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Geoscience Society: Recognition of NAIDOC week

Aboriginals as first miners, processing and traders

In recognition of the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee [NAIDOC], the following article was compiled from on-line material.


Stone was the heaviest and most durable material available to First Peoples across Australia. The use of metal was unknown until contact with Indonesian fisherman in the Northern Territory in the 17th century, and in later times with Europeans.

Ground-edge stone hatchets can be produced from a range of raw materials including river cobbles in a number of sites across Australia. There are only a few quarries that were intensively worked and the stone hatchet heads from these quarries were traded over long distances.

Mining Policy.

The ground stone hatchet heads and the quarries from which they were obtained are the product of social and technological adaptations by Aboriginal people in response to the expansion of woodlands during the late Holocene. Throughout Australia, Aboriginal people used axes to cut down small trees, chop wood, remove tree bark for canoes and shelters, butcher large animals and undertake many other tasks. The axe was used to make notches for footholds in tree trunks and to enlarge holes in trees to access small animals. They were also used as weapons, ceremonial objects and valuable trade items.
They were an important all-purpose tool as well as being an item of prestige. Material for these tools was obtained from specific quarries.

The Miners.

The Wurundjeri, a sub-group of the Woiworung, quarried greenstone at Mount William near Lancefield 10 km north of Romsey and 78 km from Melbourne, Australia, to make hatchet blanks. Although we do not know exactly when this started it must have been sometime in the last 1,500 years, the period during which Aboriginal people in south-east Australia used greenstone hatchets.

In the 1880s prominent Wurundjeri leader and custodian of the quarry, William Barak (who probably witnessed the final operations at the quarry) described the traditional ownership and access conventions to ethnographer, Alfred Howitt. There were places in which the whole tribe had a special interest. Such a place was the “stone quarry” at Mount William… which had a network of leading men who jointly had custodial rights in the quarry. There were four men who acquired the responsibility of ownership and control of the quarry. When neighbouring tribes wanted stone for tomahawks, they usually sent a messenger to trade with the headman.

Distinctive Geology

Mount William lies within one of six Cambrian greenstone belts in Victoria where several other greenstone quarries have also been found including Mount Camel, Howqua River, Cosgrove, Jallukar, Berrambool and Baronga on the Hopkins River; and Ceres and Dog Rocks near Geelong.

These axe-heads are made from greenstone – a rock typically dark green in colour due to the high chlorite content – which was often selected for making tools as it is tough and easy to grind. Much of Victoria’s greenstone can be traced to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring (Woi Wurrung language for tomahawk place) also known as Mount William. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is one of Victoria’s six greenstone quarries which are in a formation aligned north to south throughout central Victoria.

Mining & Processing

The Mount William Aboriginal stone axe quarry comprises the remains of hundreds of mining pits and the mounds of waste rock where Aboriginal people obtained greenstone (diabase), and manufactured stone blanks for axe heads. There are 268 mining pits, 18 of which are several metres deep, where sub-surface stone was quarried. The area is surrounded by at least 34 discrete flaking floors, with mounds of debris up to 20 metres in diameter and some featuring a central outcropping rock used as an anvil. The Traditional Owners of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, the Wurundjeri peoples, dug deep pits to reach the unweathered stone underground, or heated the surface of outcrops (above-ground boulders) to break away pieces of rock. Using a large boulder as an anvil, they shaped the stone into a roughed-out hatchet head. However, none of the axes at Mount William have been ground and polished into finished hatchet heads.

The stone was quarried from the source outcrops, and roughly flaked into blanks, then taken away for finer flaking and grinding the edge. The nearest axe grinding grooves can be found at Mount Macedon, about 29 kilometres away, where analysis of stone fragments showed they were the same diabase stone as the Mount William greenstone. The hatchet heads were traded in their rough form, then worked, polished and shaped by their new owners to meet their specific requirements.

Trade in stone.

In the 1940s, Fred McCarthy identified a south-east Australia route associated with Mount William among his seven trunk-trade routes.  …the south-east Australia route extends from south and central Queensland down the Paroo and Warrego River to the Darling, which it follows to the Murray River and links up with the barter along this river; it then passes down the Lower Murray where it connects with a route from central Victoria (Mount William), and at Lake Alexandrina joins the Glenelg River-Coorong-Port Augusta-Lake Eyre route.

Greenstone hatchet heads were prestigious items traded over much of south-eastern Australia, creating social links and obligations between neighbouring groups. The greenstone originating from Wil-im-ee Moor-ring had a wide distribution reaching a distance of up to 800 kilometres, and can be traced northwards across the Murray, up the Darling River as far as Broken Hill, across western Victoria into South Australia and to the mouth of the Murray River.

Mine closure.

Mount William had long been recognised as a special Aboriginal place when the first attempt was made to provide some formal protection in 1910. The Director of the Museum of Victoria, Baldwin Spencer, sought to establish a committee in association with the Historical Society of Victoria that was not able to purchase a portion of the area to form a reserve. In 1997 the Shire of Romsey (now Macedon Ranges Shire Council) gifted their land to the Indigenous Land Corporation, which subsequently put the site under the management of the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Compensation and Cultural Heritage Council, It has also been included on the Register of the National Estate and the Australian National Heritage List.


Mount William stone axe quarry

Museums Victoria Collections

Romsey, Victoria, Australia


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