More than a chip off the old block
: a prehistoric sandstone quarry - the notion of production & exchange

  • Kenneth Mulvaney

    Student thesis: Masters by Research - CDU


    The archaeology of the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory is poorly understood. A number of unpublished reports held by the Northern Territory Museum provide some information concerning the distribution and type of sites which occur. Evident is the widespread occurrence of sandstone grinding implements throughout the region. Although sandstone outcrops are found within the Ashburton Range, which lies between Elliott and Tennant Creek on the western margin of the Barkly Tablelands, only one sandstone quarry has been identified. This site is located on Helen Creek.

    Archaeological research was undertaken to investigate the nature of production and distribution of the sandstone artefacts produced at the Helen Springs quarry. Of particular interest were the technological aspects relating to quarrying and reduction, and how the various archaeological components of the site are linked.

    This Helen Springs quarry is also a place of cultural significance to the Aboriginal people of the area. They refer to the site as Kurutiti and associate it with the two sister snake, Milywaru tradition. Aspects of the mythology pertaining to the Milywaru tradition relate to the appearance and distribution of the sandstone outcrops and milling implements.

    Dominating the physical character of the site is the extensive belt of angular sandstone blocks and rubble spread over some 400 m by 300 m. Numerous sandstone pieces reveal the quarrying technology and the process of reduction. It is evident that more than flakes and chips were being removed from the jointed blocks of bedrock. In fact. large slabs of sandstone were being manufactured to form grinding implements.

    Over 2.200 petroglyphs are present at the site, situated on the bedrock and loose sandstone pieces associated with the quarry and reduction areas. This places Kurutiti as one of the largest repositories of rock art in the region. Macropod tracks, bird tracks, and geometric designs dominate the subjects depicted. In addition, scattered over the ground surface in the places associated with the sandstone reduction areas are flaked stone artefacts. Points and adzes are the most frequently occurring tool types. Locally available silcrete is the predominate rock type utilised, although amongst the adzcs sonic 60% are made from banded chert derived from throughout the Barkh Tablelands.

    In evaluating the significance of the Helen Springs quarry, the singular existence of this major archaeological site as the only feasible source of the dispersed grindstones across the region, presents a challenge. An examination of ethnographic reports and contemporary Aboriginal oral history suggests that a system of linked gift exchange sustained through regional ceremonial performances may well provide an explanation. In this view, the Kurutiti site provided a central focus within this exchange network enabling the scattered population of the Barkly Tablelands to maintain social ties and access to resources during times of environmental stress.
    Date of Award1997
    Original languageEnglish

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