Dreaming History for the Pelican:

The Deep History of Aboriginal Trade and Exchange Networks in the Top End of the Northern Territory

How Leilira Blades are Made •   Leilira Blades and Winnun •   Dreaming History from the Pelican •   In the Shadow of More Impressive Events: Boomerang Exchange

How Leilira Blades are Made

Informants described the four basic steps involved in the manufacture of Leilira blades. To place the study in context, these steps are outlined below, supplemented by some archaeological observations.

1. The quartzite occurs naturally as cobbles and boulders, generally greater than 20cm in diameter. These are mostly buried beneath a clayey black soil. The rocks are dug from the ground using wooden sticks, or more recently metal crow-bars. Digging usually takes place in areas where the soil has already been disturbed by previous visits and so circular pits tend to form and extend downwards.

2. The mined rock is then placed in piles and wood is stacked on top of the heaps and set on fire. If a piece of rock is too large to dig out of the ground it may be left and a fire built around it. The fire is kept alight for several hours during the day and then the rock is allowed to cool overnight during which time it can be heard to crack loudly. The purpose of the firing, according to the informants, was simply to crack the rock and break it up, while at the same time removing any faults which may affect knapping. A similar procedure has been described by Ackerman (1979) in Western Australia and by Thomson (1949) at Njillipidji Leilira quarry in nearby Arnhem Land.

3. The following day the heaps of fire-cracked rocks are examined and pieces considered to be suitable for immediate use as cores are selected and removed. Alternatively, large rocks are selected and struck to remove massive flakes which are then used as cores. Cores appear to be selected for their size and for the presence of a suitable platform for blade manufacture. It was difficult during discussion, however, to determine what a suitable core size was, other than it should be big enough to permit the removal of a blade (the average blade length is about 16cm).

4. From reports of the procedures involved and observations, core preparation is minimal. A rock of suitable size with at least one platform with an edge angle of about 90 degrees is not further modified; if necessary the edge of the platform is rubbed with another rock to remove any minor overhang. A hammer, traditionally made of chert but now made of the blunt end of a metal axe head, is used to strike off the blades using direct percussion. The blades are said to be removed from a single platform only, and only a few from each core. In a single session many cores were used to produce a great number of blades. Of this number only a few were taken away from the quarry, the majority being left for collection sometime later. Occasionally the unused blades would be bundled together and buried at the quarry in caches for recovery at a later date, but usually they were simply left on the surface at the place of production. The blades varied in size, ranging in length from 9cm to 29cm, and in width from 3cm to 7cm. Morphologically the majority are pointed trigonal primary flakes, though some have square distal ends and retouch along their margins. The purpose of retouch is to modify the shape of blades which would otherwise be discarded.


Akerman, K. 1979 Heat and lithic technology in the Kimberleys. Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 14.

Thomson, D.F. 1949 Economic structure and the ceremonial exchange cycle in Arnhem Land. Macmillan, Melbourne.

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Leilira Blades and Winnun

Information was sought from knowledgeable Aboriginal people about the function of the Leilira blades. Through a process of elimination it became clear after several months of discussion that the prime reason for making the artefacts was trade. My informants stated that the blades were traded locally between users/owners of the four blade quarries and also further afield to other Aboriginal groups, mainly to the northwest. The purpose of the exchange system was more difficult to elicit. The items traded are available widely throughout the region, so it does not appear to be initiated by demand for a scarce product. Anecdotal evidence suggested that each round of trading had a specific purpose, though they had in common the broad aims of maintaining social links and communicating information about matters such as land and resource ownership, social responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly details about Aboriginal creation myths, commonly referred to as the Dreaming or Dreamtime. How this information is transmitted is described in more detail below.

In the local rounds of blade exchange a group or individual who used or owned a quarry would trade a variety of items including Leilira blades, boomerangs, digging sticks and hair belts with other groups or individuals who used or owned another quarry. Each blade to be exchanged was wrapped in a sheath of paperbark (Melaleuca sp.). Sometimes a resin handle would be attached to the proximal end. The blades would then be tied using hairstring into bundles each containing about six artefacts. These bundles and the other trade items would then be taken to another blade quarry or meeting point where they would be exchanged for Leilira blades (from a different quarry) and perhaps other items. Alternatively the trade items would be given to the uncle of the quarry owner who would then give that person or group permission to quarry a number of blades, or perhaps simply to take a number of previously discarded blades. In any case blades would be traded for other apparently identical blades. Other items might also be given during the exchange depending on the agreed value of the trade items, which is arrived at on each separate occasion through discussion.

Trading at the local level was said to have occurred regularly, though there was no set timetable. Less often, people who used or owned the four quarries would pool a selection of blades, possibly representing all of the quarries, with other items such as boomerangs, ochre and digging sticks. These would usually be traded to a group living about 325km to the northwest at a small Aboriginal settlement called Yarralin. From there, after an unknown length of time, at least some of the same items would be traded a further 275km northwest to an Aboriginal community at Port Keats. In return for the trade bundle the people living around Elliott might receive a variety of items; those mentioned included large blades (the same as those traded up), small lancet flake spear points, hair belts, boomerangs, digging sticks, ground stone axes and bamboo spears. All of these items except bamboo spears, stone axes and lancet flakes are produced locally.

Immediately after trading it is uncertain if the traded items were distributed amongst people who had registered some claim to the artefacts. However, it was stressed that whatever happened to the blades locally those from each quarry would be kept separate and, at least ideally, would not be mixed. It was explained that each blade had a name, the name of its quarry of origin, and blades with different names should not be mixed. A blade may be called, for example, giru Kankiritja, signifying it as a blade from Kankiritja quarry. The separation of blades was said to be important because those from different places could be used to cure certain illnesses. If the wrong blade were used then the person might die. As the blades from the different quarries are the same in appearance and petrology it is uncertain whether they were marked in some way to allow them to be distinguished from each other, or if the system simply relied on memory.

Whether the trading took place locally or regionally, it was made clear that it was governed by strict codes of conduct apart from the naming of blades. These codes were part of the embedded meaning attached to each of the blades, and were communicated to young novices during initiation training. There were, for example, some restrictions on blade use. They were not to be carried around openly nor left lying about. When they were carried they were wrapped in bark and placed in string bags. These restrictions were apparently not associated with the raw material, as quartzite is ubiquitous both naturally and at most campsites (though not in blade form). It was the blade form itself which was the restricted item. Precisely what aspects of the form are significant in this context is hard to establish as the morphology of the artefacts varies slightly, though they are easily distinguishable from other artefact types.

Access to the blade quarries was also highly restricted. The conventions controlling it were learnt when young people were introduced to the different levels of meaning associated with the blades. They had to know that it is only the uncle (mother's brother) of the man who owns the land in which the quarry lies who has the right to hit the rock. If another man wanted to use the quarry then he may do so only after a payment is made to the uncle of the owner. If a person were to hit the rock without permission he would incur some form of punishment from a man who helps 'police' the land of the owner. This 'policeman' called, kulyungkulyungpi, is usually a person of status in the community. He may serve as 'policeman' for several areas, or ceremonies, which are directly managed by others. It is the role of the 'policeman' not only to protect property for the owner/manager, but he must also make sure the owner/manager is acting in the best interest of the community. The nature of restriction of access to resources is thus bound closely with the idea of responsibility for the Dreamings, or creation myths, associated with the resource and not necessarily with its scarcity or abundance. For example, the right to collect certain types of wood for boomerang manufacture is almost totally unrestricted even though the wood is fairly scarce in certain areas. However, the right to use particular trees is sometimes restricted depending on their association with mythical events or beings. Here access is controlled to ensure that the Dreaming is managed properly, in a way that causes no danger to the community.

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Dreaming History from the Pelican

For all of the quarries, as well as at most of the non-quarried outcrops, there exists a variety of myths related to the rock. Through a system of Dreaming tracks these myths in turn relate to other myths and features in the landscape. Such tracks extend over several hundred kilometres. A person who owns an outcrop therefore not only has a direct obligation to ensure that it is used properly, but is also responsible to those other people, at a vast distance, who have an interest in related myths along the Dreaming tracks. Given this situation, access to any rock outcrop may be restricted by factors such as the importance of the myths directly or indirectly related to the outcrops, the level of knowledge of a person who may want to use or visit the outcrop, or the gender of any such individual. These factors have combined to totally restrict access to some potential rock resources while leaving others relatively open. To illustrate, a myth that is associated with a blade quarry is recounted below. This myth is an important part of embedded meaning communicated when blades are exchanged. The recipients of the blades would understand this as part of a larger story associated with the blades. Through oral traditions this story would be related to young novices as part of their education about the structure of the cosmos. Other more mundane information, such as the notion of restricted access to sites would also be related providing novices with an important perspective about their own place in the society.

The recorded conversation took place at Kankiritja quarry and explains some of the general unrestricted Dreaming stories associated with the site. The names of the two men talking are Nuggett Collins Japarta (NC) and Abby Thomas Jungala (AT). The taped conversation has been edited slightly to remove irrelevant material and to help clarify some points.

NC: Pelican history.

AT: Pelican you call him. We call him wallambee.

NC: That's where they been comin' here [pointing around to the quartzite outcrops]. Land on this place. That why they call Kankiritja [means pelican landing place].

AT: Kankiritja this one now. That's his knife [pointing to a blade]. Pelican been have this. Cut anything or kill someone. And he used to have that spear, that mouth he got now, that pelican [showing how two blades, one on top of the other, makes the shape of a pelican's beak].

NC: That's the one pelican Dreaming, this one [points to a blade]. Pelican been come in, land here. Well this is the stone he made.

AT: He made him for knife. We call him giru [local name for the Leilira blade].

NC: Three names; giru, jabiri, marubu [different languages]. This one now. Pelican been land here. Oh, big mob. Million. That why the hill over there. That why the big hill right there, round and round. All this, all the way along. Some over there where we went this morning. This way. Keep going thataway and some big hill there now. This a pelican Dreaming. That's why he been come in. Make Dreaming stone.

AT: Yeah. Some all through. And that [fire for burning stone] come down from that way [pointing northwest]. That's them two sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk sing out kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri. He sing out like that. That's the one been made it. From our country.... They [the pelican] been bringing this [the blades] and that people [the two sparrowhawks] used to been using the fire sticks. They been bad eh? Some two been comin' along, they had him here. They been gone give it that fire stick on to them here.... Ah that good man. That's what we gotta do now, all do.

NC: Yeah, make a fire and he [the stone] burn and after that they gotta leave him outside until he cold, he really cold. And they used to hit him, that stone. He come out, that stone knife. Easy, like this now [pointing to a flake scar on a core]. That's where he came out, this one here. He came out. That's where the old people put that [i.e. where the core was struck to remove the blade], and he come out here. Just mark you can see. This one here. That's good knife. Good stone knife. That's because he hit thataway. Well he come out here. That's the mark. That's a good one. That's way get at from this stone. That's way old people used to get stone knife out of stone. They used to make a fire, big fire, and burn like this rock here. Big one. And leave outside till he cold. When he cold they start hit with the stone or might little tommy hawk and he come out.

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In the Shadow of More Impressive Events: Boomerang Exchange

To demonstrate the intricacies of exchange and the kinds of information that can be communicated as part of the movement of goods, an example is described below. It involved an exchange of boomerangs made in Elliott for items from the Aboriginal settlement at Yarralin 325km to the northwest. From Yarralin the exchange was continued through to Port Keats a further 275km away.

To understand this single trading cycle, it is essential to consider the motivation for the exchange. It arose primarily as a result of a number of accidental deaths that had occurred in tragic circumstances. This had caused many people to move from Elliott, and for the community to generally be regarded as tainted in the wider region by what were considered suspicious deaths. A number of older people were very distressed by this perception; they felt that a formal exchange of goods would communicate that the local community was able to assert its place within the wider area. In their view this would help heal the community through initiating an event which would illustrate to others that the stigma associated with the deaths had been overcome. The exchange was initiated through a series of telegrams and telephone calls. Arrangements were made for some bamboo spears to be flown by light aircraft from Port Keats to Yarralin via a small settlement near Yarralin called Timber Creek. It was decided after negotiations that boomerangs would be traded from Elliott in exchange for the spears. The people at Yarralin had arranged for some of the boomerangs to be flown to Port Keats after the exchange had taken place at Yarralin.

Wood for the boomerangs was collected over a period of about two weeks. This involved between one and four men making four one day trips. The type of wood used for boomerang manufacture comes from the bullwaddy tree (Macropteranthes kekwickii), which grows abundantly throughout the area. However, trips were never made to the nearest or most accessible sources of wood. Furthermore, even though the areas visited on the first trips contained ample wood to make return visits attractive, they were never seriously considered. The rationale behind this strategy seems to contain two elements. Firstly, the procurement plan seems analogous to that applied to quartzite, where people will not always choose the closest or most easily accessible source for the material. The only major difference between the wood and quartzite is that there appear to be few restrictions on ownership rights to the wood, whereas there are for the stone. There were some exceptions to this. For instance, if a tree were associated with a myth for which an individual or several individuals were responsible, then access to that tree might be restricted at some level. A second, and equally important reason for making an apparently simple procurement task more complicated, was the extended time it allowed for discussion between the older men collecting the wood. Each trip involved many hours of talk about the forthcoming exchange and the prestige this would confer on the community.

Most of the boomerang manufacture was undertaken at Elliott by the older men. Each man's contribution to the trade bundle was noted so that a corresponding share of the exchange items offered would be received in return. Thirty boomerangs were made and covered in a red ochre which had been quarried to the south and traded to Elliott in a previous exchange. The bundles were tied together, three bundles of seven and one of nine. I asked several times why one of the bundles had nine and the others only seven. They replied that all had seven. The bundles were then driven to Yarralin, where within an hour of arrival three men paid a visit to the Elliott men's camp and each was given a bundle of boomerangs; at this point nothing was given in exchange. Early the next morning the men from Elliott drove to the opposite end of Yarralin to an area reserved for ceremonial purposes. Shortly after, twenty to thirty local men arrived for discussions. A car then arrived carrying a bundle of seventeen bamboo spears which were exchanged for the remaining bundle of boomerangs. Some more discussion ensued and a bolt of red cloth was added to the spears as payment for the boomerangs. Both the cloth and the spears were then loaded onto our truck and within ten minutes we departed.

On return to Elliott the spears and the cloth were divided amongst the men who had made the boomerangs. During the following months these items fell into disuse through breakage or damage, or were stored and traded again or were given away, or occasionally sold to European tourists. The value of the items is clearly not, however, measured in utilitarian terms. To further illustrate this point, one of the men from Elliott was given a Kung Fu video cassette as part of another exchange. This occurred despite the fact that nobody at Elliott had a video cassette player. This point was discussed during the exchange, but in the end was not considered to be important. The cassette was left out in the sun and then later thrown in the sand and presumably destroyed having served no utilitarian function at all.

That trade items such as boomerangs, video cassettes and spears are not being conserved but are allowed to fall into disrepair might suggest that a system operates which promotes the destruction of exchange goods thus preventing inflation of the exchange system and the subsequent social devaluation of the goods. Such an explanation might also apply to the destruction of the blades, but considerable care must be taken in applying such an argument. It may be an oversimplification of the role of blades in the society to state that they are being destroyed simply to regulate their supply and consequently make them more socially valuable as a currency of communication. A problem which has not yet been addressed and which will ultimately require resolution is whether a scarce product does in fact become a more valued good.

This example of exchange clearly shows the embedded social value of the artefacts. Certainly, there is little evidence to support the propositions that either the Leilira blades or the boomerangs are intrinsically valuable either as utilitarian items or as a raw materials which are later used to manufacture more functional tools. There is no substantive evidence that either class of artefact was used, or that either raw material would be difficult to obtain if it were desired for day-to-day tool manufacture. The real value of these artefacts lies in the socially indispensable messages they help communicate. This is especially the case in hunter-gatherer societies whose members at times of great stress must rely on their wide social ties for long term survival. But the exchanged artefacts serve more than this basic single purpose. They also transmit an extensive amount of knowledge regarding social mores such as ownership rights, and perhaps most importantly they are symbols of vital information about creation myths. As Stanner (1933-34: 160) noted, the exchange of goods may take place 'in the shadow of more impressive events.'


Stanner, W.E.H. 1933-34 Ceremonial economies of the Mulluk Mulluk and Madngella tribes of the Daly River, North Australia. A preliminary paper. Oceania. IV (2): 156-75 & IV (4): 458-71.

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