Type:  Stone Adze

Location: Upolu, Samoa

Age: 

Material: 

MoST ID: 6509

Pedestal Link: https://une.pedestal3d.com/r/IxAnaARvKk

This basalt stone adze is from Upolu, Samoa.  The adze was heavily reworked in prehistory and reworked again in the recent past.

The adze blank is held in trust by the Tiapapata Art Centre, Apia, Samoa.



This adze was found on the Samoan island of Upolu.  The stone is patinated to a gray colour and the arrises are lightly to moderately abraded, exposing the black basalt.  Remnant flake scars suggest that the blank was initially made by trifacial flaking.  Most of the scars from this were ground away on the angled sides of the dorsal face.  These angled sides then served as platforms for reworking the ventral surface of the adze, making it narrower.  The flakes terminated at or short of the centreline, creating a domed ventral face.  Remnants of grinding are present on the high points of this face, particularly towards the adze’s poll end.  The poll itself was steepened by unifacial flaking, and was partially ground.

The grinding facets that form the adze’s cutting edge were created in the recent past with a power tool, removing the patina and exposing the black, unpatinated stone.  This modern reworking has obscured the shape and extent of the original grinding facets, although a small patch of ancient grinding facet on the edge of the steep bevel suggests that the adze was about this length when discarded in prehistory.

The adze is Type II in Green and Davison’s adze typology for Samoa.



The migration across the Pacific Islands was the last major movement of humans into unoccupied parts of the planet.  Generations of archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists have researched this profound event, and artefacts on Pacific islands—including stone and shell adzes—have played an important role in telling the story.

The Pacific was colonised by people from the Austronesian language family.  The Austronesian homeland was in the region around Taiwan, including neighbouring islands and along the coast of China and in the Yangtze River basin.  These early Austronesians moved to Taiwan between about 12,000 and 8000 years ago.  Austronesian-speaking people migrated out of Taiwan to the northern Phillipines beginning about 5000 years ago, and also moved through Island Southeast Asia and journeyed as far west as Madagascar.

The Austronesians discovered the Mariana Islands by about 3500 years ago, becoming the first people to colonise the Pacific.  Initially they brought rice cultivation with them, but this was abandoned in later migrations.  At about the same time, people left the northern Phillipines or the Mariana Islands and began colonising the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago, mostly skirting around New Guinea.

Archaeologists refer to these people as the Lapita, defined by their distinctive technologies and subsistence practices, but particularly by pottery decorated with complex dentate-stamped designs.  The Lapita people colonised many of the Melanesian islands, eventually voyaging and settling New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga, reaching their easternmost expansion with the colonisation of Samoa around 2800 BP.

The relatively rapid migration of Lapita people into the Pacific was followed by an 1800-year pause in their eastward expansion.  The famous Pacific archaeologist Patrick Kirch proposed that evidence for breaks in contact among Lapita-occupied islands occurred around 2000 years ago, and the distinctive Polynesian culture arose from the dynamics of isolation and intermittent interaction between islands, particularly Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa.

From about 1000 BP people left Western Polynesia and began exploring and colonising the Eastern Polynesian islands.  Some Eastern Polynesian traditions identifies Savai’i in Samoa as their ancient homeland, called Hawaiki.  Researchers continue to debate the explanation for this renewed period of exploration, with one argument pointing to cultural factors or technological breakthroughs in boat design, while other researchers suggest colonisation became feasible due to a favourable change in climate and wind directions at about this time.

People arrived in the Society Islands and Cook Islands around 1025-1120 AD.  They stayed there between about 70 and 265 years.  Another pulse of exploration occurred ca. 1190-1290 AD, with groups of people colonising all of the remaining islands in Eastern Polynesia (over 500 in total) within about 100 years.  In this second pulse, people rapidly spread north to Hawai’i (ca. 1219-1266 BP) and east to Rapa Nui (Easter Island, ca. 1200-1253 BP), with one instance of interaction with South American people (either by Polynesians exploring parties landing on the continent, or South Americans encountering them on Pacific islands).  Polynesians travelled south and west at the same time, discovering and colonising Aotearoa (New Zealand, ca. 1230-1282 BP), and travelling as far west as Norfolk Island.  They may have interacted with people on the eastern coast of Australia, as suggested by Pacific-style adzes recovered from Aboriginal coastal middens.  This western and southern movement finally ended with arrival at the sub-Antarctic Auckland Island (ca. 1190-1258 BP).  Polynesians also spread northward onto a few uninhabited or little-used islands of Micronesia.  By ca. 1450 BP, most long distance ocean voyaging had ended.

The Lapita people and their descendant Polynesian cultures relied on agriculture as their subsistence base, and hafted adzes were crucially important for land clearing and the manufacture of wooden tools and weapons, voyaging canoes, elaborate houses, and ceremonial carvings.  A variety of environments were encountered by the Lapita people and the later Polynesians, including resource-rich volcanic islands and coral atolls with a more limited resource base.  Volcanic islands sometimes had tool-making stones such as basalt.  This material was widely exchanged between islands, usually in the form of stone adzes.  Basalt was often traded to coral atolls, which generally lacked flakable stone, although various species of shell—particularly the giant clam, Tridacna gigas—provided a substitute material for tools on many islands, particularly in parts of Melanesia and Micronesia.

Before the advent of radiocarbon dating, geochemical sourcing studies, and DNA analysis, archaeologists tracked the movement of people through historical linguistics and differences in stone adze styles between islands.   Stone adze types varied in shape and technology through time and across this vast region, and detailed typological schemes were designed to tease out these variations and the historical relationships between them.  The earliest Lapita adzes tended to be produced by bifacial flaking or pecking, followed by extensive grinding, and are lenticular in cross section.  Adzes of similar morphology were made from shell in Melanesia and Micronesia to the historical period.

New adze manufacturing sequences—and variations in cross section—were innovated in Samoa from 2000 BP, perhaps at the basalt stone quarries on Tutuila in American Samoa.  Most adzes were trapezoidal in cross section, with two bifacial platforms down the adze’s lateral edges.  One face was relatively broad and flat, and the opposite face sloped inward to a flat-topped central ridge.  Other variants included rectangular-sectioned adzes, made by flaking from four platform edges, and triangular-sectioned adzes, made by flaking from the lateral edges as well as a third platform edge down the central ridge on one face.  Manufacture was done by direct and perhaps indirect percussion flaking, followed by grinding.  The pecking technique was not used for adze-making in Samoa.

People colonised the Cook Islands and Society Islands in ca. 1025-1120 AD, probably originating from Samoa, and they took Samoan adze-making sequences and techniques with them.  The familiar trapezoidal-section adzes were made at new stone sources discovered by the colonisers, along with rectangular-sectioned adzes.  Trapezoidal-section adzes continued to be made on most volcanic islands until the recent past.  Significant adze-making innovation occurred in the Cook/Society Islands soon after colonisation, particularly in the development of distinctive hafting tangs which were flaked and/or pecked into the adze’s butt-end, and heavily ground.  The later colonisers of Hawai’i, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and other islands used the stone techniques pioneered by ancestors in Samoa and the Cook/Society Islands and, as before, these sequences and techniques were further elaborated at newly-discovered material sources.  In particular, the indirect percussion technique was used by expert flinknappers in Hawai’i and Aotearoa to make tanged and non-tanged adzes from fine-grained volcanic and metamorphic rocks.  Some of the finest examples of the flintknapping art world-wide are expressed in these adzes, which often measure more than 20 cm in length, and sometimes are more than twice that long.  The adzes were made by specialists (in the Cook Islands the adze-makers were called ta’unga), and the roots of these traditions can be tracked back to the large, finely-made adzes of Samoa.  On Aotearoa, stoneworkers innovated new techniques of sawing and grinding to make adzes from nephrite jade, called pounamu by Maori people.

The adze trade in the Pacific was an important tool for sociopolitical interaction between Polynesian kingdoms.  Archaeologists continue to explore the movement of stone between islands using various modern geochemical sourcing instruments and analytical techniques.  Most adzes encountered in the archaeological record are broken and highly-reduced tools that were used for everyday tasks.  However, large, well-made adzes were prestige items, and in the historical period these tools were often hafted in elaborately-carved handles, with intricate and ritualised lashings.  One famous example of this—prized by museums across the world—are the ceremonial adzes of the Cook Islands, called ruatangaeo, which were hafted on the top of elaborately-carved hollow rectangular wooden tower-like handles.  Maori stories describe the role of the sacred adzes Te Āwhiorangi and Te Whironui in important events that occurred prior to, during, and after the colonisation of Aotearoa.  These named adzes are analogous to Thor’s hammer Mjölnir in Norse mythology.  Similarly, large sacred adzes (matua toki)—originating from the female god Pakora—were made from giant clam shells in Tikopia, one of the Solomon Islands.