The Material Properties of a Papua New Guinean Adze

Work conducted with:  The British Museum, UCL Ethnographic Collection

By:  Sarah McFalls, Molly Johanssen

Summer 2013

UCL’s Ethnographic Collection, comprising over 3000 artifacts, contains objects from every continent of the world, made out of every kind of material, and referencing many different cultural groups and practices. Originally part of the Henry Wellcome non-Medical collection, the collection was gifted to UCL in the early 1950s and has been periodically added to over the years through fieldwork. The collection was separated from its original catalogue and supporting documentation and arrived in UCL as essentially a series of orphaned objects. We wanted to explore what we could learn from the objects themselves, starting first and foremost with their material properties, respecting the objects rather than considering them as ‘representative’ examples of cultural contexts elsewhere. A greenstone adze from Papua New Guinea was one of the objects selected for this project.

Our starting questions were:

  • What kinds of cultural information, context and knowledge may be found in the form of the object itself?
  • What kinds of research methods can be developed from a focus on the material or physical properties of objects?
  • What methods can we, as anthropologists, contribute to others (material scientists, artists, and so on) working with materials?

The main question of the research was how one could relate to a perceivably voiceless object. One way of acquiring adze stones in Papua New Guinea has been through hunting and capturing them, like prey. Certain people would have the ability to see the stones fly or hear them under ground and would dig them up (Pétrequin 2006). In a way that was what we were trying to do. We were training ourselves to be able to look/listen/smell/taste/ feel a material and understand its potential as an object, and to understand the transformative process materials go through in contact with people.

Over the course of the project we realised our interactions with the adze brought life to all types of stone, and subsequently also animated our surroundings. Sound and the lack thereof had been a recurring theme, and the properties by which we came to know the adze as more than an object. Sound defied our expectations and by doing so defined what the project meant for us.

We began collecting noises from various stone interactions, between stone and many other materials, and from everyday life situations. We used these sounds to show the transformation a material and object can go through. As urban areas are to a large degree concrete and stone based, we engaged with the stones and became aware of the noises of the city in a much more acute way. Listen to a city street you no doubt will hear a plethora of stone and stone- like interactions, which has influenced our way of experiencing, and interacting with stone.

As artists, we began to deploy artistic methods to try to move our work in directions where traditional anthropological methods, such as ethnography and library research, could simply not go.


Our collection process was simple in that we tried to isolate the sounds that go unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of city life. As we listened to them one by one, we came to an unexpected realisation. Although what we heard did not always reveal the material interaction, it did enable us to sense movement. For instance, in our sound sample “stone interacting with bare fingers” we were able to hear the tonal shift produced while touching the adze. We challenged the assumptions and expectations about what sounds stones can make through our collection’s varied soundscape of the human-stone relation. This process exposed the complicated human-object relationship and the fact that some properties, such as sounds, are the result of an interplay that would otherwise be silent.

Using the sounds we captured, we developed ways of presenting the stone adze to a heritage audience, evoking the many ways in which people engage with stone.  Alongside of ethnographic information about the cultures and relationships and knowledges surrounding Papua New Guinean Adzes, we awakened the different interiorised, often subconscious, knowledges which many people across the world may have of stone and stones.

More details of the project can be found in the self-published volume ‘Properties and Social Imagination’, which is available through the Material World bl;og as a pdf or as a printed book:

Pétrequin, Pierre & Pétrequin, Anne-Marie. 2006. Objets de Pouvoir en Nouvelle- Guinée: Catalogue de la Donation Anne-Marie et Pierre Pétrequin. Paris: RMN

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