Image Decorated knives and sheaths, c1900

TLF ID R7780

This image shows five decorated stone knives and sheaths made by people of the Warumungu and Tjingali groups near Tennant Creek in central Northern Territory. The knife blades are three-sided and taper to a point. They were collected in 1901-02. Their average length is 20 cm long x 4 cm wide.

Educational details

Educational value
  • These rare stone knives were made using a piece of quartzite stone to strike flakes from a block of quartzite, the flakes then being struck until a suitable shape was produced. It involved both practice and an element of luck, with a high failure rate. The Warumungu and Tjingali people made knives for their own use, and for trading with other groups in central Australia. They used a similar process to make the pointed blades of picks, which were also traded.
  • The knives were used for utilitarian and ritual purposes. They were not suitable for cutting wood but were invaluable for butchering game such as kangaroos and emus. They were also used for customary purposes, including ritualised fighting and in initiation and other ceremonies. During mourning rituals, for example, some male relatives were required to use such knives to cut their thighs and shoulders as a mark of respect for the deceased.
  • Wood of the mulga tree ('Acacia aneura') has been used for the handles of the largest four of these knives. The blades were fixed to the handles by using resin from the leaf stalks of a species of 'Triodia', commonly known as spinifex or porcupine grass. The resin, collected by burning short pieces of spinifex on a sheet of bark, was moulded around the wood while still warm. When it cooled it set very hard.
  • The smallest knife in this group has a handle made of spinifex resin alone. In some Aboriginal groups, smaller knives with resin-only handles were observed being used only by women. These knives, which were generally easier to hold than those with wooden handles, were more useful for scraping than for cutting.
  • To protect the sharp blades two of these knives have sheaths. One sheath is made from strips of bark of the paperbark tree ('Melaleuca leucodendron'). Traditionally, this type of sheath would be held together with string made of vegetable fibre or animal fur, although in this example it appears European string was used. The smallest knife has a sheath decorated with emu feathers.
  • These knives and sheaths were collected by Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) and Francis (Frank) Gillen (1855-1912), who made a number of anthropological expeditions together to central and northern Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. From 1889 to 1928 Spencer was Honorary Director of the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria), and was responsible for development of its ethnographic collection.
  • The decorative lines and dots on the handles are painted on with natural pigments, such as charcoal, yellow and red ochre and white pipe clay. Red ochre has also been used to colour the resin. Spencer and Gillen believed the 'arrow' design, seen on the knife on the far left, represented an emu track. Other designs may represent the totemic ancestors of either the makers or owners of the knives.
  • Spencer recorded in 1914 that stone knives, axes and picks were still being used among those Aboriginal groups in central Australia who had thus far had limited contact with non-Indigenous people. However, they were 'yearly decreasing in numbers' as the use of European metal implements increased.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Museum Victoria
  • Organization: Museum Victoria
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Museum Victoria
  • Organization: Museum Victoria
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum Victoria, 2016, except where indicated under Acknowledgements