lawrence; Grave,
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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