A long history of stone use

How long has lithic work been done in Aotearoa New Zealand, and what does it tell us? Northland’s professional quarry workers learn about the long history of stone use with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager, Bill Edwards.


“Members of Quarrying New Zealand are passionate about their profession – and so they were interested in learning more about the long history of stone use in this country,” says Bill, who is an archaeologist by training.

“There is a strong interface between quarrying sites and archaeological sites associated with pre-European stone use – basically over the centuries, people have been drawn to wherever the stone is.”

As well as being highly skilled at carving and working with wood Māori also used different kinds of lithics, or rocks, for a wide variety of purposes including taonga, tools, weapons, fishing, cooking and horticulture according to Bill.

“The taonga they produced, as well as day-to-day objects like adzes and fish-hooks made from different rock materials are often as impressive as wooden carvings associated with Māori that are renowned throughout the world,” he says.

“What’s also interesting, particularly from an archaeological perspective, is what the distribution of lithic material around the country tells us about how Māori society evolved and thrived over the centuries.”

Evidence from archaeological excavations shows that Māori were actively sourcing rocks and minerals from different sites around the country as soon as they began to settle in Aotearoa.

“At Wairau Bar in the Marlborough region for example – one of the earliest sites of Polynesian settlement – archaeologists found adzes made from basalt sourced from Tahanga in the Coromandel, and a pendant carved from Serpentine, which is found near Bluff, Te Kuiti and Nelson,” says Bill.

“What that tells us is that within a generation, the Polynesian explorers who subsequently settled here and whose descendants became distinctly and identifiably Māori, travelled all over the country finding stone resources. For people who had travelled thousands of kilometres across the Pacific, it would have been no problem to scoot around the North and South Islands looking for resources.”

Aotearoa offered lithic bounty that must have been almost unimaginable to the arrivals from Polynesia.

“Obsidian was especially prized. Easily flake-able and producing a clean, sharp edge for cutting, obsidian is found in some of the earliest excavated archaeological sites,” he says.

“Often obsidian in these early settings came from Mayor Island and was heavily traded – a reflection of its value. Again, obsidian was discovered early and used extensively around the country, and from an archaeological perspective is really useful in being able to date sites.”

The colour and chemical composition of obsidian provides information about where it came from and enables archaeologists to track people’s movements and identify early trade routes. In latter years, other sources of obsidian were found around the North Island – including Kaeo.

Changes in the availability of some lithic resources also fostered new technology.

“By the 15th Century, sources of Argillite found predominantly in the Marlborough region had largely run out, and other alternatives were needed,” he says.

“Basalt and other rocks were used. Instead of being able to flake the tools into shape like they were able to do with Argillite, however, Maori instead shaped rock by ‘pecking’ it with a hammer stone which was harder than the adze blank and then grinding it smooth. The new technique of grinding and pecking replaced flaking.”

Besides the considerable skill required in shaping rock that was not particularly yielding at the best of times, patience was also needed – in enormous quantities.

“With the manufacture of a pounamu adze, for example, the craftsman would paintstaking shape the piece of stone by using a sharpened bevel made from greywacke and work it back and forth across a line in the stone using quartzite sand as a cutting agent – eventually cutting through it sufficiently to enable it to be snapped,” he says.

“The pounamu could then be shaped further and finally polished. The whole process is likely to have taken months. What’s amazing is the delicate intricacy of many of these greenstone taonga, which can range from patu pounamu through to fishhooks and minnow lures.”

Even workaday ‘2B’ adzes as archaeologists call them – “the Toyota Corolla of the adze world” used largely for everyday tasks – were the result of hours of shaping and grinding by skilled hands.

“Aotearoa-New Zealand has a very long history of people using lithic resources mined from the land dating to the earliest human arrivals in the country,” says Bill.

“People involved in quarrying around the country are part of that continuation of use.”

John O'Hare