The traditional country of the Widi People covers a quarter of a million hectares west of Mackay, Queensland. Widi country includes open sclerophyll woodlands typical for this part of Australia, and large parts of it are covered in silcrete cobbles—a valuable toolmaking stone for the ancestors of the Widi. The European colonisers discovered vast quantities of high-quality coal under the regional landscape, and large modern open-cut mines are scattered across east-central Queensland to tap this resource and feed an insatiable international market. A large coal mine is located on Widi country.
Removing the coal requires first removing the land that covers it, and this in turn requires the removal of all of those signs of traditional Widi stone-working. The mining company funds this cultural heritage work so the mine can proceed, employing Widi field technicians to walk the country, identify sites, and remove the endangered artefacts. The Widi have engaged Turnstone Archaeology as their independent technical advisors for archaeology and heritage work on Widi country. The mine began operating in 2003, and it is estimated that over one million stone artefacts have been removed from the landscape in advance of the mining operations. They are stored on-country in large sheds the mining company built for this purpose.
The Widi have struggled to maintain their hands-on tradition of stone flaking due to generations of social upheaval caused by warfare and conflict with the European colonisers, coerced labour in the introduced pastoral economy, and assimilation policies of governments and Christian missionaries. Moving forward, the Widi wish to revitalise technological aspects of their culture by re-learning the hands-on aspects of stone flaking which they can re-integrate with their traditional world view. They also have an eye to the future for their young people and plan to put some of them through university to train as archaeologists, replacing Turnstone Archaeology with Widi scientists.
I am a research advisor (lithics) to Turnstone Archaeology, and on behalf of the Widi they invited me to have a look at this enormous assemblage and begin the process of reverse-engineering the methods and techniques that Widi ancestors used to flake stone into tools. The Widi were interested in what a specialist in stone-flaking technology could add to their traditional knowledge about stone tools.
Extrapolating from current dating for human occupation of Australia, we can say that Widi People were probably making stone tools on-country for 40,000 years, and perhaps even longer. The Widi People find this Western scientific perspective interesting but unsurprising; they know that the Widi have always been here.
The stone tools collected from the mine are from the surface and are undated. Most were probably made in the last 5000 years or so, but some may be much older. The landscape at the mine has still-living trees marked with scars from bark removal for making shields and multi-use carrying vessels called ‘coolamons’, among other things. These scarred trees attest to traditional occupation of the land through the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Some of the stone tools may also be from the relatively recent past.
The Widi Stone Tool Workshop was done in three parts. In the first part, I looked at thousands of stone tools the Widi identified as especially interesting and important. These tools were the end-points of stone-flaking ‘trajectories’, and we discussed in detail how the flintknappers had produced those tools from the stones that outcropped on the landscape. While I examined and photographed these tools, Widi technicians were busy inventorying and cataloguing artefacts they collected during the last work session. We also made a site visit in an area scheduled for mine expansion to see stone artefact scatters and silcrete outcrops in their undisturbed locations.
Widi stone technology proved to be fascinating, with many surprising features and amazing artefacts. Because the size of the collection is so large, rarely-encountered tools were more abundant than I was expecting. We looked at hundreds of retouched flakes and began to see repeated patterns that might not be apparent in smaller collections. I think there is much valuable research to be done with a large collection like this, to see if intuitively-identified retouching patterns can be supported through empirical analysis. We discovered good evidence for heat-treatment of stone, and we documented several different approaches to stone axe manufacture. The edges on some of the ground-edge axes were expertly made and still sharp today.
Horsehoof cores are particularly abundant, with clear examples with various types of use-wear, and the assemblage is probably the largest curated collection of these tools in Australia. We discovered that Burren Adzes were almost always made from fossilised wood and high-quality mudstone, and the same is true for Eloueras, despite the abundance of locally-available silcrete. Most surprising were three tool types in the collection with no evidence than they were made on the mine site: one classic Tula Adze slug, one pressure-flaked Pirri Point, and one unifacially retouched Macroblade Point. We talked about how they may have been traded into Widi country from groups farther west who are known to make these types of tools. The stone for the axes was not available locally, so some of them were probably traded to the Widi. You can see examples of these tools types, from other parts of Australia, in the models displayed in the Museum of Stone Tools.
In the second part of the Workshop, I gave a seminar on the mechanics of stone fracture and how flintknappers can manipulate those mechanics to achieve effects. I talked about how archaeologists can use the attributes of fracture to infer what past flintknappers were trying to achieve, covering much of the information available in this part of the Museum. Even though the participants had no formal background in archaeology, all the Widi were exceptionally familiar with stone tools, and the in-depth questions and technical discussions sounded just like those in an archaeology seminar in a university classroom.
This brought to mind what I was taught many years ago by Elders in northwest Queensland. They explained how they conceived of what they call ‘Law’ in their belief system. Law is a way to conceptualise the rules that govern the behaviour of every object and living thing in the universe, as well as the way that everything must relate to everything else. The Elders told me that my conception of fracture mechanics and stone flaking, in their perspective, describes the Law that stone must follow. If we want to make proper tools, we have to respect the stone Law and behave the right way in relation to it, because the stone cannot violate its Law, and we mustn’t ask it to. If we don’t work in relation to the stone’s Law, we will not be able to make proper tools. There are many layers of cosmological significance in this way of knowing, but the Elders simplified it for me as an ignorant archaeologist who hadn’t undergone cultural initiation. Our discussions at the Widi Stone Tool Workshop returned time-after-time to fracture mechanics and stone-flaking fundamentals, and this served as the common ground where Western perspectives overlapped Widi traditional knowledge.
The third part of the Workshop was the stone-flaking itself, held in the compound where the stone artefacts are stored. Silcrete cobbles and quartzite pebble hammerstones were already stockpiled there, and I began with a demonstration of the basic elements of hard-hammer percussion flaking. During the demonstration I made a horsehoof core from a very large flake blank from a boulder of silcrete I knapped earlier. I discovered that tabular rhyolite pieces with good flaking characteristics were used to line a drainage channel at the mine camp; I demonstrated bifacial flaking on this material, and made several bifacial axe blanks for edge-grinding. They resulted in lovely chocolate-coloured stone axes. Next I took each person through the process of controlled flaking, setting up their hands and showing them the percussion-flaking gestures. Once they got the hang of the gestures and angles, they were set loose to continue on their own, and most of the silcrete cobbles were reduced into useful cutting tools. We sat under the awning for several hours, flaking and yarning.
Stone-flaking had returned to Widi country!
The Widi have agreed to a trial collaboration where they send me an important stone tool, we make the 3D model and put it in the Museum for all people to see and learn from, and the tool is returned back to country. Watch for the model in coming months!
The horsehoof core sent to MoST by the Widi has been successfully modelled and returned back to country. You can see the model here and read all about horsehoof cores. This is an outstanding example of type, showing carefully-controlled step-flaking around the perimeter to prepare the core for use. The core base was also used as a hammerstone. Be sure to look at the model’s annotations!
We also printed three copies of the Widi horsehoof core. We sent two of these to the Widi along with the artefact, and kept one for the University of New England teaching collection. The 3D model is open access and the files are downloadable, so anyone with access to a 3D printer can print their own Widi horsehoof core.
The Widi Stone Tool Workshop was made possible by the mining company in consultation with Antonino Tucci and Daniel Jones (Turnstone Archaeology) and the Cultural Heritage Investigation and Management Agreement Committee. Committee members include Athol Goltz, Graham Sauney, Linda Budby, Paul Butterworth, Ronald Watson, Ken Peters-Dodd (Widi); and Alan Shaw, Brian French, and Jack Caldwell (the mine representatives). The workshop was held at the mine on 26-28 March, 2023. Widi Traditional Owners who participated in the analysis and workshop included Ross Sauney, Jordan Adams, Nazarene Walsh, Paul Butterworth, Athol Goltz, Ronald Watson, Tallara Watson, Linda Sailor, Lisa Boah, and Paul Gibson. Frank Puran and Don Bridgeman also attended the workshop. Tyde Sauney facilitated the work on behalf of the mining company. Special thanks to Widi People of the Nebo Estate #1 (QCD2019/004).