Volume 79 1970 > Volume 79, No. 4 > Stone adzes from Malaita, Solomon Islands: An ethnographic contribution to Melanesian archaeology, by Harold M. Ross, p 411 - 420
                                                                                             Previous | Next   

- 411

Melanesian archaeology is still in its infancy despite recent extensive excavations in its eastern oceanic reaches (Fiji, New Caledonia, and the New Hebrides) and impressive beginnings in the west (New Guinea and nearby islands). 1 Until recently, however, archaeologists have largely ignored central Melanesia with the exceptions of Jens Poulsen's work on the Polynesian outliers Rennell and Bellona, John Terrell's surveys on Bougainville, and Roger Green's projected reconnaissance and excavations in the area. Unfortunately it is this central Melanesian region of the Solomon Islands together with the Santa Cruz and New Hebrides groups that, according to common sense and the bulk of historical and comparative linguistic evidence, is crucial to understanding the original settlement and subsequent culture history of the Pacific, particularly that expanse we know as Polynesia.

Spoehr points out that archaeology in any geographic area tends to develop through a rather predictable sequence of problem definitions beginning with antiquarian interest in artefact collections, passing through controlled excavations to establish historic sequence, through interareal comparisons, and ultimately focussing upon more general problems of socio-cultural processes. 2 Although it may be possible to telescope somewhat this developmental sequence of the discipline in Oceania, some concentration upon artefact or feature description and dating is probably justifiable at this stage. While the proper goal of scientific prehistory is, as Deetz has proposed, the discovery of the social (or cultural) significance of artefactual material, 3 and its most rational strategy the testing against empirical facts of hypotheses deduced from

- 412

general anthropological theory (as Binford 4 and Caldwell 5 have argued), speculative hypotheses made in ignorance of site contents, temporal sequences, and spatial distributions are at best inspired guesses and at worst misleading. At the present state of the art we still need factual material, however simple.

Even when excavations begin in earnest, a systematic knowledge of Melanesian prehistory will not come easily. First, there is the almost impenetrable rain forest covering most of the islands, which makes sites next to impossible to discover, and which will discourage all but the hardiest archaeologists. Second, there is a paucity of familiar materials available for analysis and interpretation. Potsherds and projectile points (so readily available to European or American prehistorians) simply do not exist in many areas and temporal phases in Oceania.

- 413

Improvisation and maximum exploitation of small bits of information have therefore (at least in the interim) become standard archaeological tactics among Pacific area prehistorians. Green 6 and Scott 7 have pioneered in the analysis of island settlement patterns. Suggs, 8 Davidson 9 and Sinoto 10 have experimented with fish-hook typologies as new means for deriving cultural chronologies. Duff 11 and Emory 12 are among the many following Buck 13 who have tried to do the same with stone axes and adzes. In view of Emory's masterly interpretation of eastern Polynesian prehistory using this one archaeological category (adzes), 14 and Green's suggestions of culture area boundaries and intrusive cultural traditions defined in part by adze types, 15 stone adzes would appear to be an appropriate focal point for students of Pacific area material culture and prehistory.


From 1966 through 1968 I lived in the interior highlands near the northern end of Malaita Island (Figure 1) in the south-eastern Solomons, doing ethnographic and linguistic research among the Baegu people. Their language, one of a group of five dialects comprising an unnamed language understood throughout the northern one-quarter of Malaita, belongs to the South-eastern Solomons group of Melanesian languages, 16 hence close connections either directly or through an Efate-Fiji-Rotuma link with the Polynesian languages are likely. 17 Malaitans are, on the whole, clearly Melanesian in phenotype; but populations are so highly variable in skin colour, hair colour, and hair form that many individual Malaitans are virtually indistinguishable from Polynesians inhabiting Ontong Java and Sikaiana Atolls a few hundred miles north and east. There is some evidence from folklore of Polynesian settlers in Malaita, but I am personally not convinced of its significance.

Malaita is a rugged, mountainous island with heavy rainfall and almost perpetual cloud cover over its interior. The terrain is rocky, and there are dozens of short rivers draining precipitously to the sea. Geologically, the surface cover is mostly a soft, recent limestone, but aerial surveys followed up by prospecting parties on foot indicate that the island has a basaltic core or basement complex. Since the people practise slash-and-burn or bush fallow cultivation, 18 a dense secondary forest covers nearly all the island with the exception of a few sacred groves of - 414 primary hardwood rain forest and a moss or cloud forest along the central divide.

While in the field I lived near Ailali village and worked extensively in the Sasafa River drainage basin. The Sasafa is an east coast river, rising from a number of small torrents coming down from the central massif, flowing northward through a steep-walled valley between the massif and an outlying mountain block (Langane), and eventually turning sharply to its own right to empty into the Pacific at Urasi Cove in the Lau Lagoon. Everyone in the Sasafa valley and surrounding highlands speaks the Baegu dialect and participates in a single social system (although about half of them are recent converts to Christianity). Figure 1 shows this region, and the Baegu area is shown enlarged in Figure 3. 19

Although I was interested mainly in problems of social organisation, earlier practical experience in American archaeology made me continually aware of material culture items and acutely interested in the prehistory of the area where I was working. As a result I collected a number of items of archaeological interest while in Malaita, both from fortuitous surface finds during my walks through the forest and as gifts from informants once they had discovered my bizarre taste for no longer functional antique objects. Among the most interesting of these is a surface collection of 13 stone adzes.


To simplify description, the adzes appear in the photograph that is Figure 2; 20 Table 1 describes them in terms of size, cross-section, and kind of stone; and Figure 3 (an enlargement of a small part of the map of Malaita) indicates approximately where the various adzes, identified by their numbers taken from the photograph (Figure 2), were found.

The adzes in the top row (numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4) of Figure 2 were all made in recent times and given to me by their owners, in both cases direct heirs of the original fabricators. Bulasimanu of Walelangi clan (whose father made them) gave me adzes 1 and 4. Maefasia of Ngaliana'ago hamlet and Uradaue clan (whose grandfather made them) donated numbers 2 and 3.

Adzes numbers 5-13 are a surface collection of unknown ages. I picked up all but number 7 myself during walks through the forest. Number 7 was a gift from Gugumae of Walelangi clan, but because of its aberrant and thus unusually interesting form, I took care to find out from him where he had found the adze. Numbers 5, 6, 8, and 9 all came from the ground in the immediate vicinity (within a 30 yard radius) of my house on the outskirts of Ailali village. Figure 3 shows approximately where the adzes were found (or where the makers lived for the first four gift adzes).

There is no mystery concerning the source of the stone used to make most of the adzes. Chert nodules abound in the soft limestone strata near the surface, and they are plentiful (and easily acquired) in almost

- 415
Descriptive Summary of the Malaitan Adzes Shown in Figure 2
Adze Material Cross-section 21 Size in Centimeters (Length × Width × Thickness)
1 White chert Plano-Convex 10.5 × 5.3 × 2.9
2 Red chert Trapezoidal 5.3 × 3.2 × 1.3
3 Red chert Plano-Convex 7.0 × 4.7 × 2.3
4 Pink chert Plano-convex 8.6 × 5.7 × 2.6
5 White chert Trapezoidal 7.7 × 4.2 × 1.4
6 White chert Sub-triangular 7.3 × 3.7 × 2.3
7 Fine-grained basalt Lenticular 11.6 × 3.4 × 2.3
8 White chert Plano-convex 6.8 × 3.9 × 2.4
9 White chert Plano-convex 8.1 × 4.9 × 2.9
10 Pink chert Plano-convex 7.8 × 5.8 × 3.0
11 Pink chert Triangular 7.8 × 4.2 × 2.6
12 White chert Trapezoidal 7.6 × 4.2 × 2.0
13 White chert Plano-convex 8.3 × 5.6 × 1.9

every stream in Malaita. The Baegu recognise three naturally occurring varieties of chert (which they call nagi) classified according to colour. Nagi kwao (literally “white chert”) is white, grey or tan; nagi aabu (“red chert”) is pink or reddish-brown; while nagi bulu (“dark chert”) is bluish-black or very dark brown. There is apparently no significant difference in the working qualities of these varieties.

- 416

The Baegu, however, do not recognise the human origin of adzes resembling number 7. It appears to be made of a finely grained igneous rock that the Baegu call taelili, probably basaltic, having a greenish tint most likely the result of a high olivine content. Although most of the exposed surface rock where the Baegu live is chert-bearing soft limestone, there are basalt outcroppings along the island's central mountain spine, and survey reports indicate that the highlands toward Cape Arsacides to the east of the central massif are largely basaltic. The Baegu call basalt blocks and cobbles appearing in stream beds at lower altitudes fau boso (“pig rock”). Because no long, lenticular adzes have been made in living (or even traditional) memory, and because in its highly polished form it does not look like stream-bed basalt chunks, the Baegu simply do not believe that this type of adze is of human manufacture from familiar materials.

Today the Baegu do not use stone adzes for practical purposes. Steel knives and axes have long since replaced their stone counterparts, having been brought back by men who worked as indentured labourers in Fiji or Queensland about the turn of the century. Old Gugumae of Walelangi (about 90 years old) is reported to have been the first Baegu man to bring steel tools into the interior highlands when he returned from Fiji.

They are, however, still familiar with the flaked chert adze blades which they call ile nagi (“chert knife”). Although men no longer make stone adzes, they still chip chert nodules into hammerstones for cracking nuts and make flint drill bits. They also sharpen (by retouching the blade edge) the chert adzes, which still have a certain prestige and ritual value. When present older men were youths, stone adzes still had functional value, being used for garden clearance, for woodworking, and as close-in shock weapons in warfare. Today men keep them for antiquarian or sentimental interest, because they are associated with the ancestors (the basis of the pagan Baegu religion). Priests and high-ranking social leaders may carry them as badges of legitimacy, or use them in ceremonial rituals where some believe the old adzes have magical efficacy.

In view of the confusion abounding in studies of material culture as to whether specific stone artefacts are adzes or axes, it is worth while to note that no matter how the stone bits were used, the Baegu always hafted them as adzes (in our terminology) with the blade edge perpendicular to the axis of the handle.

Highly polished lenticular adzes (number 7), however, are part of the Baegu realm of mystery and magic. People say they are produced by thunder and lightning storms and call them lifona kwanga, meaning “teeth of the thunderbolt”. It is these stones, in Baegu etiology, that destroy men or trees struck by lightning. According to my venerable friend, Gugumae, thunderbolts drive the adzes into the ground; later (“when they cool”) they rise to the surface, where men find them. The Baegu believe that these stones have great magical power, and do not use them for mundane purposes. Before the British administration pacified the island, warriors hafted adzes of this type to make sacred weapons, believing that the weapon itself was irresistible and its bearer

- i

- ii Page is blank

- 417

invulnerable. Today curers use them as magical medical devices to draw pains out of the body.


Given a collection of artefacts, the initial tendency of most archaeologists (myself included) would probably be to classify them into types. These would most likely be based on physical characteristics resulting from the manufacturing process such as cross-section or relative proportions. When properly done, such classifications are useful concepts. One can, however, adduce compelling arguments that style classifications based on what native craftsmen themselves think is important are “better” in the sense that they are more apt to be valid and useful. As a practising ethnographer, able to witness lithic technology in action and to talk to the craftsmen, I find there is a serious caveat against peremptory classifications imposed by unwary scholars.

To the Baegu, for example, colour and shape are irrelevant as taxonomic criteria. While differences of colour, cross-section and proportions obviously do exist and are noted, they are not significant criteria for defining the cognitive categories that presumably underlie (and are expressed in) finished artefacts. As the Baegu stoneworker sees it, crosssection shape is something that is imposed upon the finished adze by the nature of his raw material, the chert nodule itself that varies randomly.

If the original pebble is precisely the right size and shape, he can split off a good-sized flake (the future adze) having one flat surface on its underside. He can then take off a transverse flake to create a blade, retouch the sides and upper point slightly for ease in hafting, and leave most of the cortex of the nodule untouched. This results in an adze of plano-convex cross-section such as adzes 1, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, and 13. If, in other cases, the original nodule is too large (or if he errs in his flaking attempts), the stoneworker must then rework the cortex to create an adze of “proper” dimensions and proportions, resulting in trapezoidal cross-section adzes (2, 5, and 12) or triangular ones (6 and 11).

What does matter in Baegu eyes are the kind of materials and methods of knapping used. Their lithic technology is based upon the working of flint or chert by relatively crude percussion flaking, finishing a stone tool by means of precision pressure flaking using a small finger-held bit of stone, bone or wood. This, they think, is how all men make stone adzes.

Adzes such as number 7 are, in contrast, made of fine-grained igneous rock by pecking and grinding, resulting in a highly polished tool. The Baegu do not recognise these as “proper” raw materials or manufacturing techniques, nor therefore as “proper” or normal human artefacts.

Hence the Baegu perceive this assemblage of stone adzes within the framework of a two-part folk taxonomy. One type (adze 7) is non-humanly made, of basaltic rock, by exotic (not acceptable) techniques; the other type (all the remaining adzes) is of human workmanship, of native chert, by familiar techniques.

- 418

While it would be a mistake to try to work such a picayune body of evidence into a serious theory of Malaitan prehistory, it is possible to infer a few useful propositions from the Malaitan archaeological and ethnographic material, both about Malaitan prehistory specifically and about what ethnography can do for (perhaps “to” is a better word) archaeology in general.

First, ethnography can provide at least some rudimentary stratigraphy ; that is, it can be a guide to the establishment of a correct chronological sequence of artefact or feature styles. This is what Strong 22 and Wedel 23 working in the Great Plains region of North America, called a “direct historical approach”: the use of ethnographic fact, the connection of this with the ethnohistorical immediate past and the most recent stages of the archaeological record, and the extrapolation from this into more distant reaches of prehistory. This is essential for relative dating methods, such as Ford's seriation techniques 24 that were implicit in Emory's work with adzes 25 where the existence of stylistic sequences is known but the direction of cultural change (which the beginning and which the end state) may not be.

For Malaita, the obvious deduction from folklore is that the highly polished basaltic adzes of lenticular cross-section (that the Baegu assume to result from non-human forces of nature) are older than and precede in temporal sequence the familiar flaked chert adzes that overlap from prehistory into the ethnographic present. It is possible that these lifona kwanga adzes have been introduced into Malaita by trade, but I subjectively feel (without being able to offer conclusive logical proof) that this is not so. First, despite the fact that I collected only one example, they are not that rare in the Malaitan hills; the Baegu people simply chose to keep them for their magical or sentimental value rather than barter or give them to me. Second, ceremonial and economic exchange networks in the south-eastern Solomons traditionally follow quite regular circulatory patterns with the Malaitan interior as a customary source for pigs, adzes/axes, forest produce and singing-dancing performances (all traded for the native shell money and marine products of coastal and overseas people). Even if such patterns were different in the past, the polished adzes would still be artefacts of trade from an era people have since forgotten. Although there remains a possibility (since this is an undated surface collection) that some type of chert adze may also have preceded the lenticular basaltic type, the outline of Malaitan stone adze stratigraphy is clear. The main industries and their presumed temporal relationships are: (1) a hypothetical earliest stage that may yet be found representing the first settlers and possibly related typologically to industries in New Guinea or South-eastern Asia; (2) a pecking and grinding industry producing highly polished elongated basaltic adzes of lenticular cross - 419 section; (3) a percussion flaking industry making chert adzes of variable cross-section, a more efficient (hence productive) but aesthetically cruder technique; and (4) a final stage when imported steel tools have all but superseded traditional stone ones.

Second, typological classifications simply inferred from the form of artefacts can easily be unsound; and while one can in fact do a creditable job working from faulty first principles and hypotheses, good archaeology depends upon more refined classifications and interpretations. Ethnographic studies of material culture, particularly when in the tradition of the so-called “new ethnography” using ethno-scientific analysis of the logic underlying native taxonomies and semantic domains such as Colby 26 proposes and Bulmer 27 has demonstrated for Karam (New Guinea) folk biology, can improve our attempts to understand, classify and interpret artefacts recovered in archaeological research. Working from the assumption that if we know what native craftsmen had in mind when making things, our attributes, styles and sequences (and the concepts logically related to these) will be more useful, Lathrap has made extensive studies of the ideas about ceramics among Shipibo potters in the Peruvian montaña, trying to find what characteristics do in fact matter. 28 Changing styles are here assumed to be less important than the ideas behind the changes.

To refer again to the Malaiatan case, a purely objective classification would probably yield three or four “types” of adzes: lenticular, planoconvex, trapezoidal and triangular. Yet to the Baegu craftsmen making them, such distinctions are meaningless variations randomly imposed on the finished adze by accidents of rock shape and knapping skill. To a Malaitan, there are only two types of adze in Figure 2; and if we are going to understand Melanesian prehistory, theirs may well be the classificatory framework within which we should work.

  • BARRAU, J., 1959. “The ‘Bush Fallowing’ System of Cultivation in the Continental Islands of Melanesia.” Proceedings of the Ninth Pacific Science Congress, 7:53-55.
  • BINFORD, L. R., 1968. “Archaeological Perspectives,” in New Perspectives in Archaeology (ed. By S. R. And L. R. Binford), Chicago, Illinois, Aldine Publishing Co.
  • BUCK, Sir Peter H., K. P. EMORY, H. D. SKINNER, and J. F. G. STOKES, 1930. “Terminology for Ground Stone Cutting-Implements in Polynesia.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 39:174-180.
  • BULMER, R., 1967. “Why Is the Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy Among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands.” Man (n.s.), 2 (1):5-25.
  • BULMER, R. And M. J. TYLER, 1968. “Karam Classification of Frogs.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 77:333-385.
- 420
  • CALDWELL, J. R., 1966. “The New American Archaeology,” in New Roads to Yesterday (ed. By J. R. Caldwell), New York, Basic Books, Inc.
  • CAPELL, A., 1954. A Linguistic Survey of the South-Western Pacific. Noumea, New Caledonia, South Pacific Commission.
  • COLBY, B. N., 1966. “Ethnographic Semantics: A Preliminary Survey.” Current Anthropology, 7:3-32.
  • DAVIDSON, J. M., 1968. “Nukuoro: Archaeology on a Polynesian Outlier in Micronesia,” in Prehistoric Culture in Oceania (ed. By I. Yawata and Y. H. Sinoto). Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • DEETZ, J., 1965 The Dynamics of Stylistic Change in Arikara Ceramics. Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois Press.
  • DUFF, R., 1959. “Neolithic Adzes of Eastern Polynesia,” in Anthropology in the South Seas (ed. by J. D. Freeman and W. R. Geddes). New Plymouth, Avery.
  • EMORY, K. P., 1968. “East Polynesian Relationships as Revealed through Adzes,” in Prehistoric Culture in Oceania (ed. by I. Yawata and Y. H. Sinoto). Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • FORD, J. A., 1962. A Quantitative Method for Deriving Cultural Chronology. Washington, D.C., Pan-American Union Technical Manual 1.
  • GOLSON, J., 1968. “Archaeological Prospects for Melanesia,” in Prehistoric Culture in Oceania (ed. By I. Yawata and Y. H. Sinoto). Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • GREEN, R. C., 1964. Preliminary Report on Archaeological Field-Work in Western Samoa, December 1963 to June 1964. University of Auckland. Mimeo.
  • —— 1968. “West Polynesian Prehistory,” in Prehistoric Culture in Oceania (ed. By I. Yawata and Y. H. Sinoto). Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • LATHRAP, D., n.d. Preliminary Reports of Archaeological and Ethnographic Research on Shipibo Ceramics in the Montaña Region of Peru. Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois. Typescript, mimeo.
  • SCOTT, S. D., 1968. “Samoan Fortifications and Monumental Architecture from Specific Examples,” in Prehistoric Culture in Oceania (ed. by I. Yawata and Y. H. Sinoto). Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • SINOTO, Y. H., 1967. “A Tentative Prehistoric Cultural Sequence in the Northern Marquesas Islands.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 75:287-303.
  • SPOEHR, A., 1968. “Problems of Oceanic Archaeology,” in Prehistoric Culture in Oceania (ed. by I. Yawata and Y. H. Sinoto). Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • STRONG, W. D., 1932. “Studying the Arikara and Their Neighbours on the Upper Missouri,” in Explorations and Field Work of the Smithsonian Institution in 1932, pp. 73-76. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution.
  • SUGGS, R. C., 1961. “The Archaeology of Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia.” American Museum of Natural History Anthropological Papers, 49 (1):1-205.
  • WEDEL, W. R., 1938. “The Direct Historical Approach in Pawnee Archaeology” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 97 (7). Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution.
1   Golson 1968.
2   Spoehr 1968:173.
3   Deetz 1965:1.
4   Binford 1968:2-3.
5   Caldwell 1966:344-5.
6   Green 1964.
7   Scott 1968.
8   Suggs 1961.
9   Davidson 1968.
10   Sinoto 1967.
11   Duff 1959.
12   Emory 1968.
13   Buck 1930.
14   Emory 1968:165-7.
15   Green 1968:105-6.
16   Capell 1954:82-93.
17   Grace 1968:71.
18   Barrau 1959:53.
19   Drawings by Doris Hazard, University of Illinois (Urbana).
20   Photograph by James B. Baltaxe, University of Illinois (Urbana).
21   Emory 1968:152.
22   Strong 1932.
23   Wedel 1938.
24   Ford 1962.
25   Emory 1968.
26   Colby 1966:3-4.
27   Bulmer 1967 and 1968.
28   Lathrap, n.d.