Author: Paul Irish and Tamika Goward
An Aboriginal stone axe head, also called a ‘ground-edge hatchet’, was found in a road cutting behind St Mary’s Cathedral in 1876. The hatchet would have started its life as a large flat river pebble made of hard, volcanic stone which Aboriginal people collected or quarried. It would have been ground down to form a sharp edge for chopping. Grooves in sandstone outcrops near rock pools or creeks around Sydney show that these were places where stone hatchets were fashioned into their final form. The hatchet heads were tied and glued (with resin) onto a wooden handle, like the second image pictured above.
Hatchets had a number of uses for Aboriginal people. Apart from cutting wood, they were used to cut bark from trees to make canoes, shields, containers and other implements. Hatchets were also used to cut foot holds in trees so Aboriginal people could climb them to catch possums or to collect honey and edible grubs.
For early Europeans in Sydney, and later collectors, stone hatchets were a large and very recognisable type of Aboriginal stone tool. For this reason, collectors removed stone hatchets from Aboriginal sites for many years so they are not found often today by archaeologists. The St Marys Cathedral hatchet was probably collected in this way. It formed part of a large collection of Aboriginal artefacts donated to the Australian Museum in 1895 and was the first stone artefact from the Sydney region to be registered in its collections.
We do not know how old the hatchet is, but these tools were used in the Sydney area within the last 4,500 years. The type of cobble used to make it was not found around the city area or anywhere nearby. The nearest location is around the Nepean River in western Sydney, but cobbles and finished hatchets were also obtained from much further away. Archaeologists are starting to use the unique chemical signatures of these hatchets to find where the stones originally came from. A hatchet excavated by archaeologists at Vaucluse, for example, was found to have been made from a cobble sourced from the Bathurst area, 200 kilometres to the west. So the St Marys Cathedral hatchet not only tells us how Aboriginal people lived in Sydney, but how they were connected to other groups by long distance trade.
V Attenbrow, 2010. Sydney’s Aboriginal Past. Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records (Sydney, UNSW Press).
V Attenbrow, I Graham, N Kononenko, T Corkill, J Byrnes, L Barron and P Grave, 2012, ‘Crossing the Great Divide: a ground-edged hatchet-head from Vaucluse, Sydney‘, Archaeology in Oceania 47(1): 47-52.
Australian Museum Registration Number E005161.