Barema (Papouasie- Nouvelle Guinée):A flaked obsidian tools cache

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Complete obsidian stemmed tool found by workmen at Barema plantation, near Hargy, New Britain, PNG. Image: Peter White © Australian Museum 

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 the General Manager at Barema oil palm plantation on New Britain Island. The company was in the process of bulldozing the side of a hill to make a house terrace. In the process they had uncovered a group of finely worked obsidian (volcanic glass) tools. A workman had recognized the obsidian as something belonging to the time of his ancestors and rescued a large tool before it could be crushed by the bulldozer.


The site at Barema where the workmen found the obsidian tools. Image: Peter White © Australian Museum 

Stemmed 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.”

Based on my astonishment at the find and my advice that it was extremely important, the General Manager stopped work at the site until I and my colleagues Dr. Peter White and Dr. Nina Kononenko from the University of Sydney could travel to Hargy Oil Palms, Ltd., on the north coast of the island near Bialla, a long dusty drive from Hoskins airport.”

By the time we arrived late one afternoon, the workmen had recovered a number of broken parts of other tools identical to the complete artefact.”

A definite typology

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.

The set suddenly came together to create a definite type that might have been widely used on New Britain. Using a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument set up on the veranda of the plantation guest house, 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.

What was their function?

Dr Torrence thinks that the high level of skill required to make the smooth rounded end of the tool and then retouch the stem cannot be overemphasised. “Modern knappers with long experience are unanimous in their praise of the prehistoric tool makers. This suggests that they were used to create and support status differences within local groups.”

They 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.”

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.

Still this remarkable find opens up an ancient world peopled by individuals with meaningful and creative lives, some of whom skilfully crafted beautiful objects and others who used these to show off their prowess or wealth, to increase fertility, or through initiations to ensure perpetuity for their clan.”

The cache of tools is now housed at the National Museum of PNG in Port Moresby.


Torrence, R., White, P., Kononenko, N. 2013. Meaningful stones: obsidian stemmed tools from Barema, New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Australian Archaeology 77: 1-8. - See more at: