Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Balfour and Australian stone tool technology

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Pitt Rivers Museum, Manuscript Collections, Balfour Papers 1/7, diary of a voyage to Australia (1914), p.66.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Manuscript Collections, Balfour Papers 1/7, diary of a voyage to Australia (1914), p.66.

For Balfour's work on the Westlake collection, please see here.

Henry Balfour visited Australia only once, in 1914 for the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He left London on 26 June, and various other BAAS members were also travelling on the S.S. ‘Malwa’. Balfour suffered badly from gout during the journey out, and was still troubled by his foot during his first weeks in Australia. He arrived in Freemantle on 28 July, and joined day trips organized by the BAAS to the ‘mission camp of natives’ at Guildford, Yallingup Cave and Mammoth Cave, before visiting Perth on 1 August for a few days. The group set sail from Freemantle on 4 August, arriving in Adelaide four days later. A large group went on a day trip to Milang on 10, and enjoyed demonstrations of boomerang throwing, dancing and cats cradle given by ‘a large number of S. Australian (Narrinyeri) natives [who] had been gathered together from the mission station on other side of lake’. On 13 August the party arrived in Melbourne, where Balfour was met by his friend Baldwin Spencer, and attended meetings of the Anthropology Section. On 19 they went on to Sydney for more meetings, as well as a day trip to the Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves. From Brisbane, where they arrived on the 26 August, there was a day trip to the Glasshouse Mountains. On 3rd September Balfour set sail northwards, stopping at Townsville, and visiting Magnetic Island, arriving in Cairns on 9, before passing through the Torres Strait to Thursday Island (12) and Port Darwin (15). On 16 September they left, and Balfour came home via Surabaya (spending four nights in Indonesia), Singapore (four nights), Kuala Lumpur (spending three nights in Malaysia), Colombo (one night), Bombay (one night), before travelling home again, arriving on 1 November. [My thanks to Fran Larson for this account of his visit, based upon Balfour's diary for the visit]

It seems that Balfour first wrote about Australian stone tools in 1893 in his only book, 'Evolution in Decorative Art':

If we examine, for instance, the condition and mode of living of the aborigines of Australia we can at once see that their state of culture is a truly primitive one, - a case on the whole of arrested or retarded development, rather than one whose lowly condition is due to retrogression or degeneration. General Pitt Rivers has ably pointed out the evidence of this. There is no evidence of their having in former times enjoyed a higher civilisation; their tools and weapons are for the most part of the simplest kind, and in many cases are merely such fairly serviceable forms as are supplied ready-made by nature, such as pieces of stone, shells, sharks' teeth etc, or in the forms of nature but slightly improved by art; their implements of wood in all cases follow in their shape the natural grain of the wood; the variety is small, the same implement frequently serving both as a tool, perhaps for a variety of purposes, and as a weapon. The same kinds of implements are spread over the entire continent, and although the actual shape varies to a certain extent in the different important regions, yet the persistent local differences are often so slight as to be appreciable only to the natives themselves. Except where civilisation has reached them, they are still absolutely in their 'stone age'. Their customs, religion, etc., show equally that the natives of Australia are, speaking generally, in a primitive and not in a degenerate condition. [pp. 14-15]

The recently extinct Tasmanians afforded a most interesting example of arrested development. Not only were they still in their stone age, but the fact of their never having shaped their implements of stone by rubbing or polishing, but by chipping or flaking only, and that of the simplest kind, and their never having hafted them in handles, seem to refer back their condition of culture to that of the earliest palaeolithic times, and to present them to the anthropologist as survivals from almost the earliest periods of human development. Their stone implements were far ruder in fact than the better examples of palaeolithic stone work in Europe, and in variety of design extremely limited, and their general inferiority in workmanship was unrelieved by examples which betrayed in any way wht might be considered as more than very moderate skill in manufacture. Were it not for their ruthless extermination by the savage methods of intruding civilisation, which resulted in their complete extinction in 1876, this interesting race would still have been living, an instance of persistence of primitive conditions which seem strange to us when we think of the strides made by civilisation elsewhere. [pp. 16-17]

Balfour's paper about glass weapons made using 'stone tool technology'

At the time that Balfour wrote this paper, for the Royal Anthropological Institute, he was actually its President. He opens the paper:

The spear heads made with such skill by natives of N.W. Australia from broken glass bottles, telegraph insulators, and the like, have long been familiar objects in museums and private collections ... many of these spear-heads are really beautiful objects, and in delicacy of manufacture and symmetry of shape they compare very favourably with neolithic work of a high class. [Balfour, 1903]

Balfour had wondered how the 'natives' came by 'their excellent results' and thought it 'would be probably be agreed, that in view of the extreme simplicity of the tools used in the operation of shaping pieces of broken glass bottles &c. into spear-heads, the principal factors in the operation are extreme delicacy in manipulation, and perfect knowledge of the peculiar qualities of the material'. Balfour had therefore asked Dr E. Clement, 'who has travelled much in Western Australia and made extensive collections to find out how the work is done, and also to bring me home the tools employed'.

The implements consisted of '(a) a water-worn pebble ... (b) a piece ... of leg-bone of a sheep'. The stone was used 'for striking off and pressing off flakes from the glass', the bone 'was used in the final shaping of the spear-head'. It is clear from the following section that Balfour tried to duplicate this effect and employed the technology himself, in the photograph that accompanied the short note two hands are shown employing the 'Manner of manipulating the glass against the bone, in the process of pressing off flakes':

The developing spear head was held in both hands in the position shown in the photograph, and the edges pressed with a slightly rotary movement against the edges of the broken end of the bone, which was held down with the fingers of the left hand. In this manner flakes were detached with considerable accuracy, and the serrated edgess of the blade were formed by flaking deeper at regular intervals. The edges of the bone have been partially smoothed by rubbing, presumably to improve their shape for the process of flaking the glass.

Australian stone tools donated by Henry Balfour

The following Australian stone tools were donated by Henry Balfour. It is clear that he collected these from other people or from shops

1894.21.20 Accession Book Entry - Nov. Native flint chisel mounted in black gum, N. Queensland

1914.70.2 Accession Book Entry - Aug From a shop in Melbourne - Woman's knife of chert set in spinifex gum, the blade made from a flake with bevelled edge worked on one surface only, Macdonnell Ranges, Cent. Australia ... Pd petty cash Aug 15 17/6

1917.9.5-8 Accession Book Entry - 1917. 4 rough stone axe-blades, two with ground edges and 2 with edges flaked, Keilor, Salt Water R., Victoria, found by [illegible] J. Wallace

1918.46.12 Accession Book Entry - December 1918. - Ground stone axe hafted with a flexible stick bent round and fixed with gum, N. Queensland, 1867 (F.C. Kinchant)

1918.46.13 Accession Book Entry - December 1918. - Fine ground stone axe blade, flaked all over, very slightly ground, N. Queensland, 1867 (F. C.Kinchant)

But these items were found by Henry Balfour during his 1914 visit to Australia, the accession book entries are given:

1917.9.9 Part of broken grinding stone (?for grinding stone axes) ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914.

1917.9.10 Rough quartzite ?scraper ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914

1917.9.11 Small scraper of black stone ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914

1917.9.12 Rough scraper with point of black stone ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914

1917.9.13 Flake worked to delicate point ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914, described on the label attached to the artefact more fully: Pitt Rivers Museum label - VICTORIA, Keilor, Salt Water River, old camp-site. Implement of "Woakwine point" type.

1917.9.14 Hammer-stone; ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914

1917.9.15 Several cores and spalls of stone and flakes ... picked up by H. Balfour at Keilor, 1914

1917.9.16 Very rough stone axe made from a thick outside flake, ... picked up by H. Balfour at Maribyrnong, Salt Water R., Victoria.

1917.9.17 small flake trimmed to a curve along one edge (resembling a rough 'pigmy' type), ..... picked up by H. Balfour at Maribyrnong, Salt Water R., Victoria.

1917.9.18 flake worked to a point (point broken by flaking along on edge ..... picked up by H. Balfour at Maribyrnong, Salt Water R., Victoria.

1917.9.19 several flakes, picked up by H. Balfour at Maribyrnong, Salt Water R., Victoria.

1917.9.16 .1 Very rough stone axe made from a thick outside flake, ... picked up by H. Balfour at Maribyrnong, Salt Water R., Victoria.

Stone tools from Tasmania, Australia, donated by Balfour are listed here.

Balfour also donated four 1938.35.1401-4 Accession Book Entry [Balfour 5] - 2071-2074. Four native made spear-heads of bottle glass; specially fine examples. N. W. Australia. Pres. by R.F.W. [1] (In wooden frame with glass cover).

Further Reading

Balfour, Henry. 1893. 'The Evolution of Decorative Art: An essay upon its origin and development as illustrated by the art of modern races of mankind. London: Rivington, Percival and Co.

Balfour, Henry. 1903. ‘35. On the method employed by the natives of N.W. Australia in the Manufacture of Glass Spear-Heads’ Man vol. 3 p. 65


[1] R.F.W. is Robert Francis Wilkins, Balfour's father-in-law.

 Technologies & Materials