Friday, July 07, 2006
The Stone Axe
It is an incredible fact that at the end of the 20th Century, there were humans on one side of the earth sending people into space, while on the other side, humans existed whose highest technological achievement was the stone axe. The stone axe was an incredibly important technological development for mankind. Much more important than the spaceship. It allowed man to control his environment for the first time, chopping down trees and creating 'gardens' in the jungle.
Last weekend we went to see a special exhibition at the French National Archaeological Museum which is located in the chateau of St Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. The museum doesn't seem to get that many visitors and you can pass a very calm afternoon there, looking over the fabulous and well explained (if you speak French) exhibits.
The exhibition called 'Objects of Power in New Guinea' is based on a donation of material from two anthropologists who have worked in Papua New Guinea over a period of more than twenty years. The objects, and an accompanying film, document the importance of stone axes to some of the native peoples of this island.
A number of 'objects of power' are displayed which include the stone axes. The axe is an essential tool for the natives in their mode of life which is based on being able to clear patches of the dense rain forest and create 'gardens' where taro, maize and sweet potato are grown. As well as a practical item, non-utility 'axes' are used as an item of trade, dressed up in woven clothes like a woman. Consecrated axes cannot be touched without sacrificing a pig. The axe is a sign, symbolising the status of young men.
The men quarry the axes from a particular outcrop of glaucophane schist rock to which they have to hike for up to a week, an arduous and dangerous journey. They build a fire under the rock to make the stone expand and exfoliate. They then throw it into a nearby river so that it cracks and splits into pieces of suitable size. Another fire is used to reheat large pieces of stone before throwing them again into the river.
The natives believe that a deity was buried underneath the rock outcrop and that magic powers introduced the axes into this particular rock outcrop. They believe their work is simply to release the axes from the stone in which they are encased.
Once a suitable sized lump of rock has been found, the man begin knapping the edge of the stone to make it the right shape. They return to their village with up to a dozen pieces of rock each. These they model into perfect mirrored blades over the coming months, grinding the axes to a perfect edge on a sandstone block lubricated with water. The resulting axes are beautiful, their blades decorated by the patterns inside the rock. Green dye from plant leaves is used to give the axes a verdigris finish.
Here is the first technology of man. It gave him a hitherto unknown power over nature. He invested the rock from which the axe came with his own supernatural conception of the universe in which a greater power was giving him rights over the rest of nature. To that supernatural power, he began to sing praise in song and verse.