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Revisiting the Mount William Greenstone Quarry: employment specialisation and a market economy in an early contact hunter-gatherer society.

This paper presents the results of a desktop review of publicly available archaeological and ethnographic records of the Mount William quarry site. The study hypothesis is that the relative value of the quarried greenstone was measured by a market economic system rather than socialistic models of value and that the production involved employment specialisation. There is evidence that the value of the stone from the quarry included social values that went beyond basic economic elements, but these components of cultural and social value --such as prestige and social enhancement--furthered the demand for the stone, adding to its economic exchange value.

The relative value of stone from the Mount William quarry appears to have been extremely high among Aboriginal people of south-east Australia. Studies of the distribution of axes by Isabel McBryde (1978) suggest that they were traded north into New South Wales and west into South Australia, up to 600 kilometres from the quarry. Axes were not, however, traded far to the east of the quarry at the time of European arrival in Victoria. This observation was concluded to be due to an ongoing conflict between the Kulin and Kurnai (Gunai) of Gippsland (McBryde 1978:363). It has been well established that the regional demand for the Mount William stone was driven by cultural, religious and spiritual values (Brumm 2010; Hiscock 2013) as much as by pragmatic utility; and this is not disputed. The point this paper emphasises is that the supply of the stone was limited to a specific geographic location that was controlled by a particular family. According to micro-economic theory, this should have meant that the 'price', or exchange value, of the stone--given restricted supply and high demand (regardless of the cause for that demand) --should have been disproportionately high. There appears to be some historical evidence that this was indeed the case.

As well as being a very significant archaeological site, the Mount William quarry is important because of the strong ethnographic accounts of how the stone from the site was distributed, including who in the local Aboriginal community --the Wurundjeri-willam--was responsible for the site at contact and the trade value of the stone. The combination of the archaeological and ethnographic information facilitates an understanding of the economics associated with the trade of this important traditional resource in the early contact period.

Persistent theories of economics in Aboriginal society

Previous studies of trade from Mount William have interpreted the movement of stone in terms of models of exchange observed in northern Australia and Papua from the early twentieth century (McBryde 1984a). There are, however, some suggestions that the anthropological descriptions of the systems of exchange of merbok (Stanner 1933) in the Northern Territory and kula (Malinowski 1922) in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, incorporated and possibly confused gift giving with commercial commodity exchange. These gift exchange systems, or ceremonies, were thought to occur where goods were exchanged to build community rather than for immediate or future material rewards (Cheal 1988). Thus the application of a 'gift giving' model to the trade in greenstone may have occurred due to the influence of topical anthropological theories from this era, including historical materialism, and attempts to fit observations into egalitarian exchange theories that were prominent at the time.

Later in the twentieth century Mauss (1990) and Weiner (1992) expanded on these observations and have shown, for example, that while the Trobriand Islanders did indeed use the mutual gift-giving kula ceremony as a tool to maintain and strengthen social connections (similar to Christmas or birthday ceremonies in Western societies), trade for economic gain was a separate practice. Conflating Aboriginal gift-giving ceremonies with trade negotiations may also explain Robert Brough Smyth's (1878:180-2) contradictory observations regarding Aboriginal exchange in Victoria, since he appears to discuss and combine elements of a gifting transaction with trade negotiations. Such confusion may also lie behind previous difficulties in making the Victorian greenstone exchange systems fit within these earlier exchange models (McBryde 1984a:151).

Superficially to an outsider, a barter-based market may be seen as very similar to an obligatory gift economy. Gregory (1982:6-9) and Strathern (1988:19, 161) describe the difference as follows: in a gift-giving exchange, the goods and/or services being exchanged are 'inalienable' --that is, the exchange creates a bond between the donor and recipient--whereas in a market, the exchange is 'alienable' and no enduring bond is created. Another key difference is that in the gift-giving exchange the donor can initiate the exchange and the recipient may not necessarily need or want what is being received but is obliged to accept due to social custom. In a market exchange it is generally the recipient that initiates the exchange and this is motivated by either a need, or want, for the good or service.

Demand sharing, as discussed by Peterson (1993) from his observations in northern Australia, is also a practice that has few close parallels in Western society and this may be another source of confusion for nineteenth-century anthropologists and commentators observing Aboriginal exchange practices in Victoria. Demand sharing occurs where the recipient can make demands on the real, or perceived, surplus of the (would be) donor. It is considered rude, at least in the societies observed by Peterson, for the donor not to then share whatever was demanded. The extent to which this practice occurred in south-east Australia prior to colonisation is unknown.

Egalitarian and obligatory sharing of goods within the family or community unit has been observed to occur frequently in Aboriginal society, although Peterson (1993:862) reports that spontaneous gift giving is rare outside of the 'household' in north-east Arnhem Land. Keen (2004:337) suggests that close kin relationships, in many Aboriginal societies, resulted in rights and obligations regarding the sharing of goods but the degrees of familiarity and kinship affected the abilities of a person to make demands on another's surplus, and methods could be taken to avoid sharing one's surplus. Demands cannot be made where there was/is no familiarity or kinship.

Keen (2004:336), Gregory (1994:920-3), Polanyi (1944:48) and Sahlins (1972:193-5) discuss the strict reciprocal nature of the exchange of goods and services for something of an equivalent nature, whether they be gifts or as trade, in Aboriginal economic systems. A major difficulty, which is presented by discussions around the Mount William quarry, is how primary production fits in with these existing models; the person who acquires goods via excavation of stone and/or manufacture of goods from raw materials on their own country has obtained tradable commodities without having to give anything away other than their labour. Further, Keen (2004:338) suggests that in a market economy producers and middlemen will try to increase demand in order to increase their profits; I also believe there is some evidence that this was occurring in the trade in Mount William greenstone. While models by Sahlins (1972:193-5) suggest that things such as 'balanced reciprocity' or 'negative reciprocity' existed, these models also do not explain how the exchange equivalency or 'price' of a good or a service is determined.

'Trade value', 'price' or 'exchange equivalency' differ from the three values identified by Graeber (2001:1-2) (sociological value, economic value and linguistic value) in that Graeber's values feed a recipient's need or want for a good or service and the willingness of the donors to part with or pass on the good or service. In other words, these values feed into the demand side of the micro-economic equation for a good or service, which determines the exchange equivalency.

The research question of this paper addresses these issues directly--are there examples of Aboriginal price determination systems that follow the base micro-economic model that exchange value or 'price' is regulated by the availability or amount of a commodity, product or service (supply) versus the desire of the individual or population to 'buy' it (demand)? If so, this would suggest a market economy was active, contradicting broad-scale egalitarian socio-economic models of goods exchange between socio-political groups in Aboriginal society. These market systems may have been separate from goods exchange within the family unit.

Part of the problem in determining whether the trade in Mount William greenstone fits within a market economy is due to the many varying definitions of what constitutes a 'market'. Feinman and Garraty (2010:170) suggest that many existing definitions tend to be either overly broad, potentially including things like gift giving or lending, or restrictively narrow, which separates state-controlled and planned distribution networks of goods from self-regulating markets. In contrast, Feinman and Garraty (2010:169), in recognising that market exchange has a long history, suggest that it must encompass observed variability and include 'economic transactions where the forces of supply and demand are visible and where prices or exchange equivalencies exist'. A market can therefore exist without a medium of exchange in a barter-based economic system. This definition also does not preclude many types of gift-giving practices; for example, where the value of a gift is determined by its inherent and relative supply and community demand, and the gift is reciprocated with another gift of a similar value.

Dequech (2003) and Uzzi (1997) argue that in the absence of governing organisations such as trade groups, guilds and merchant organisations, the price of a good was determined via notions of value and fairness, word of mouth, social and cultural influences, bargaining practices such as haggling, and the political and social relationship between the exchange participants. As a result, the underlying micro-economic processes via which supply and demand dictate 'price', or relative exchange value and fairness, may well be difficult to observe and measure in a hunter-gather society. This, however, is not to suggest that they were not influential. The hypothesis of this paper is that the trade of stone from the Mount William quarry fits with the Feinman and Garraty (2010) definition of market exchange and that the relative value of the greenstone was driven, to a large degree, by the supply and demand of the resource. This does not exclude, however, the possibility that axe heads quarried from Mount William were incorporated into different forms of exchange away from the quarry.

Keen (2004) undertook an intensive study of Aboriginal economics, which included the control of means of production, organisation of production, distribution and consumption, and exchange and trade. This study includes some cautionary advice for the study of traditional Aboriginal economic systems. For example, Keen's (2004) study used a series of case studies from seven cultural groups, which included the Kurnai people from Victoria. Unfortunately, the Kulin Nations (of which the Wurundjeri are a part) and the Kurnai had an antagonistic relationship at contact and there is very little evidence of trade between these people, thus making economic comparison between the two people in the past problematic despite their geographic proximity. Also, as Keen (2004:275) points out, models of Aboriginal 'local organisation' and 'land tenure' are based on evidence collected decades after colonisation, and given that land management overall had changed dramatically, advises caution in the use of ethno-historical records to understand Aboriginal socio-economic systems.

The quarry

Mount William is located approximately 70 kilometres to the north of Melbourne, near the township of Lancefield. The quarry site itself is located to the north-east of the summit. The use of Mount William as a quarry was first recorded in 1855, when William Blandowski (1855:7) reported that it was a 'celebrated spot which supplies the natives with stone... for their tomahawks'. Quarrying activity had, however, ceased by the time Blandowski observed the site.

No archaeological excavations have been undertaken at the site, but archaeological surveys have identified worked stone and flakes forming mounds of up to 20 metres in diameter (Coutts and Miller 1977:3). Larger excavations were evidently quarried at the site to access the stone, with 18 'pits', in addition to approximately 250 excavated 'hollows' in the stone outcrops and the quarry, identified at the site (Coutts and Miller 1977:5). This type of quarry fits with Hiscock and Mitchell (1993:59) definitions of an excavated hardstone quarry. Unfortunately, Coutts and Miller (1977) do not indicate how they differentiated between a 'pit' and a 'hollow'. McBryde (1984b:273), however, suggests some of the pits are 'several' metres in diameter and still a metre deep, even with recent sedimentation.

How the stone was quarried is not known and remains something of a mystery, as no hammer stones have been found at the site and the quarrying operations themselves were never recorded. It has been suggested that the butt end of axes were used as hammer stones and that fire-hardened poles were used to lever stone or that fire setting was employed to shatter the rock (Coutts and Miller 1977:5). Observations by Coutts and Miller (1977:5) also point out that much of the processing of the axes--specifically the grinding and polishing--did not happen on site, as none of the flakes on site show evidence of polishing. Whether or not this is due to a lack of artefact analysis of stone from the site is not known. Hiscock and Mitchell (1993:71-8) also decry the lack of archaeological research that has been carried out at Mount William and suggest that this is also the case at many quarry and reduction sites, identifying many outstanding archaeological questions surrounding the operation of stone quarries in Australia. Grinding grooves are known to occur on suitable rock outcrops surrounding Mount Macedon and within the Werribee Gorge to the west (Du Cros 1989, 1991), speculatively suggesting that the task of finishing the axe was taken on by the people who received the greenstone.

The ethno-historical evidence surrounding the Mount William quarry is relatively good due to the efforts of nineteenth-century European commentators and the efforts of the Wurundjeri themselves. The overall management of the Mount William Greenstone Quarry is a point that Howitt's Wurundjeri informant, William Barak, was very clear on--he identified Billibilleri as the man directly responsible for the quarry at contact. Howitt (1904:311) states that:
The right to hunt and procure food in any particular tract of country
belonged to the group of people born there, and could not be infringed
by others without permission. But there were places which such a group
of people claimed for some special reason, and which the whole tribe
had an interest. Such a place was the 'stone quarry' at Mount William
near Lancefield, from which the material for making tomahawks was
produced. The family proprietorship of this quarry had wide
ramifications, including more than the Wurundjeri people... But it was
Billibilleri, the head of the family whose country included the quarry
who lived on it, and took care of it for the whole of the Wurundjeri
community. When he went away, his place was taken by the son of his
sister, the wife of Nurrum-Nurrum-Biin, who came on such occasion to
take charge, when it may be assumed, like Billibilleri, he occupied
himself in splitting stone to supply demands. The enormous amount of
broken stone lying about on the mountain shows the generations of the
predecessors of Billibilleri must have laboured at this work.

What this appears to indicate is that someone, either Billibilleri or a member of his family, maintained a permanent presence at the quarry--potentially translating into a required sedentary lifestyle--and specialised in the production and trade of a single, albeit highly valued, commodity for their sustenance. If this is true, then living a sedentary lifestyle would have severely limited Billibilleri's (and possibly by extension his family's) ability to hunt and gather food. The resident of the quarry would have required a daily supply of food from other people within the community to maintain a permanent presence at the quarry. The significant extent of the quarry suggests that it was being utilised beyond the needs of an individual family, and that its primary purpose was likely to provide a surplus of material that would be used for trade.

It should be noted that Billibilleri's power was not limited solely to the quarry at Mount William --he is acknowledged as a leader, or Ngurungaeta, of the Wurundjeri-willam. Assistant Protector of Aborigines William Thomas and Billibilleri are noted to have developed a close working relationship through the early 1840s, a relationship that potentially reduced conflict between the Kulin and the early colonists of Port Phillip Bay (Casey 1971; Clark and Heydon 2004:76).

McBryde points out that other Woiwurrung-speaking people other than the Wurundjeri-Willam had access to the Mount William site, but these people appear to have had a family relationship, through marriage for example, with Billibilleri.

McBryde suggested that Ningu-labul, who was a leader of the neighbouring 'Mount Macedon tribe' in his own right, had access to the quarry. McBryde notes that Ningu-labul spoke for Billibilleri during meetings and did not quarry the stone himself; Barak (who was related to Ningu-labul) stressed that it was Ningu-labul who had the pre-eminent rights to the quarry rather than Billibilleri (Howitt 1904:311). This creates a level of confusion regarding the management of the quarry. While Barak may be expressing his personal bias for his ancestor's rights, it raises the idea that, while Billibilleri personally benefited both politically and economically from his management of, and work at, the quarry, it is not clear if he or his family 'owned' the quarry in a Western sense. This supports the idea of sharing of resources within the family group but does not preclude trade for economic gain outside the family group (McBryde 1984a:271-2).

Exchange of greenstone in south-east Australia

Mount William is located among Victoria's Cambrian Era volcanism within the Heathcote Greenstone Belt. Although the alignment of the Heathcote Greenstone Belt crosses much of the state, it only outcrops at specific locations. Where this occurs, it is often associated with Aboriginal quarry sites, as described by McBryde (1978) (Figure 1).

Isabel McBryde's (1978) study of the distribution of greenstone through Victoria has been invaluable in understanding exchange networks through south-east Australia. Her study was, however, from museum collections, which could contain biases. The study may have been affected by who collected the axes, the age of the records and artefacts, and the accuracy of the associated provenance of the axes and the greenstone from which they are made.

Mount William greenstone was traded widely throughout south-east Australia (Figure 2), identified as far north-west as Broken Hill, north-east to Wollongong and as far west as near Adelaide (McBryde 1978). Of note is the concentration of Mount William greenstone observed in the region surrounding eel trapping systems located at Lake Condah in south-west Victoria.

The relative trade value of Mount William greenstone has been described in the ethnographic literature. Barak, via Howitt (n.d.:37), suggests that three axe blanks (rough unpolished axe heads) could be traded for a possum skin cloak. John Bradley (in McBryde 1984a:40) observed in 1838 near Costerfield (42 kilometres north of Mount William) that one finished axe (polished and handle fitted) was traded for two possum skin cloaks. Barak also informed Howitt (n.d.:37) that neighbouring tribes would give weapons, ornaments, belts and necklaces as 'presents' for the stone. There are further examples of the sorts of commodities that could be exchanged for an axe; for example, 'Their best feathers, the best wood, their favourite skins, and even wives and daughters would be offered in exchange for the basalt and diorites which occur on and in the neighbourhood of the Great Range' (Smyth 1972[1876]:360).

Possum skin cloaks, as well as being an essential survival item, were used in high-value trade throughout southern Victoria due to the high energy costs required in their creation. The use of the possum skin cloak as a trade good provides a rule by which one may begin to understand the inherent and relative value of a greenstone axe made from Mount William greenstone, and the effect that secondary processes and trade away from the source might have had on an axe's value. James Dawson (1881:9) describes the construction of a cloak near what is now Camperdown:
A good rug is made from fifty to seventy skins, which are stripped off
the opossum, pegged out square or oblong on a sheet of bark, and dried
before the fire, then trimmed with a reed knife, and sewn together
with the tail sinews of the kangaroo, which are pulled out of the
tail, and carefully dried and saved for thread. Previous to sewing the
skins together, diagonal lines about half-an-inch apart, are scratched
across the flesh side of each with sharpened mussel shells.

As suggested by Dawson, a possum skin cloak can consist of around 60 individual skins, all of which had to be sewn together to form a single sheet. The production of one cloak required the hunting of the animals, the preparation of the skins, incising designs on the skins of the cloak (an in-depth process that had practical and spiritual meaning; see Howitt 1904:741-2; Smyth 1878:271) and sewing the skins together (Wright 1979). This was a laborious process that may have taken many weeks to complete and probably combined the labour of a number of people.

The nineteenth-century accounts of trade of axes indicate that there was a process of value adding: an unfinished axe at the quarry site had a trade value of one-third of a possum skin cloak (Howitt n.d.:37), a finished axe close to the quarry had a trade value of two possum skin cloaks (Bradley in McBryde 1984a:40), or there was a six-fold increase in the exchange value as a result of polishing and finishing the axe. It should be noted that the transactions described by Barak and Bradley present an extremely small sample size and are indicative only.

Based on these descriptions, however, finishing the axe and transporting it away from its source appears to have dramatically increased its trade value. One must also consider that metal axes were in circulation among the Aboriginal populations of Victoria at the time, which may have reduced the trade value of the stone axes. McBryde (1984b:278), however, noted that no Mount William artefacts displayed a significant reduction in size with distance from the quarry, which is consistent with her hypothesis of valued good curation and that an axe's value went beyond its value as a survival tool (McBryde and Harrison 1981).

There are no ethnographic accounts of quarrying at Mount William and understanding how long it took to produce a single axe blank would require experimental archaeological research. Griffin et al. (2013) conducted some experimentation on the production of a greenstone axe, but did not go so far as to report the labour requirements necessary to produce one. It is, however, likely that the pure labour cost in producing an axe blank would be significantly less than what was required to produce a finished possum skin cloak. Trading the greenstone for an item that took much longer to produce, which could in turn also be traded on, gave Billibilleri and his family, and potentially the Wurundjeri-willam as a community, some substantial time savings. Those who received the axe and undertook secondary processes, such as finishing and attaching a handle, would also have received a significant time saving for their labour, given the subsequent value of the axe in further exchanges.

Guthridge (1907:8) suggests that into the 1840s observations of Aboriginal camping in the vicinity of Mount William were very rare. This may have been associated with the introduction of mass produced steel and iron axes; the Batman treaty alone included the provision for the transfer of 100 steel axes to Aboriginal people in exchange for the Port Phillip Association being allowed to peacefully settle Port Phillip Bay (Attwood 2009:43). Similarly, the gold rush of the 1850s saw massive importation of metal tools, many of which were potentially abandoned and could have been salvaged by Aboriginal people as the alluvial gold deposits were exhausted after 1855. The abandonment of Mount William is also likely to be influenced by a dramatic reduction of the Aboriginal population and land displacement caused by European migration into the area.

While there is no reference to the socioeconomic impact of flooding the Aboriginal stone axe 'market' in south-east Australia with metal axes--and thus, theoretically, crashing the 'price' of greenstone--Lauriston Sharp (1952) observed first-hand the detrimental effect that introducing mass-produced steel axes had on the socioeconomic balance of the Yir Yoront on Cape York, Queensland, under similar circumstances.

Of course, the trade value of an item in a bartering market system is not purely related to the supply, demand and other inherent values of the object (either as a tool or an object with inherent social status and spiritual value). It also relates to the charisma and negotiation skills of those engaging in the bartering transaction and the underlying social and political situation in which the trade was taking place (Feinman and Garraty 2010:171). European observers may not have understood the intricacies of the trade they observed, such as the inclusion of trade in promised services or the process of pre-ordering goods, let alone what political disadvantages may have been associated with undertaking trade negotiations with someone else on their country. It is also clear that Aboriginal people often engaged in gift giving as a sign of genuine affection. Certainly Stanner's (1933) observations of ceremonial trade on the Daly River in the Northern Territory display the integration of religion, social reinforcing and economics, which is hard for the outside observer to understand. Indeed, similar exchanges of goods in a Western society, such as gifts for birthdays or Christmas, have similarities to the exchange of goods equivalencies discussed by Stanner, which would be equally difficult for an outsider to understand. These mutual gift-giving ceremonies in western societies, for example, incorporate the giving of gifts of approximately equal economic value (which is not necessarily related to the relative difficulty each individual has in producing the gift) and involve an economic transaction with the outlet from which the gift is purchased. Mutual gift ceremonies in Western societies therefore have pure economic components and it is reasonable to believe that similar economic components existed in traditional Aboriginal society.

There are examples of inalienable transaction in greenstone axes in western Victoria but some of these also sit outside the gift-giving exchange models as stated. For example, in his descriptions of Djabwurrung mortuary practice near Camperdown, western Victoria, James Dawson (1881:63) suggests that all of a deceased individual's possessions were buried with them with the exception of the stone axes, which were considered to be too valuable to be disposed of; these were inherited by the next of kin. Another example of inheritance as part of the mortuary ritual is reported by Mathews on the far-south coast of New South Wales. In this case only the brothers of the deceased were allowed to inherit weapons and other belongings, which become dhundhal. If any game was killed with these weapons, only the widow and other relatives of the deceased were allowed to consume the kill (Mathews 1904:274). Thus this inheritance was likely to create an inalienable connection between the recipient and the deceased donor but one that would not have been possible to pay back.

Brumm (2010:179) states that the Mount William greenstone had 'symbolic values that cannot be appreciated from straightforward economic perspectives'. The argument of this paper is, however, that symbolic status and other meta-physical values would have enhanced demand for the axes throughout south-east Australia, thus increasing their relative exchange value. These social values are therefore complimentary to micro-economic demand. Social value and economic value are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced (for example) by the effect that brand names have in increasing the value of items in Western society. Indeed, it appears that it was the social value more than the economic value of the Mount William stone that resulted in the labour imbalance between the effort required to produce the stone and the effort required to produce the goods it was traded for.

Ethnographic accounts of asset management

The description of how the Mount William quarry was managed, which has come to us from Howitt/Barak, correlates with observations that Aboriginal people could assert control over access to specific valuable resources (Keen 2004:280, 299-300). The act of maintaining a permanent presence at the quarry, however, appears to go further than most other examples of this behaviour. Further, the description of Billibilleri's work while at the site differs again from other examples of localised control of an asset; if Billibilleri was working solely to 'supply demands', it would suggest that others were not able to access the resource except via trade and that he was primarily working to supply goods for this trade not for his community. Although these exclusive access rights are rare in Aboriginal societies, limited examples include ethnographic evidence of a man claiming exclusive access to a waterhole (Keen 2004:280); the assertion of exclusive use rights of honey trees by demarcating the tree (Keen 2004:285); and the trade in the pituri simulant, where Aboriginal groups maintained an economic monopoly by keeping preparation methods secret (Keen 2004:356).

Accounts of employment delineation in Australian Aboriginal societies occur more commonly than what might be expected for people who are normally described as hunter-gatherers. For example, ethnographic accounts frequently identify work delineated along sexual lines (i.e. men's work and women's work), and there are certain spiritual-religious duties, including the manufacture and use of some tools, that could only be performed by people who were initiated to a certain level (Keen 2004). McBryde's (1984a:134) model for Aboriginal exchange systems states that goods could be exchanged for tangible material items and the intangible and meta-physical (i.e. services, knowledge and rituals). McBryde (1984a:150) identifies women, song, names and dances as tradable items, which is supported in observations by Keen (2004:354-7). It is therefore conceivable that some people in traditional Aboriginal societies also specialised, to some unknown degree, in the trade of religious, spiritual or medical services (high value services with a relatively low labour requirement). Other accounts of people specialising in non-food resource procurement are rare, but this may reflect the lack of ethnographic research into the topic during the nineteenth century.

Evidence that Aboriginal people had an active market-driven economy--that is, an economy in which the relative value of commodities exchanged as trade or gifts was linked to the forces of supply versus demand, rather than to how much effort and time it took to produce them--are also rare. However, ethnographic accounts of the Mount William quarry not only support the premise that the value of greenstone was based on a situation of high demand and low supply, but suggest that supply of stone may have been actively restricted by the Wurundjeri, which would have had the effect of pushing up the relative 'price' of the stone. For example, there was a fairly in-depth procedure for requesting a trade of stone with Billibilleri (Barak, via Howitt 1904:312; Parker 1972[1878]:154). This has been described as involving a system of messengers and pre-ordering of axes, and was a system over which Billibilleri and his family had a great deal of power and control. Whether the restricted access to the site was done purposefully to restrict supply or not is unknown.

The price of the stone appears also to have been largely based on the prestige attached to owning a greenstone axe from the Mount William quarry (McBryde 1984b:278), which would have increased demand for the item. William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived more than 30 years with the Wathaurung near Geelong between 1803 and 1835 (and whose own axe was made from Mount William greenstone), stated via his biographer Morgan (1852:96) that:
I must say something about their tomahawk; which perhaps, as a very
important instrument, ought to have been mentioned in an earlier part
of this narrative. The heads of these instruments are made from a hard
black stone, split into a convenient thickness, without much regard to
shape. This they rub with a very rough granite stone, until is it
brought to a fine thin edge, and so hard and sharp as to enable them
to fall a very large tree with it. There is only one place that I ever
heard of in that country, where this hard and splitting stone is to be
had. The natives call it karkeen; and say, that it is at a distance of
three hundred miles from the coast, inland. The journey to fetch them
is, therefore, one of great danger and difficulty; the tribes who
inhabit the immediate localities being very savage, and hostile to all
others. I was told, that it required an armed party of resolute
fighting men, to obtain supplies of this very necessary article; so
that the tomahawk is considered valuable for all purposes.

It is necessary to point out that there are a number of gross exaggerations in Morgan's writing. Mount William is approximately 120 kilometres (70 miles) north of Geelong, not 300 miles; there were Aboriginal greenstone quarries near Geelong (Dog Rocks and Ceres), and the Wurundjeri and Wathaurung were both members of the Kulin Nation, and although fighting had been reported between the two groups (e.g. Thomas 2014:9), it is unlikely that they had the level of antagonistic relationship described by Morgan. While the account is obviously dramatised, it does impress the importance and the value given to Mount William axes.

William Barak, via Howitt, further highlighted the social value of Mount William greenstone and the effort invested in obtaining it by noting an instance in which a boy from Geelong (assumedly also Wathaurung) was found to have stolen stone from Mount William:
The men met at a place apart from the camp. The old men sitting near
each other and the younger men with them. The Geelong men sat together
and Billibilleri and the Mount Macedon men together. Billibilleri had
beside him the man to whom 'he gave his word' and who spoke for him.
His name was Bungarin. Bungarin standing up spoke. He said 'Did some
of you send this young man to take tomahawk stone?' The old man of the
Geelong people said 'No we sent no one'. Then Billibilleri said to
Bungarin 'Say to the old men to tell the young man not to do so any
more, when the people speak about wanting tomahawks the old men will
send us notice'. The Geelong men said 'All right he will do so'. Then
the Geelong old men 'bounced' the young man and after that we were all
friends again (Howitt 1904:341).

Engineering tests suggest that the Geelong greenstone at Ceres and Dog Rocks had comparable hardness levels to the Mount William stone (McBryde 1978:358) so the efforts the Wathaurung went to obtain Mount William greenstone establishes the particular prestige value of that stone as opposed to that from other local sources (McBryde 1978).

It is important to note that an argument for trade in greenstone based on a market economy does not exclude trade for spiritual or supernatural services. Brumm (2010), for example, argues that the distribution of greenstone from Mount William into the Victorian Alps around the time of contact was part of a religious crisis. Axes were apparently distributed so that poles could be cut to keep holding up the sky which was thought to be in danger of falling. Hiscock (2013:76) points out, however, that ground edge axes only appear in the archaeological record in south-east Australia 3000 years ago and that the evolution of the mythology with the artefact is poorly understood. Hiscock (2013:76) suggests that the falling sky mythology may have emerged partly or entirely within the historical period. The vast distribution of Mount William greenstone, especially when it is not mirrored by the distribution of axes made from other greenstone sources, is not fully explained by the Brumm hypothesis. Spiritual frameworks for commodity exchange may have been incorporated into the commercial purpose of Mount William, since those supplying the axes would have believed they were receiving a highly valued service in exchange for the goods being provided. Therefore, these observed exchanges do not sit outside micro-economic models of the determination of exchange equivalency.

There remain many questions about the socioeconomic structure and micro-economic forces surrounding the exchange of Mount William greenstone. It is certainly not clear what Billibilleri did with the goods he received from the greenstone axe trade. It seems equally unlikely that all the goods received during trades were kept by Billibilleri himself or that the trade goods were evenly distributed as dividends to the whole of the Wurundjeri. This is because there are as many logistical restrictions to even wealth distribution as to physical wealth accumulation. There are also social hierarchy considerations and political relationships that need to be maintained.


Sahlins (1972:13) describes the hunter as an 'uneconomic man'. This position, along with other obsolete Marxist theories that posit hunter-gather socio-economic systems as a form of primitive communism with communal ownership of all resources, overly simplifies, and does a disservice to, the socio-economic systems and commercial organisation of Aboriginal people living in south -east Australia before and at contact.

Over the past 30 years neo-Marxist theories have persisted in modern anthropological and archaeological research in Australia (e.g. surrounding 'complex hunter-gatherers'; Arnold 1993, 1996; Sassaman 2004). In particular, socio-economic transitions have been suggested to have occurred in Victoria over the past 6000 years (Lourandos 1983); while a very interesting theory, they also incorporate models of change that allude to historical materialism theory. I am reluctant to refer to the late Holocene socioeconomic systems in south-east Australia as either 'transitional' or 'emergent'; rather, they were adapted to the existing, and changing, conflicting pressures of population size, the relative socio-cultural desirability and economic necessity of commodities (demand), and relative resource availability (supply).

The ethnographic evidence surrounding the Mount William quarry suggests that a market economy was influential within the Aboriginal trade networks of south-east Australia--at least for some commodities--and may have been evidence of this adaptation. The trade value of the greenstone from Mount William was so high that it enabled the Wurundjeri-willam to permanently dedicate a senior member of their community to the production of stone at Mount William. Exchange for economic advantage probably existed concurrently, and was probably integrated, with gift-giving exchanges for maintaining social connections and suppling material for supernatural and spiritual purposes, as per observations by Brumm (2010), Mauss (1990) and Weiner (1992), but this added to the desirability or demand of the commodity, which fed into the micro-economic forces and was not part of a separate philosophy of determining exchange value. As pointed out by Weiner (1992:35), the presence of inalienable possessions and gift-giving exchange is not displaced by pure economic exchange practice, or indeed vice versa.

Human relationships with things, each other and the environment are complex and are shaped by many forces. Although there are logistical restrictions to the accumulation of physical wealth in a hunter-gather society, such as storage and transport, this is not to say that individuals and communities in Aboriginal societies did not have or seek economic advantages over others. This could be obtained through the inheritance or acquisition of valuable assets, through education or achieving higher levels of initiation, and through social and political positioning. The application of an economy of favours--where favours are a medium of exchange and accumulation of favours was a method of obtaining political influence (Fijnaut and Paoli 2004)--as a hypothetical method people used to accumulate 'wealth' in societies without a physical medium of exchange is an area highlighted for further research. Other topics for further research include how traditional, commercial markets and social mechanisms may have been articulated, and the impacts of European arrival on historical ethnographic observations of "traditional' exchange mechanisms.

Our increasing understandings of different Aboriginal societies are showing them to be complex, diverse and variable across the Australian continent. As such, research needs to move beyond some existing anthropological socio-economic models to encompass this complexity.


The views contained in this paper are the author's own and not necessarily the views of the traditional owners mentioned in the text. No information used to produce this paper has come through traditional owner testimonies or through reviews of restricted reports in the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Register and Information System; all references presented in the text are available on the public record.

I would like to thank Dr Tim Pilbrow, Dr Heather Burke and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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Phillip Roberts

Australian National University

Dr Phillip Roberts has seven years' experience as a freelance archaeologist and three years' experience in undertaking background research for native title claims in Victoria. He has a PhD (Biological Anthropology) and a MA (Hons) (Archaeology) from the ANU, and a B.Eng (Mining) from the University of Ballarat.

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Date:Sep 22, 2017
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