Type:  Stone Adze Blank

Location: Upolu, Samoa



MoST ID: 6491

Pedestal Link: https://une.pedestal3d.com/r/0YmQEEWGs9

Model Author:  Mary-Anne Stone

This basalt stone adze blank is from Upolu, Samoa.  The adze blank is exceptionally large and well-made, and may have been intended  as a prestige adze.

The adze blank is owned by the Voka family in Upolu, and the making of the 3D model in Australia was facilitated by the Tiapapata Art Centre, Apia, Samoa.

This spectacular basalt adze blank was found on the Samoan island of Upolu.  It was found near the sub-village of Potini Sa’anapu by a member of the family of Ulufanua and Talimai Voka, who live on the land, which also includes an ancient star mound.  The adze blank displays expert workmanship, and its enormous size—measuring just over 30 cm long and weighing 2.8 kg—suggests that it may have been intended as a prestige adze.  The stone is black basalt that has patinated to a gray colour.  The arrises are slightly rounded and recent handling has abraded the patination off of some of the high points, exposing the black stone underneath.  The brown staining on the adze blank’s cutting edge is on top of the patination and was likely deposited during a recent attempt to chop green wood.  The cutting edge is undamaged although it appears to be slightly rounded and polished.  A small patch of unidentified resinous residue is present near this edge, also overlying the patination.

All of the faces of the adze are covered by percussion scars, and the original form of the stone is unknown.  However, given the length and thickness of the blank, and the amount of attrition that must have occurred during the manufacturing process, it was unlikely to have been made on a flake blank; rather, the blank was probably made on a cobble or bedrock slab.  The source of the stone has not been identified.
The blank was made by striking flakes bifacially from two lateral edges and a ridge down the dorsal face, in a trifacial reduction strategy.  This resulted in a triangular cross-section across the proximal one-third of the blank.  It appears as though the initial flaking was towards the dorsal side of the blank (the face with the central ridge), although the flaking in later stages has eliminated most of these earlier scars.  Flake scar ordering suggests that the adze was frequently flipped during reduction, with flakes removed from alternate sides (as opposed to long sets of unifacial removals).

Percussion flaking was organised and delivered so that the ventral surface of the adze was relatively flat, but the sides were excurvate, resulting in a slightly rounded morphology.  This is clearly seen in the profile at the poll end of the blank.  The excurvate sides were achieved by ensuring that the hard-hammer flakes propagated to the approximate centre of the face and ended in feather terminations.  Since the percussion bulbs at the distal ends of the flakes were thicker than the terminations, the effect was to slightly undercut the platform edge.  These scars were then met by striking flakes from the opposite platform, using the same technique, and enhancing the excurvate shape.  This curvature was avoided on the ventral surface of the adze by striking the flakes more invasively so that they travelled past the centreline.  When met from flakes struck from the opposite edge, the result was a flatter profile.  A final series of non-invasive flakes were struck in various locations to refine the adze blank’s edges, partly to establish the gradual taper from the blank’s cutting edge to the poll.

The poll of the adze blank was flattened by steep unifacial flaking to the dorsal surface from the flake scars created in flattening the ventral surface.  Given the steepness of these scars—oriented at nearly a right angle to the ventral surface—combined with the thickness of the blank, it is likely that this process trimmed ca. 2 to 3 cm from the blank’s length.

The short-bevel was created by a series of unifacial flaking struck towards the blank’s ventral surface, defining the adze’s back (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).  Several series of flake removals were likely necessary to achieve the desired angle, further shortening the adze blank by ca. 2 or 3 cm.  The steeply-bevelled edge was next used as the platform for striking the end-thinning flakes from the adze’s dorsal surface, and establishing the adze blank’s front.  The main blows were struck from the edges of the platform, oriented obliquely towards the adze’s centreline, rather than directly down the centreline.  Two large end-thinning flakes were struck in this way, followed by shorter flakes struck from the middle of the edge to contour the arris between the larger scars.  It is possible that earlier end-thinning ‘guide’ flakes were also struck prior to these, but they were eliminated by the later scars.  One of the end-thinning flakes propagated over half-way down the adze’s centre ridge, or nearly 19 cm.  The flake was guided by the bifacial ridge prepared down the centre of the face; this technical strategy is similar to the initial production of elongated scars on cores in blade-making technologies elsewhere in the world.  The adze blank’s cutting edge was refined by bifacial non-invasive trimming.

The adze blank was not ground, and this blank may have been an export product from the quarry.  The shape of the adze blank suggests that the finished adze would have been a Type IX, Type XI, or, if substantially ground, a Type X in Green and Davidson’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.