Movie: Fighting Axes of Mendi, PNG

Here Trevor tells us about several fighting axes he collected from the Mendi area, PNG.

Trevor Shearston made a significant donation of artefacts from the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 2009. Here Trevor tells us about several fighting axes he collected from the Mendi area, how they were made and how they were used.

©  Australian Museum and Trevor Shearston
Finton Mahony
Trevor Shearston


These four axes are ceremonial and fighting axes from the Mendi area of the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea. They are manufactured with a stone blade, with a timber handle. The hafting is also timber. The binding is split cane. The manufacture is in two parts. The handle is separate. The handle comes up here, there is a waist and a couch area for the hafting.

The hafting is a piece of split timber, as the split goes – it’s one piece of timber that is formed and then split through the middle. There are the two halves of the split. The stone is inserted into what is just that part of the axe. It’s inserted into the split. That is then bound that way to keep the stone within the hafting timber. Then the handle is brought to the base of the haft, and then the cross-binding takes place that way, so that it is bound into one piece.

These are very well-balanced. They feel very beautiful in the hand. The balance is because they were used for fighting. They were carried in a belt. They were used to strike an opponent when the opponent was close. More often they were used to kill somebody or finish somebody or injure somebody who was on the ground. The handle is also points, because you don’t waste any surface of a weapon. That can also be a weapon.

Fighting had been banned in the southern highlands when I arrived, in 1968. Fighting was still going on, however, with bows and arrows, but by that stage people had steel axes, these were no longer being used in fighting. Their use then had become only ceremonial. They were carried in a stamping dance.

The man would hold it like that, and in a stamping dance all the men would have their axes, they would hold them either like that or they would sometimes hold them right at the very base so that all the axe was on display, and they would be held beside the shoulder and a stamping dance would be performed by all the men, who would carry the axes in their hand like that. The only use I saw these axes being put to was ceremonial purposes.

There is a blade. That’s a fighting axe blade. This area here still has some gum adhering to it, from where it was inserted into the hafting, the hafting timber. And these blades were made in the riverbed. Many hours of work. There were still places you could see in the riverbed or in a creek bed, generally on limestone, where there was access to water, and it was just a very long process of rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, until the blade had been formed. So you found a number of areas with axe-making grooves and flattened areas where the axes had been worked that way on the limestone in the riverbed to form the axes.

They’re a volcanic stone, sometimes green, sometimes black, sometimes grey, sometimes the colour of this. Very hard, but brittle of course, and so therefore they were not used – these blades were not used at all on timber, they were used only for ceremonial purposes or for killing, people being softer than trees. That blade if used on timber would of course just snap.

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Tags trevor shearston, Papua New Guinea, PNG, Mendi, fighting, axe, warefare, finton, artefact, stone, wood, intangible, donation,