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The economics of grindstone production at Narcoonowie quarry, Strzelecki Desert.


In arid Australia the importance of grass and acacia seeds as grain led to a substantial demand by Aboriginal groups for replacement grinding slabs. This demand was met in some areas by large grindstone quarries that supplied millstones for local needs, as well as long-distance exchange networks (McBryde 1987, 1997:594; Mulvaney 1976; our terminology follows the grindstone typology set out in Smith 1985, 1986). These grindstone quarries are typically located where there are suitable sandstone outcrops on the edge of large tracts of sand plain, dune field or stony 'gibber' desert - areas where sandstone slabs are otherwise scarce. The best known examples are the quarries at Helen Springs (Kurutiti) in the Northern Territory (Mulvaney and Gunn 1995) and others in South Australia, including Anna Creek (Palthirri-pirdi), west of Lake Eyre South (Hercus 2005); Tooths Nob (Wadla wadlyu), north of Reaphook Hill in the Flinders Ranges (McBryde 1997); Charlie Swamp (Biljamana/ Pidleeomina), south of Finniss Springs Station (McBryde 1982); and the quarry complexes north and south of Cooper Creek at Innamincka (including Wild Dog Hill and McLeod's Hill) (Hiscock and Mitchell 1993; McBryde 1987, 1997).

Despite their importance for desert prehistory, there are few published plans of this type of site, and little quantitative data on the scale of grindstone production (although see McBryde 1997 and Mulvaney and Gunn 1995 for exceptions). Here, we describe Narcoonowie, a small, discrete, grindstone quarry in the Strzelecki Desert in north-eastern South Australia (Figure 1). PJ Hughes briefly recorded the quarry in 1980, during an impact assessment survey of archaeological sites in the Cooper Basin (Hughes 1980, 1983). We recently relocated it on aerial photographs. Narcoonowie now lies on a production oil field. Although a pumpjack (horsehead) well prominently occupies the crest of the dune behind the quarry, the site appears to be intact and undisturbed. During a field visit in 2008, we made a detailed survey plan of the site as the basis for some quantitative estimates of the scale of grindstone production at Narcoonowie. Dry conditions and the lack of vegetation cover during our visit provided exceptionally good ground visibility and we were able to record parts of the quarry not apparent in 1980.


The Narcoonowie quarry

The Narcoonowie quarry is made up of a series of shallow circular pits--covering a total area of 4000 square metres--excavated into a low sub-horizontal bed of sandstone exposed in a dune swale (Figures 2 and 3). The workings in the southern half of the quarry appear to be older than the rest and are much less visible on aerial photographs. Quarrying seems to have begun in the swale, where the edge of the sandstone is exposed as a low bench. As the quarry developed, the workings followed the exposed rock into the flank of the sand ridge on the western side of the swale. The superimposition of quarry pits broadly confirms this sequence: quarrying has progressively extended to the north-west over the life of the site.

The most recent quarry pits (N = 16; numbered in bold in Figure 3) can also be identified because they are shallow (40-50 centimetres deep relative to original ground surface) and have high ridges of quarry debris around their rims. The older pits (N = 23) are deeper (60-70 centimetres) but almost entirely filled with aeolian drift sand. Scavenging and reworking of debris around the older pits must have been common, as these have much less rock spoil surrounding the excavations than the younger pits (19-20 percent of excavated rock volume, compared to 29-30 percent around more recent pits) (Table 1).



Narcoonowie quarry is unusual in that it is located in the heart of the Strzelecki dune field away from obvious sources of hard rock, and some 85 kilometres south of the main Innamincka quarry complex (Figure 1). The local rock is grey coarse-grained, weakly silicified sandstone. This may be part of the Namba Formation, or perhaps sands reworked from the Eyre Formation (Gravestock et al. 1995). As the Narcoonowie outcrop is very localised and not shown on geological maps, it may represent old channel sediments rather than a widespread formation.

The sandstone at Narcoonowie has a weak tabular cleavage and could have been readily extracted by levering out slabs. There is no visible evidence that fire was used to break up the rock, and the scarcity of fuel wood in the dune field also makes this an unlikely method. Quarrying initially produced irregular, sub-angular to tabular slabs that were worked into standardised grindstone blanks in workshop areas adjacent to the quarry. The quarried slabs were thinned and shaped by bifacial flaking, then hammer-dressed on both faces to produce 'dressed' grindstone blanks (Figure 4), similar to those at the Innamincka quarries. Typical 'dressed' grindstone blanks at Narcoonowie are finely shaped ovoid milling slabs with a bi-convex cross-section, measuring 650 millimetres long by 400 millimetres wide and 100 millimetres thick. As the local sandstone is brittle, breakages appear to have been common and the working area is strewn with transversely snapped blanks in various stages of trimming. Broken blanks were reworked as smaller grinding slabs (300-400 millimetres long) (Figure 4) or as mullers (topstones). Much of this secondary trimming and reduction took place in a discrete area within 25 metres of the quarry (to the north, along the base of the sand ridge), though there are smaller discrete working areas up to 200 metres out from the quarry. In the main reduction area we noted >30 broken, partially trimmed, oval blanks ranging in size from basal milling slabs to small hand stones and one silcrete cobble with bruising and battering from use as a hammerstone.

Age of the quarry

The cycle of excavation and reworking appears to have been truncated in the more recent pits. We suggest that the latest quarry pits were abandoned not because they were exhausted but because quarrying at Narcoonowie was interrupted by the impact of pastoral occupation of the Strzelecki/ Innamincka area in the 1870s. If this is the case, some estimates of the age of the Narcoonowie quarry can be made. A probe showed that 200 millimetres of aeolian drift sand has accumulated in the younger pits. If the last major phase of quarrying ceased in 1874 (when Innamincka Station was established), then the average rate of sedimentation was 1.49 millimetres/year. Extrapolation to the older pits (with 700-800 millimetres of fill) suggests they were abandoned 500-550 years ago, indicating that quarrying at Narcoonowie might have begun around 600 BP. Although this is necessarily speculative, an age within the past millennium is consistent with the extraordinary degree of visibility and preservation of this quarry (see Figure 2). In saying this, we note that the small size of the site and its geomorphic setting make it unlikely that differential sedimentation or erosion could have created the apparent differences between 'old' and 'younger' sectors of the quarry. The structural coherence of the quarry pits and the lack of patination on exposed rock surfaces also indicate that it is unlikely this is an older site simply exhumed by wind erosion.


Estimates of production and demand

Table 1 gives estimates of the amount of sandstone removed from Narcoonowie and the number of millstones this represents (see also Figure 5).

About 196 cubic metres of sandstone has been extracted at Narcoonowie, of which around 24 percent remains on site, piled around the rim of each pit in the form of de facto stockpiling. Nearly 150 tonnes of stone has been removed from the quarry area. Assuming that each 'dressed' grindstone required a roughly quarried slab approximately 650 x 450 x 250 millimetres (0.073 cubic metres), and that most trimming was bifacial thinning, 149.8 cubic metres translates to about 2052 dressed millstone blanks. This figure represents the maximum number of large grinding slabs produced, as flaws and weaknesses in the sandstone make it unlikely that extraction of suitable quarried slabs was so efficient. Loss through breakage during trimming was also high, though many of the broken slabs were recycled as smaller grindstones.


Some idea of what these figures might represent in terms of demand for replacement grinding slabs can be calculated. These calculations are indicative at best, but serve to give an idea of the likely role of Narcoonowie in the Strzelecki economy.

* Use-life of millstones. We estimate that the use-life of a millstone is likely to have been around 1600 hours of use. This is based on our observation that for tough, non-friable, fine-grained sandstone (somewhat more resistant to wear than the Narcoonowie stone), noticeable grinding wear develops in one to two hours of use. If we assume that the minimum detectable wear is 0.25 millimetres (0.125 millimetres/hour), one groove on a slab 100 millimetres thick would have a use-life of around 800 hours. Note that this is a net figure. We acknowledge that the rate of wear is unlikely to have been linear: the build up of silica gloss on grinding surfaces indicates periods when attrition was negligible, whereas the pitting used to 'resharpen' grinding surfaces would create periods of accelerated attrition. Millstones often have two to three grooves but characteristically fracture once any one of these approaches the full thickness of the slab. We assume, therefore, that a realistic working estimate of use-life is 800 x 2 grooves = 1600 hours.

* Replacement period. Next, we need to calculate what this use-life may represent in terms of normal usage. O'Connell and Hawkes (1981:Table 5.A.4) estimated that a kilogram of grass or acacia seeds required six to six-and-a-half hours for collecting and processing--of which three to six hours was grinding time. A review of the ethnography of the Cooper Basin (Jones 1979:Chapter 4) indicates that native cereals (grass, acacia and portulaca seeds) were heavily utilised for three to four months each year. If we assume that average daily preparation of seed foods was 0.5 kilogram/adult woman, requiring two hours of grinding, and that this level of consumption took place on 90 days each year (three months), this represents some 180 hours of grinding time per woman per year. Using these fairly conservative estimates of usage, the effective use-life of a millstone would be eight to nine years (8.9 years) and less if several related women shared a grindstone (e.g. Hamilton 1980). In practice, each woman (or group of closely related women) would have had several millstones in concurrent use, as these large implements were usually left at residential sites near stands of seed species (Hamilton 1980:8). This means that individual millstones may have had replacement periods of 20-30 years, though net effective replacement rate is unaffected.

* Local demand for replacement grinding slabs. In much of Central Australia, millstones were women's implements, though their acquisition and production was in the hands of men (Hamilton 1980). If we assume there were 500 persons in a language group, of which half were female (250), of which half were adult women (125), and that each women had her own grindstone(s), then the Yandruwantha (whose country the Narcoonowie quarry is in) would need to replace 14 millstones per annum (125/8.9) or 1400 per century.

These figures suggest that Narcoonowie could have met local demand for replacement grinding slabs for no more than 150 years. Even if we double the estimated use-life of millstones (to 17.8 years), Narcoonowie could only have fully met local demand for 300 years. Although such calculations are speculative, our general conclusions about the capacity of the quarry are robust and accommodate considerable uncertainty in the underlying estimates of total production, use-life, replacement period or demand.

Discussion: The regional context of production

Narcoonowie lies between two major complexes of grindstone quarries: those at Innamincka in Yandruwantha country and those north of Reaphook Hill in the Flinders Ranges in Adnyamathanha country (Figure 6). West of Lake Eyre South, another major quarry was important in the acquisition and distribution of grindstones. This was Palthirri-pirdi on Anna Creek Station in Arabana Country (Hercus 2005; McBryde 1987), which was part of a node connecting the north-south networks with those distributing grindstones to the west and into the Simpson Desert.


Strzelecki Creek itself was an important cultural route for the movement of people and goods, and also part of a long-distance exchange network linking the Gulf of Carpentaria and the peoples of the Cooper Basin and, through them, those further to the west and south-west. For instance, Dieri people on Cooper Creek acquired millstones from the quarries near Reaphook Hill on the return journey from the Pukardu ochre mine in the Flinders Ranges. Grindstones from these quarries have been identified in museum collections from Boulia, a thousand kilometres to the north (McBryde 1997:594).

The goods acquired from the great quarries at Innamincka, Reaphook Hill and Anna Creek held more than utilitarian values. Stories and song-cycles commemorate the creation and importance of these quarries in traditions that embody social mores--enhancing the value of millstones from these sources in the exchange networks. Access to the major quarries was also carefully regulated. Adnyamathanha oral traditions in the Flinders Ranges record that the Reaphook Hill quarries of Wadla wadlyu were strictly controlled; acquisition by 'outsiders' was closely organised by their local owners (Fred Teague, personal communication to Isabel McBryde, 1990).

Supplementing the major grindstone quarries was a second tier of quarries based on smaller sources, exploited less intensively, and serving the needs of communities within their local area. This difference is documented both in the distribution of surface finds and in petrological analyses of museum collections of grindstones sourced to known quarries. It is also recognised in contemporary local Aboriginal knowledge (Isabel McBryde, field discussions at Charlie Swamp with Arthur Warren in 1982 and with Fred Teague at Hawker in 1990; and see McBryde 1997:594). Some examples of these smaller sandstone quarries include those recorded by McBryde at Wimbirina (near Charlie Swamp) and west of Lake Frome, at Prism Hill (Vardna warta-thinha) and along the northern slope of the long ridge south of Prism Hill (Viribartinha) (McBryde 1982, 1990, 1997:592).

For Narcoonowie, we have as yet no ethnographic record of its use and significance, its place in local mythology, or even its true name (our use of 'Narcoonowie' derives from the name given to a nearby oil well). However, it seems likely that many of the grindstones produced here were used locally within the Strzelecki Desert, as Hughes (1980:13) found implements of Narcoonowie stone widely distributed within 65 kilometres of the quarry. This suggests that the primary role of Narcoonowie may have been to meet local demand for replacement grinding slabs. In future, petrological analysis of grindstones in museum collections--and on surface sites--could test this, establishing the distribution of implements from this quarry.


Despite the impressive appearance of Narcoonowie, the quarrying here was on a much smaller scale than at Innamincka or at Reaphook Hill in the Flinders Ranges. Our calculations suggest that Narcoonowie was a small satellite quarry, probably supplementing grindstone production at the major quarry complexes. Given the poor quality of the sandstone, it is likely that much of its production was used within the local Strzelecki Creek area. If we are correct in suggesting that quarrying began at Narcoonowie around 600 BP, this was much later than the main Innamincka grindstone quarries, where at least the northern part of the complex appears to have been operating by 2000 BP. This is suggested by a [sup.14]C date of 1700+/-140 BP (Beta-30777) on charcoal in a sealed context at the base of a quarry pit on McLeod's Hill (RA Luebbers, personal communication, March 2007). Moreover, Narcoonowie had only limited capacity and could have met local demand for replacement millstones for only a fraction of this period. Even within the past 600 years, use of the quarry must have been episodic. In this context, the history of Narcoonowie reflects a late expansion of quarrying and grindstone production, drawing in a marginal site in the dune field to meet increasing demand for millstones from the local subsistence economy.


MAS thanks Philip Hughes for assistance in locating the Narcoonowie quarry, 28 years after his brief visit in May 1980. Danny Galbraith (National Geospatial Reference Systems, Geoscience Australia) converted the now obsolete R502 series map coordinates. Our work at Narcoonowie was facilitated by SANTOS: we thank its staff at Dullingari for assistance in the field, Martin Rieck (Manager of Merty Merty station), Trevor Whitelaw (SANTOS Stakeholder Liaison) and the SANTOS Native Title/Cultural Heritage section for permission to visit the Narcoonowie quarry. 4X4 Australia magazine and Land Rover Australia provided field vehicles. In particular, we thank our field team for very welcome assistance in drafting the survey plan of the quarry: Sheila and Tony Walker, Kez and Alan Whiting, and Stan and Robyn Gruzlewski. Figures 1, 4 and 5 are by MAS. Karina Pelling (ANU Cartography) prepared Figure 3 from our original field plans. Figure 6 has been redrawn (by MAS) from an original by Isabel McBryde and Winifred Mumford. Roger Luebbers generously allowed us to quote his unpublished radiocarbon date for the McLeod's Hill quarry. In addition, IMcB would like to express her thanks to those who have assisted, guided or advised her in the field over many years: Scott Cane, Barry Cundy, Chippy Flash, Willy Harris, Philip Jones, Pare and Colin Macdonald, Pearl McKenzie, John McEntee, Robert Paton and Vlad Potezny. She remembers with gratitude the advice of Cecil Ebsworth, Ben Murray, Fred Teague and Arthur Warren. Special thanks are due to Luise Hercus for sharing her deep knowledge of the region, its languages and traditions.


Gravestock, David 1, Roger A Callen, Elinor M Alexander and Anthony J Hill 1995 Strzelecki, South Australia, Explanatory Notes, 1:250,00 Geological Series--Sheet SH/54-2, Geological Survey of South Australia, Adelaide.

Hamilton, Annette 1980 'Dual social systems: Technology, labour and women's secret rites in the eastern Western Desert of Australia', Oceania 51:4-19.

Hercus, Luise 2005 'A hole in the ground and a quarry' in I Macfarlane, M-J Mountain and R Paton (eds), Many Exchanges: Archaeology, history, community and the work of Isabel McBryde, Aboriginal History Monograph 11, Aboriginal History Inc., Canberra, pp. 185-98.

Hiscock, Peter and Scott Mitchell 1993 Stone Artefact Quarries and Reduction Sites in Australia: Towards a type profile, Australian Heritage Commission, Technical Publications Series No. 4, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Hughes, Philip J 1980 Aboriginal archaeological sites in the SANTOS development areas at Redcliff and in the Cooper basin, unpublished report to SANTOS, Natural Systems Research Pty Ltd, Port Melbourne.

--1983 An Archaeological Survey of the Replacement Moomba-Wilton Gas Pipeline, Strzelecki Desert, S.A.--A report to the Pipeline Authority, Canberra City, ACT, ANUTECH, ANU Archaeological Consultancies, Canberra.

Jones, Warwick 1979 Up the creek: Hunter-gatherers in the Cooper Basin, unpublished BA (Hons) thesis, University of New England, Armidale, NSW.

McBryde, Isabel 1982 The archaeology of places on the proposed pipeline routes from Lake Eyre South to Roxby Downs, unpublished report to Kinhill Sterns, Adelaide.

--1987 'Goods from another country: Exchange networks and the people of the Lake Eyre basin' in DJ Mulvaney and JP White (eds), Australians to 1788, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, Broadway, NSW, pp.253-73.

--1990 The Flinders Ranges and the archaeology of Aboriginal exchange networks: A community report, unpublished report.

--1997 '"The landscape is a series of stories". Grindstones, quarries and exchange in Aboriginal Australia: A Lake Eyre case study' in A Ramos-Millan and A Bustillo (eds), Siliceous Rocks and Culture, University of Granada, Granada, pp.587-607.

Mulvaney, John 1976 'The chain of connection: The material evidence' in N Peterson (ed.), Tribes and Boundaries in Australia, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, pp.72-94.

Mulvaney, Ken and Robert G Gunn 1995 'Like a newspaper': A report on the sacred and archaeological site Kurutiti for the Aboriginal custodians and the Australian Heritage Commission, unpublished report, Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, Darwin.

O'Connell, James F and Kristin Hawkes 1981 'Alyawara plant use and optimal foraging theory', in B Winterhalder and EA Smith (eds), Hunter-gatherer Foraging Strategies: Ethnographic and archaeological analyses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.99-125.

Smith, Mike 1985 'A morphological comparison of Central Australian seedgrinding implements and Australian Pleistocene-age grindstones', The Beagle: Occasional Papers of the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences 2(1):23-38.

--1986 'The antiquity of seedgrinding in arid Australia', Archaeology in Oceania 21:29-39.

Mike Smith

Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia


Isabel McBryde

School of Social Sciences, College of the Arts and Social Sciences,

The Australian National University

June Ross

School of Humanities, University of New England
Table 1: Estimates of the volume of stone removed at Narcoonowie

                                 Exhausted pit   Active pit
                                     (#26)          (#1)

Pit diameter (m)                     7.65          10.0
Pit depth (1) (m)                    0.65           0.44
Excavated volume (m (3))             9.96          11.52
Rim spoil (m (3))                    1.95           3.39
Rim spoil (%)                       19.6           29.5
Net volume removed (5) (m (3))       8.01           8.13
Equiv. no. grindstone blanks          110           111

                                 Estimates used in   Entire quarry
                                   calculations        (39 pits)

Pit diameter (m)                      5.86 (2)            --
Pit depth (1) (m)                     0.56 (3)            --
Excavated volume (m (3))              5.03              196.17
Rim spoil (m (3))                     1.19                --
Rim spoil (%)                        23.6 (4)             --
Net volume removed (5) (m (3))        3.84              149.8
Equiv. no. grindstone blanks         53                 2052

Notes: (1) From natural ground surface to rock base of excavated pit.
(2) Mean of 39 pits ranging from 3.3-11.1 metres diameter. (3)
Weighted for 23 exhausted pits and 16 active pits. (4) Weighted to
account for the difference between exhausted and active pits. (5)
Excavated volume minus material remaining around rim as spoil. These
figures are based on the extent of quarry exposures in August 2008.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH REPORT
Author:Smith, Mike; McBryde, Isabel; Ross, June
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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