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6 December 2013
Obsidian cache intrigues archaeologists

A beautiful and expertly-flaked obsidian tool which formed part of a cache, rescued from a development site, offers a greater insight into the lives of ancient people that inhabited the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
     In October 2010 Dr Robin Torrence a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum Reseach Institute was contacted by Barema oil palm plantation company, that in the process of bulldozing the side of a hill had uncovered a group of finely worked obsidian (volcanic glass) tools.
     The shape belongs to a group known as 'stemmed tools' because the handles resemble the stem of a leaf. The tools are very rare artefacts that date to between about 10,000 and 3,000 years ago, a period for which there is very little archaeological information from the island regions of PNG.
     Dr Torrence explained: "What was even more amazing is that this particular stone was flaked into a shape whose profile is unmistakeably meant to be a penis." Workmen had recovered a number of broken parts of other tools identical to the complete artefact - all in all there were two definite and two possible tools with the same phallic shape. These brought into perspective a stemmed tool collected in the 1980's from the Apugi Island offshore from the south coast of New Britain and another Dr Torrence had only recently discovered in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.
     Using a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument Dr Torrence measured the chemical composition of the tool. The results showed that all the tools collected at Barema had come from the Kuatu-Bao obsidian source located some 100 km away by sea, where they were probably made and then reached Barema through trading networks.
     Dr Torrence thinks that the tools could have been used to signify male potency or within initiation ceremonies for either sex. "The finding of a cache may indicate a high status burial (bones do not preserve in these acidic volcanic soils) or perhaps a place where powerful objects were stored, such as a men's house. From the shape it seems that the male sexuality was among the traits that played a significant role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of the ancient people at Barema," Dr Torrence concludes.
     The researcher explained that archaeological work in PNG is still in its early stages and in New Britian there have been no villages excavated from this time period. The cache of tools is now housed at the National Museum of PNG in Port Moresby.

Edited from Past Horizons (26 November 2013)

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