Sequence of Indigenous shellfish hooks from Sydney

Sequence of Indigenous shellfish hooks from Sydney


Photographer: Paul Ovenden © Australian Museum


This is a colour image showing five stages of fish-hook manufacture in the top row and below a complete modern turban shell ('Turbo torquata') for comparison. The modified turban shells were excavated from an archaeological site in Botany Bay, New South Wales, and range in size from 29 mm to 42 mm. The modern turban shell is 65 mm in length.

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The photograph shows the sequence of manufacture of shellfish hooks in the pre-European Sydney area. One or more oval-shaped 'blanks' were cut from each shell and the shell's outer surface was ground down on a flat stone. A hole was made in the centre to form a ring and then part of the ring was removed to create the final shape. The hook was formed by filing the inner edges smooth, finishing the point and putting a notch in the shank end where the line is tied.

The five modified shells at varying stages of hook manufacture have been dated as being less than 900 years old, but from before British colonisation. They were excavated from a midden at Captain Cook's Landing Place at Kurnell in Botany Bay in 1970. A small pointed ground stone file, often called a fishhook file, was also excavated from the site and may have been used to shape the hooks.

The completed fishhook is representative of hooks from the area, which were either C- or J-shaped and curved to a point but not barbed. Hooks ranging from 13 to 50 mm were attached to a line made from two strands of flax or bark fibre twisted together. A small stone was attached to the line to act as a sinker. No bait was put on the hook but chewed shellfish were spat out on the surface of the water to attract fish. The pearl lustre of the shell would have acted as a lure.

The completed hook seen here would have been used by women only. Fishing from bark canoes made by the men, Indigenous women of the area occasionally used spears to assist in bringing the fish into their canoes, but otherwise used only a hook and line. The men, on the other hand, stood in canoes, on rock or in shallow water when fishing and used multipronged spears but never a hook and line.

The completed hook on the far right is typical of shellfish hooks found along the eastern Australian coast between Port Stephens in the north and the NSW-Victorian border in the south, which first appear in the archaeological record 900 years ago. It is speculated that fishhooks were independently invented in the region at this time or were introduced to the area either from the north coast of Australia or by Polynesians from the east.

After the British arrived, metal fishhooks were exchanged for the local people's tools and weapons and were later given as gifts to encourage an Indigenous fishing industry. The fish caught were exchanged for bread or salt meat and other European goods and services. After the 1820s Indigenous people of the Sydney coastal region commonly used metal fishhooks obtained from the British.

Ms Jen Cork , Senior Digital Producer
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