Phallic objects an ancient PNG status symbol?

By Joanna Egan 26 November 2013
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Phallus-shaped stones recently discovered in Papua New Guinea may hold ancient cultural clues.

THE DISTINCTLY PHALLIC SHAPE of a collection of recently discovered stone tools in Papua New Guinea suggests they may have been an ancient status symbol, say Australian researchers.

The cache of elaborately crafted tools was discovered at a construction site on New Britain Island, north-eastern PNG, in late 2010. Between 6000 and 3000 years old, the tools are made of a type of volcanic glass called obsidian and, remarkably, several of them are shaped as phalluses.

The discovery suggests ancient PNG societies traded decorative objects much earlier than previously thought, according to archaeologists from the Australian Museum Research Institute.

“I was very surprised by the finds because there were five tools all made in the identical phallic shape,” lead researcher Dr Robin Torrence told Australian Geographic. “It seems that male sexuality was among the traits that played a significant role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of these ancient people.”

Ancient PNG objects hint at sexuality

According to the findings, published this week in scholarly journal Australian Archaeology, the significance of the phallus symbol remains unclear. “It could indicate that the tools were used in an initiation ritual for boys or girls,” says Robin. “Another theory is that the shape could refer to the power and status of the person who owned this object.”

The discovery of a number of phallus-shaped objects in one location suggests the site is important; it could be a place where a high-status person was buried, or where powerful objects were stored.

“Never before have we found a group of identical tools in one location,” Robin says. “Finding five tools with the same shape helped us realise that the objects must have had important meaning for these ancient people.”

Using a portable x-ray fluorescence machine, Robin and her team measured the chemical composition of the artefacts. They then used a digital microscope to closely examine the edges of the tools in order to determine whether they were used for daily tasks, or whether they were more likely used in ceremonies and for trade.

“The x-ray fluorescence analysis enabled us to show that the tools were made at obsidian outcrops located more than 100km away,” says Robin. “The microscope study suggested that the thin sharp edges had never been used.”

The lack of daily use suggests the tools had a more ceremonial application. “We have shown that the large obsidian ceremonial objects must have been made by highly skilled craftspeople, that they were traded over a very large area, and that they had shapes that carried meaning,” says Robin. “We are painting a very different picture of this ancient time.”

Artefacts of Papua New Guinea

The research sheds new light on a period of PNG’s history for which there are very few archaeological sites. Prior to the discovery of these stone tools, which could be 6000 or more years old, very little archaeological evidence had been found to suggest people in New Britain were trading decorative ceremonious objects earlier than 3350 years ago.

Robin hopes that by publishing information about this discovery, other examples of obsidian tools from the period currently hidden away in private collections or museums may be recognised.

Dr Alice Gorman, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, agrees. “It will be really interesting to see if more examples turn up now that the objects have been identified for the first time,” she says.

“While we don’t know much about the social life of this period; the phallic stones suggest that gender was being reinforced or challenged through material culture,” Alice adds.

“These extraordinary artefacts are a really clear example that, for these people, stone tools were more than purely functional – they operated in symbolic and intangible realms.”