This obsidian macroblade knife, collected from Lou Island in 1965, is made from obsidian outcropping on Manus Island. Stoneworkers in the Admiralty Island archipelago, northeast of New Guinea, made obsidian macroblades into the historic period using a hard-hammer percussion technique.
The ‘V’ motif on this handle places it in the latest period of manufacture, ‘Period 6’ (ca. 1940 onwards), when the trade shifted from European sailors to collectors and tourists. After ca. 1918, obsidian-tipped spears were no longer made because they were difficult to transport, and daggers became virtually the only form sold. This dagger is illustrated in a publication about macroblades, Figure 5.
See the annotations for technological details about this stone tool.
Manus Island obsidian macroblades were traditionally made and exchanged by specialists who controlled the stone sources. They were used to arm the tips of spears and were carried as daggers. The Admiralty Island warriors stored bundles of two metre-long spears on canoes and threw them en masse during maritime engagements. Obsidian-tipped spears were first observed by Europeans in 1545, when a ship was attacked, and similar encounters continued into the 1870s, when this first-hand account was written: ‘The number [of spears thrown at the ship] was so great that when the battle was over nobody had the idea of making a count of them; there were so many and all were so broken (the end is made from slivers of obsidian, a very brittle material) that in order to clear the deck they were just swept into the sea. Many of the spears pierced the thick doors of the cabin and in spite of the heavy copper wire screen and thick glass two windows were pierced.’
Attacks with obsidian weapons continued through the 1890s when the German military stopped the practice. When the obsidian was no longer necessary for warfare, the weapons became items for barter with Europeans. By 1907 traditional blade production had mostly ceased, and after ca. 1918, the trade in macroblades was met by collecting macroblades from archaeological sites and hafting them. The macroblades were often retouched to make them suitable for this purpose. The handles are a putty made from plant resin applied over a bundle of sago fibres. The handle on this dagger was painted with white, red, and black pigment, as was done traditionally.