Author Archives: munt0013

Who Needs Lost Cities?

By Simon Munt, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

OK, we didn’t find lost cities, the Holy Grail or Don Bradman’s first cricket bat. But on our April 2015 field school at the Magpie Creek ruin in Sturt Gorge Recreation Park, South Australia, we learned a lot of new skills about archaeological excavation!

One essential skill was that at sites such as this we would need to excavate not in arbitrary spits, but according to the natural stratigraphy. Given that our main research aims concerned the spatial arrangements of this historical cottage and how people lived in it, we used the ‘context system’, which emphasises horizontal excavation. Deeper, more vertical methods would be more useful for projects requiring a finer chronological resolution.

So this meant that we had to be on constant look-out for new ‘contexts’. An archaeological context is any discrete entity e.g. a change in the nature of the soil; a new stratigraphic layer; a pit feature; a wall; a post-hole etc. Several contexts can exist in one layer.

Our group was lucky enough to spread our anticipation of our first subterranean context over an entire day of bicep-building rock clearing! We then gained some vital skills and understandings:

  1. To pay particular attention to soil changes and to then test these appropriately
  2. To avoid digging into new contexts before completing and recording previous ones
  3. To keep all information from each context completely separate from others and fully and accurately labelled.

Eventually we found 6 contexts in our 1 m (width) x 2.23 m (length) x approx. 1 m (depth) trench. These included:

  • The surface layer of rubble (Figure 1) and
  • The brick floor of the chimney/ fireplace (Figure 2) (prior to reaching bricks this had been a different context, consisting of soil)
  • A mortar layer (Figure 2)
  • A ‘living floor,’ where most artefacts were recovered (Figure 2); and
  • A natural, ‘rammed earth’ floor (Figure 2).
Figure 1. Our trench, ‘context 0000’: surface rubble, after some clearing. Image: author.

Figure 1. Our trench, ‘context 0000’: surface rubble, after some clearing. Image: author.

Figure 2. Our trench at the end of all excavation. Image: author.       = context 0002, brick floor of chimney/ fireplace       = context 0003, mortar        = context 0004, a ‘living floor’       = context 0006, natural, ‘rammed earth’ (white arrow = magnetic north)

Figure 2. Our trench at the end of all excavation. Image: author.

– Upper section containing scale rod:chimney/ fireplace.

– Far left section, medium brown colour: mortar.

– Slightly raised, darker brown section, with white arrow:  occupation layer.

– Larger, lighter brown area: natural or ‘rammed earth’ layer.

(White arrow = magnetic north)

As for artefacts, who needs cities, grails and bats when we found an array of glass shards, a unique metal name plate, a bullet shell, mother-of-pearl buttons, animal bones and even some ceramics. After all, what would be more helpful for our research questions?

And for those of you who are keen to find out more about Sturt Gorge Recreation Park, which is right near Flinders University, check out the Friends of Sturt Gorge website:

For more information about archaeological excavation techniques, have a look at: Burke, H. and C. Smith 2004 The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, pp.115-162.

Secrets from Rocks Crossing

Marks left by the mysterious weapons used in a civil war between gracile and robust Homo sapiens descending from H. erectus and a splinter group of H. floresiensis, having arrived in Australia after separate, multiple waves of migration from South-east Asia? Divots left from axes that doubled as prehistoric bats in what were in fact the first Test matches in a game called cricket that was actually invented by Indigenous Australians? Although such conclusions may hold some popular appeal, my analysis of axe grinding grooves at north Queensland’s (Qld) Rocks Crossing site hints at very different, but in my view no less exciting, possibilities.

You may recall from my last blog the idea that axe trading occurred from north Qld to areas south including the Lake Eyre Basin, New South Wales and Victoria. Analysis of the Rocks Crossing axe grinding grooves lends support to the notion that north Queensland was a major axe production region. Further, based on overall consistencies of dimensions among Rocks Crossing’s 423 axe grinding grooves, there is support for Hiscock’s (2005) proposition that standardised axe manufacture was occurring. In turn, Hiscock has argued that this standardisation is a strong indicator of trade.

To add weight to these suggestions, further research could occur concerning the degree to which, if any, smaller axe grinding grooves reflect the resharpening of axes as distinct from their original manufacture. Should this be the case, smaller grooves found further south may support particular directions of these trade routes.

This study has also been able to update the 1993 tally of 129 axe grinding groove sites in Qld to 220. Although current information is not precise enough about exact locations to enable plotting all 220 on a map, some of the major areas containing axe grinding grooves include Mt Isa, parts around the Norman River, Black Spring, Woolgar River, Esmeralda, Western Downs and the Bowen Basin. It is likely that there exists many more, as many have been found in areas which have been the focus of intense development related surveys in recent years- so as this expands so too might axe grinding groove findings. For those interested in finding out more about Aboriginal cultural heritage in Qld, go to

Regrettably, I have come to the end of a fascinating investigation, but hopefully only the start of further research. This has been a watershed project for my own development in the field and an immeasurably valuable introduction to the world of archaeological research. Working through a genuine archaeological brief for the first time has provided me with a deep sense of pride and fulfilment and given me an intense desire to enmesh myself further in archaeological work. I hope you’ve enjoyed following this project and thanks go to my Industry Partner, Wallis Heritage Consulting, on whose website my full report will appear in due course:

Hiscock, P. 2005 Standardised axe manufacture at Mount Isa. In I. Macfarlane, M.J. Mountain and R. Paton (eds), Many Exchanges: Archaeology, history, community and the work of Isabel McBryde, pp.287-300. Aboriginal History Monograph 11. Canberra: Aboriginal History.

An Axe to Grind

Last time we looked at axe grinding grooves, but now I’d like to bring you really close to the edge!

How? By having a look at edge-ground axes, the production of which resulted in the grooves I’ve been looking at for my Directed Study!

The first step Indigenous people had to undertake when manufacturing such an axe was to source the best available raw material. Extreme hardness and toughness were vital, with material like basalt being ideal.

Such material then needed to be flaked into the general desirable shape for grinding to then occur. After grinding to polish the edge to a suitable state of sharpness, the final products were sometimes used as hand-axes, but hafting the axe head on to a wooden handle was also common.

Image Image  Image

A selection of edge ground axes from north-west Queensland (images courtesy of Lynley Wallis).

Edge ground axes are known to have been widely distributed via extensive trade systems across Australia and sometimes their manufacture occurred at significant distances from their raw material sources and points of trade.

It appears that northern Queensland was a significant axe manufacturing area. Trade from northern Queensland seems to have extended far south into New South Wales and perhaps even into Victoria. It also most likely followed another route, from the Mt Isa region into the Lake Eyre Basin. While axe technology itself is considerably older, their trade within and from Queensland may only have extended as far back as 1000 years ago.

One of the main related research questions to explore in seeking to clarify the nature of such trade is the extent to which there was standardisation of axe manufacture. Standardisation is a strong indicator of trade. As such, determining spatial and temporal patterns of standardisation can prove enlightening.

My analysis of the Rocks Crossing axe grinding grooves, while also exploring whether patterns exist that might relate to other questions, is so far hinting at standardisation of manufacture. Analysis would also of course have to be done on axes themselves that have been found across possible trade routes.

One challenging question is the extent to which different dimensions of axe grinding grooves might reflect axe resharpening, rather than original production. If smaller grooves reflect resharpening, then grooves found in NSW and Victoria may be able to be linked to axes traded from Queensland (although there always exists the possibility that people may, as they moved, have kept their own axes rather than engaged in trade).

For any conclusions on this and other possibilities keep a look out for my upcoming final blog!

For those seeking further reading, valuable insights into uses of raw materials can be seen at where discussion focuses on Australian bifacial tools.

For some great photos and illustrations of various forms of axes, see McCarthy, F.D.  1976 Australian Aboriginal Stone Implements. Sydney: The Australian Museum Trust.

When is a groove formed by axe grinding?

Hi again groovers! Can you work out which of the following are axe grinding grooves amongst the pictures below?







(Images courtesy of Lynley Wallis)

To be certain we need some measurements!

Perhaps just like you as I started this investigation I thought “seen one groove, seen them all”- not so! In fact it emerges that various kinds of grooves were made by Indigenous people and that they had differing uses, including spear sharpening, ochre grinding for pigment production and seed grinding.

So how can we tell an axe grinding groove from a groove used for some other purpose, or even from a naturally occurring groove? It’s not always easy but according to the experiments over 15 years of one prominent expert, F.P. Dickson, all axe grinding grooves share certain similarities. Dickson even came up with ranges of dimensions of grooves that are suitable for axe grinding and argues that other sized grooves were unsuited for this purpose and thus reflect different usage.

So what are the dimensions characteristic of axe grinding grooves? Dickson found that they were typically 25–50 cm in length, 5–8 cm in width and 2–4cm deep at mid-length. There does exist, however, some scope for difference and margin of error; while some studies have corroborated Dickson’s findings, others have categorised grooves as axe grinding ones even when they do not fit within these parameters. In practice, there is usually some degree of subjectivity between different researchers about what constitutes the exact edge, ridge or mid-point of the groove.

As always in archaeology the contexts in which artefacts occur are crucial for providing accurate information. Axe grinding requires a substantial amount of water to act as lubricant so most axe grinding grooves are found near water sources. They also need just the right kind of hardness of rock surface, with sandstone the most suitable, typically along creek and river margins. They can also be found in rockshelters but here they will usually be fewer in number, depending largely on water and suitable surface availability.

As for natural grooves that might be mistaken for axe grinding grooves, they’re usually fairly broad, shapeless and shallow. So the first and third pictures above are of axe grinding grooves, while that in the middle is of a grinding surface used for some other purpose, perhaps seed grinding!

Now it’s “back to the grind” for me – keep an eye on this blog in the near future for a look at some of the edge-ground axes that made these grooves!

And for those of you who want to learn more about Dickson’s seminal research into axe grinding grooves, here are the references for his key papers on the topic:

Dickson, F.P. 1976 Australian ground stone hatchets: Their design and dynamics. Australian Archaeology 5:33–38.

Dickson, F.P. 1980 Making ground stone tools. Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 15:162–167.

Dickson, F.P. 1981 Australian Stone Hatchets: A Study in Design and Dynamics. Sydney: Academic Press.

Get Grooving!

Everyone knows about boomerangs and spears- and many members of the general public are pretty familiar with flakes and cores (even if they don’t know the technical terms for them and call them “funny looking rocks”). Archaeologists are happy about our adzes, tulas and backed blades, and extensive research has been done about these sorts of artefacts and what they can tell us about past human behaviour.

But what of axe-grinding grooves? What can these features tell us of the past? What is currently known about them and how much research has focused on them? The answer is, not a lot! Perhaps this is because they are ubiquitous in many parts of Australia- especially in sandstone areas- and their function (axe-grinding) is obvious (although other grooves exist that were used for different purposes like seed grinding or ochre grinding).

Yet perhaps there is more to learn from them.  What can be discerned from their dimensions (length, width, depth and orientation)? Can these reveal some patterns in the axe-grinding grooves’ usage and suggest related reasons?

Now, thanks to my kind Industry Partner, Lynley Wallis from Wallis Heritage Consulting, these are some of the questions that I have the chance to explore.


Students measuring axe-grinding grooves at Middle Park Station using an offset surveying technique (image courtesy of Lynley Wallis).

To do so I will review what we know about axe-grinding grooves in the sandstone belt of north-western Queensland, followed by investigation of a case study involving the Rocks Cross Axe Grinding Site, approximately 120km north of the Richmond township.

Armed with measurements of hundreds of grooves, site plans and an imminent crash course in Adobe Illustrator for electronically compiling the latter, I will keep you abreast of my progress as I attempt to unlock some of the secrets of these hitherto under-studied archaeological features.