This stone disc club was collected from the Nomad River, New Guinea, in 1968. The flat volcanic river pebble was perforated by hammer-dressing and is decorated with stripes of red, yellow, and white ochre.
The disc-shaped club-head in this model was made by perforating a naturally-shaped river pebble. These are referred to as ‘natural stone clubs’ in Haddon’s typology. The hole was likely made by pecking although abrasion and use-wear have eliminated the peck-marks. Perforation by pecking was observed by Sir William MacGregor, the Lieutenant-Governor of British New Guinea in ca. 1896, who noted that ‘They select a number of small stones of the size and shape of a rifle bullet. They chip a hole through the stone club by light blows from the point of the small stone.’ The club-head was elaborately decorated with painted stripes of red, yellow, and white ochre.
Stone-headed clubs were common weapons across New Guinea into the recent past. The influential anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon published a detailed classification system for these tools in 1900. He examined over 300 clubs collected by the Controller of Customs in New Guinea, David M. Ballantine, and some of them are now curated in the Watt Institution (McLean Museum and Art Gallery) in Scotland. Haddon’s led an anthropological expedition from Cambridge University to the Torres Strait in 1898; this research is considered an important milestone in the history of anthropology because of his use of scientific methods to collect and describe his observations.
Haddon’s classification of stone-headed clubs recognised 9 basic forms, with up to 6 subtypes for each form and up to five varieties for each subtype. He illustrated 100 different variations. Haddon observed in 1900 that ‘until recently the stone clubs were so necessary to the existence of the natives that they would not readily part with them’, noting that they were important fighting weapons. He claimed that the European pastime of collecting the stone clubs from Indigenous people was beneficial because ‘stone clubs are always associated in their minds with fighting’, so exchanging them for iron gardening tools might prevent violence.
Despite the variety of forms, Haddon suggested that the stylistic variations in the stone heads were not easily associated with tribal groups or regions because they were exchanged widely and were often acquired through raids. Most were likely made in the interior parts of the island where stone is more readily available, and were redistributed into stone-poor coastal areas. Stone-headed clubs were also used on the islands in the Torres Strait and were likely obtained in trade from New Guinea. They were carried by dancers on Mer Island as part of the Malu-Bomai Ceremony. One variant of stone head—the ‘pineapple’ or ’spruce-head’ club—is strikingly similar to pineapple club-heads carved entirely out of wood in eastern Australia, prompting the early anthropologist D. S. Davidson to claim that the style arose from early contact between Australia and New Guinea across the Torres Strait.
The New Guinea stone club heads were hafted by inserting a relatively long, thin wood handle through the hole. Handles were usually about 80 cm long, with variants up to 1.7 m long. The handle diameter increased from the end, and the stone wedged onto the handle by friction where the diameter of the wood became larger than the hole in the stone. The head was often further secured with paperbark or plaited cane above the stone. The handles differed stylistically by region but stone heads were often re-hafted throughout their use-lives. Some handles were carved with geometric shapes at the end of the grip or below the stone head. Cassowary or parrot feathers were sometimes added as a tuft above the stone head or a fringe below it, or on the end of the handle. Fur from the cuscus—a sloth-like marsupial native to New Guina—was occasionally used to enhance the decoration.
Observations by O. W. Hampton of perforated stone club heads used by Una, Kimyal, and Yali people in the New Guinea highlands in the 1980s suggests a shift in usage pattern. The Yali people remembered how they were used as clubs in the past, but they now use them as sacred power stones. Some are rubbed with pig fat and smoked to change their colour, and some are incised with geometric grooves and painted with ochre. If the hole is large enough, a perforated stone might be slid over the end of the house centre pole. Their power wards off wind and rain, prevents leaks, and protects the house from collapse.