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Decorated knives and sheaths

These rare Aboriginal stone knives were collected by Walter Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen during an expedition to Central Australia in 1901–02.

The knives were manufactured by people from the Warumungu and Tjingali groups near Tenant Creek. The blades are made from quartzite stone, which is still available at several quarries in the region. The handles are fashioned from carved lengths of mulga wood and spinifex resin. Some knives had a sheath manufactured from strips of bark from the paperbark tree and other sheaths were made from feathers.

The decorations on the handles are composed of natural pigments, including charcoal, yellow ochre and white pipe clay. Although Spencer and Gillen did not record the meaning of these designs, they appear to represent—in iconographic form—the various totemic ancestors associated with either the maker or owner of the knives. Of particular interest is the close resemblance these designs have with contemporary forms of Aboriginal art from Central Australia.

Although unsuitable for cutting wood, the knives were indispensable for butchering kangaroo, emu, possum and other game. They were also used for a number of customary purposes, including ritualised fighting, initiation and other ceremonies. For example, during mourning rituals, men who stood in a certain relationship with a dead relative were obliged to cut their thighs and shoulders with these knives as a mark of respect for the deceased.

Decorated knives and sheaths (1901–02)
 Decorated knives and sheaths (1901–02)

 Decorated knives and sheaths (1901–02)

 Decorated knives and sheaths (1901–02)

 Decorated knives and sheaths (1901–02)
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Decorated knives and sheaths (1901–02)
Dimensions L 20 x W 4 cm (average)
Registration No. X 27753
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia