Type:  Stone Adze

Location: Hawai'i



MoST ID: 6485

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

Model Author:  Mark Moore

This basalt stone adze is from Hawai’i.  The stone was obtained from an ancient quarry on Mauna Kea, and was likely made ca. 1400-1650 AD.

This basalt adze was made from stone from the famous adze quarry near the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i.  Mauna Kea is a massive volcano that last erupted about 4600 years ago, before the arrival of Polynesian colonisers.  The volcano rises to 4200 metres (14,000 feet) and the stone quarries extend nearly to the summit.  The volcano is sacred to Hawaiians, and Poli’ahu, a snow goddess and enemy of the fire goddess Pele, resides there above the snow line.  Traditional law in Hawai’i restricts visitors to the mountain’s summit.  The basalt that outcrops on Mauna Kea is fine-grained and was extensively quarried beginning ca. 1000 AD, with the most intensive quarry from 1400-1650 AD.  Stages of quarrying and adze blank production were spatially separated, with specialists knapping in designated workshop areas, and evidence for shelters to protect adze-makers from the snow and cold.  Ritual shrines were erected in and around the quarries and workshops.  Dense mounds of flaking debris accumulated across the landscape and Mauna Kea is the largest-known quarry in the Pacific.  Archaeologists estimate that hundreds of thousands of stone adzes were made there for trade through the archipelago.  The intensity of quarrying was likely due to the cultural importance of the Mauna Kea stone, as outcrops of fine-grained volcanic stones are widely distributed across the islands.

The adze is rectangular in cross section, and was made either by direct hard-hammer percussion or by indirect percussion using a stone punch.  The straight, right-angle platform edges suggest the use of a punch although the relatively deep bulbs and wide negative scars may suggest a care-fully controlled direct percussion technique.  In Pacific terminology, the ‘back’ of an adze is the side with the short, steep bevel, and the ‘front’ is the side with a wider grinding facet that meets the short bevel to create the cutting edge.  The adze’s front and back faces were flaked in such a way that they curved upward to the butt, or poll, of the tool, defining a distinctive hafting tang.  This was accomplished by strategic application of carefully-controlled sets of flake removals.  The poll was flaked unifacially from the back towards the front; this flaking was coarsely executed, but a small amount of grinding occurs across the arrises of these flake scars, suggesting that this was not later reworking.  The adze blank was extensively ground, entirely eliminating many of the flake scars.  The short bevel was ground with a gently curving profile to meet the back face of the adze, as is characteristic of adzes in Hawai’i.  The back was ground to create two facets with relatively abrupt transition between the two.  The wooden adze handle would have been shaped to accommodate this angle.  The surfaces of the adze are highly polished, removing most of the grinding striations.


Hafted stone adze from Hawai’i showing how the wood haft was shaped to match the angle of the stone.

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.