Blog

Knapping and Archaeology: Aboriginal Stone Tools from Western NSW

By: Rachelle Ayoub, Category: Science, Date: 18 Dec 2017

An interview with Mr. John Frazer who recently donated a collection of over 3 500 Aboriginal stone tools from across the Western NSW region.

Allison Dejanovic, Rachelle Ayoub and John Frazer

Allison Dejanovic, Rachelle Ayoub and John Frazer
Photographer: Dawn Frazer © Dawn Frazer

In 2016 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeology department received a donation of over 3 500 Aboriginal stone tools from across Western NSW by the collector John Frazer. Mr. Frazer collected these artefacts over a period of 3 years and maintained an impressive system of cataloguing, mapping and identification that is proving invaluable for research purposes at the museum. I had the opportunity to visit Mr. Frazer and his wife Dawn in their home in Lithgow with Allison Dejanovic, the Collections Officer for Aboriginal Archaeology, to discover more about his fantastic collection and his experiences in the field.

Mr Frazer worked as a wool classer in the 1960s and 70s, allowing him to travel around NSW to agricultural properties. It was through this work that he was introduced to Aboriginal stone tools and their presence throughout the land. He collected on weekends while on site for work assignments, gaining permission from the property owners then setting off in the morning with a carry bag and some supplies.

He found that our country’s long Aboriginal history was richly embedded in the landscape around him. After finding his first object in 1971, a stone Pirri point, blueish grey in colour with black flecks, he became an avid collector, growing the collection to include very fine examples of backed blades, scrapers, tulas, mullers, stone axes, knives, flakes, cores and more. The majority of these were situated in clay pan country, exposed due to erosion. The work of archaeologist Derek John Mulvaney became seminal for Mr. Frazer in identifying these objects.

These tools are a testament to the craftsmanship and traditional way of life of Aboriginal people. Many of the tools were created through the process of knapping. Sharp edges were formed by striking two stones together: a hammer stone and a core stone. Pressure flaking, the process of applying pressure to stone using a hard, sharp point to detach small flakes with a range of edges, was also used. The implements crafted have a variety of uses including the carving of weapons, meat, sacred and ceremonial objects, and wooden objects such as dishes.

It was through his passion for collecting these objects that Mr. Frazer came into contact with Australian archaeologist Isabel McBryde, founding member of the Australian Archaeological Association Inc. McBryde has led a distinguished and highly respected career in the field of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeology for many decades, and it was during her appointment as lecturer in Prehistory and Ancient History at the University of New England that Mr. Frazer first encountered her.

At the time he was in communication with a number of universities and received newsletters on Aboriginal archaeology to help guide his practices. After becoming aware of the work of McBryde he contacted her to arrange a meeting, and they met a number of times during which they discussed his collection. He brought a selection of objects to the meetings, including a bi-faced Pirri point that she requested to keep (but which he decided to retain in his collection), and she offered him advice and guidance. McBryde encouraged Mr. Frazer to keep collecting due to his thorough cataloguing and mapping practices. Today the significant collections of both John Frazer and Isabel McBryde are kept in the storerooms of the Australian Museum, contributing to our knowledge of Aboriginal methods of stone tool production and use.

Mr. Frazer expressed his gladness that the collection is now deposited at the museum where it will be preserved and undergo forms of analysis to further enrich our understanding of the tools and the knowledge they impart.