Research project: Tracing the diversity of stone tools assemblages in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea


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Stemmed tools from Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea

Stemmed tools from Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea
Photographer: Anthony Farr © Australian Museum

Museum investigators

External investigators

  • Nina Kononenko, University of Sydney
  • Pip Rath, University of Sydney

Funded by

  • ARC Discovery


As the most common find in archaeological sites, stone tools are critically important for reconstructing human history in many parts of the Pacific region. Since most have simple, undiagnostic forms because they were designed to be made quickly and easily and used only briefly, they pose problems for traditional methods.

In contrast, during the early and middle Holocene, from about 10,000 to 3,300 years ago, a wide range of tools with distinctive handles or stems were made and used in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Some are very large and were made using quite complex techniques that required highly skilled practitioners, whereas others are small and easily flaked. The wide diversity in stemmed tools suggests a wide range of functions and social contexts.

Our research on stemmed tools aims (1) to devise an effective typology for this highly variable group of tools; (2) to reconstruct the ways they were made and used; (3) to track their spatial distributions within Melanesia; (4) to find out where each was made using geochemical techniques; and (5) use these results to reconstruct their various roles within society. 

Relevant Publications

  • Kononenko, N., Specht, J. and Torrence, R. 2010. Persistent traditions in the face of natural disasters: stemmed and waisted stone tools in late Holocene New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Australian Archaeology 70: 17-28. Abstract
  • Kelloway, S., Kononenko, N., Torrence, R. and Carter, E. 2010. Assessing the viability of portable Raman spectroscopy for determining the geological source of obsidian. Vibrational Spectroscopy 53: 88-96. DOI 10.1016/j.vibspec.2010.02.006. Abstract
  • Torrence, R., Swadling, P., Ambrose, W., Kononenko, N., Rath, P. and Glascock, M. 2009. Obsidian stemmed tools and Mid-Holocene interaction. Asian Perspectives 48: 118-147. Abtract
  • Kononenko, N. and Torrence, R. 2009. Tattooing in Melanesia: local invention or Lapita introduction? Antiquity 83: Abstract
  • Torrence, R. and Swadling, P. 2008. Social networks and the spread of Lapita. Antiquity 82: 600-616. Abstract
  • Torrence, R. 2005. Valued stone: how so? In I. Macfarlane, R. Paton and M. Mountain (eds), Many Exchanges: Archaeology, History, Community and the Work of Isabel McBryde. Aboriginal History Monograph 11: 357-372. Abstract
  • Torrence, R. 2004. Pre-Lapita valuables in island Melanesia. In V. Attenbrow and R. Fullagar (eds), A Pacific Odyssey: Archaeology and Anthropology in the Western Pacific. Papers in Honour of Jim Specht. Australian Museum: Records of the Australian Museum: Supplement 29: 163-172. Full article
  • Rath, P. and Torrence, R. 2003. Producing value: stemmed tools from Garua Island, Papua New Guinea. Australian Archaeology 57: 119-127. Abstract
  • Araho, N. Torrence, R. and White, J. 2002. Valuable and useful: Mid-Holocene stemmed obsidian artefacts from West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 68: 61-81. Abstract




Dr Robin Torrence , Senior Principal Research Scientist
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