Indigenous shovel, pre-1885

Indigenous shovel, pre-1885

Multipurpose Indigenous shovel

Multipurpose Indigenous shovel
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum


This is a multipurpose Indigenous shovel made from a red-brown wood. The head, which measures 12 cm in width, is hollowed into a broad concave spatulate shape and the handle is pointed. The total length is 87 cm. Adze marks can be seen on the entire shovel head and splits in the wood can be seen along the blade. It was collected in the Lachlan-Darling area of western New South Wales prior to 1885.

Educational value

This dual-purpose digging tool, both shovel and digging stick, was designed to reduce the number of tools transported on short hunting journeys and long seasonal treks. The end of the shovel head is thin and pointed to ease its entry into the soil; the shape allows a large portion of soil to be removed from the earth. The end of the handle has been sharpened to act as a digging stick.

The tool was made using hard dense strong wood, possibly from an Acacia tree. The wood was preserved by the frequent application of animal fat, such as that from emus. The fat also made the wood waterproof and gave it a shiny appearance. Splits that can be seen on the blade of the shovel were caused by the wood drying out over a long period of time.

The wood has been carved and shaped so that the blade of the shovel is sharp and pointed. Using an axe, the people would have cut the basic shape of the shovel from the outer wood of a tree trunk, which would have left a distinctive scar on the tree. To carve and shape the spatulate head an adze or chisel, possibly made from stone, would have been used. The hard wood was chiselled along the grain, a time-consuming task that has left distinctive marks.
Women would have used the sharp handle of this shovel as a digging stick to dig earth ovens and to dig for food such as edible tubers, small marsupials, reptiles, termites and honey ants. Tracks, scratch marks and animal hairs can be used to find small animals. The presence of roots and tubers may be indicated by cracks in the soil where a plant may be pushing up from below.

Shovels such as this one have been collected from south-eastern Australia and digging sticks were used throughout Australia. This multipurpose tool was collected from near the Darling and Lachlan rivers in western NSW by a man from Mossgiel, about 620 km west of Sydney, prior to 1885. It was subsequently purchased by the Australian Museum.

Ms Jen Cork , Senior Digital Producer
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