‘It’s the Way it Shatters that Matters’: The Use of Glass by Aboriginal People in NMP Camps

By Lynley Wallis

Most people are well aware (at least in some general manner) of the momentous impact that the arrival of Europeans had on Aboriginal peoples and their ways of life in Australia. What is sometimes less acknowledged are the innovative ways that Aboriginal peoples adapted to the availability of new resources such as metal, ceramics and foodstuffs. Likewise, when glass became available in Australia, Aboriginal people readily adapted the techniques previously used to modify stone for the creation of sharp cutting edges so they could utilise this new raw material. This is especially the case on Native Mounted Police (NMP) sites in Queensland (Qld).

Stone knapping is a skill that has been around for millions of years, with human ancestors making stone artefacts before they had left the African savannah. To make a stone artefact with a sharp edge suitable for cutting (or scraping or piercing hides or many other tasks), you need to have a source of ‘flake-able’ stone (in technical terms this means one that is rich in silica so that it produces a ‘conchoidal’ fracture when struck) to serve as your ‘core’ and a harder stone to serve as a ‘hammerstone’. Then it is a matter of striking the core with the hammerstone at just the right angle, with the right amount of force, to make a ‘flake’ fall away from the core (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Diagram showing a core and flake stone artefact (image courtesy of https://la.utexas.edu/users/denbow/labs/lithic2.htm).

A flake can be recognised as being humanly produced by the presence of certain features, such as a striking platform, a bulb of percussion, a dorsal and ventral surface, and a termination. A core can be recognised by the negative impressions of some of these features (i.e. the reverse of what can be seen on the flakes). Once you know what to look for, both cores and flakes are easily recognised as being humanly produced, even if they have been broken, and are very different to natural rocks.

The characteristics that make silica-rich stone, such as chert, flint, obsidian, silcrete, quartz, chalcedony and quartzite, an excellent raw material for making flakes are the same ones that apply to glass. That is, they all:

  • Have no crystal structure, meaning they are ‘homogeneous’ (having the same mineral composition throughout) and ‘isotropic’ (having the same mechanical properties throughout), so flaking happens in predictable ways; and,
  • Are highly durable.

In our archaeological surveys of NMP camps, we often find large numbers of flaked glass artefacts. These include flakes (Figure 2) and cores (Figure 3), all of which are ultimately derived from the glass bottles that are so ubiquitous on the sites due to the high levels of alcohol consumption by officers on the frontier.

Figure 2 Glass flakes from Boralga (left; BOR-027767) and Boulia (right; BOU-035739).
Figure 3 Glass cores from Jundah Creek (left) and Mistake Creek (right) NMP camps.

Although we are still in the process of analysing these artefacts, a few things stand out. The cores are often very heavily worked. By this we mean that when the knapper has struck off one flake, they then rotate the core and take off another flake. Often they have repeated this process, using the same core, more than a dozen times. This is especially evidence in the core shown on the left of Figure 3.

While some of the flakes are large (up to 5 cm in maximum dimension, such as seen in the right of Figure 2), others are quite small (less than 1 cm in maximum dimension, such as seen in the left of Figure 2) and may have required hafting into a wooden handle in order to use them effectively.

In some cases, such as at the Mistake Creek NMP camp, we are even finding that people appear to have been simply smashing the bottle, and then selecting sharp fragments from the thinner walled, upper part of the vessel, and using them (to perhaps scrape animal or plant materials) without any further shaping or deliberate modification. In these cases it is the ‘edge-damage’, ‘use-wear’ and ‘residues’ on the pieces of glass that alert us to the fact that they had been used by people, rather than by the presence of a bulb of percussion or platform etc.

When flaking glass, people on the NMP sites seem to have preferred bottles of very dark green or black glass, although this might simply be a product of those coloured bottles being the most common on NMP sites. While we mostly find flakes and cores of dark coloured glass, we do find some very heavily worked colorless glass cores, such as seen on the left of Figure 3. Rarely do we find colorless glass flakes, suggesting perhaps they were taken elsewhere and used; the examples shown in Figure 4 from the Boralga NMP are somewhat unusual in this sense.

Figure 4 Colorless glass flakes from the Boralga NMP camp (BOR-034545). Flakes made on colorless (‘clear’) glass are far less common than those made on dark green or black bottle glass at NMP sites.

Although in places like the Kimberley, Aboriginal people used techniques such as ‘pressure flaking’ and retouch to produce stunning glass spear heads (which were oftentimes traded to Europeans), we haven’t yet seen any evidence of spear heads being produced from glass on the Qld NMP sites. This is no doubt in part because bifacial spear heads are not that common across Qld to begin with, but also perhaps because people were not interested in making ‘formal tool types’ but rather were interested in simply producing a flake with a sharp edge.

So, assuming that the European members of the NMP, who had no experience in knapping, were not making the glass flakes and cores that we find on the NMP camp sites, who was? And why?

There are several possibilities. As we discussed in an earlier post, many NMP camps were established adjacent to large, permanent water sources that were likely to have been important Aboriginal camping areas. As such, it is possible that prior to an NMP camp being established, local Aboriginal people had obtained glass from elsewhere and flaked it on the site. Then when the NMP arrive, the artefacts present on the site became mixed up with the NMP-period artefacts to form what is called a ‘palimpsest’. We certainly see the mixing of different periods of occupation at some sites where there are large quantities of stone artefacts across the landscape (such as at Boulia and Eyres Creek). However, we think this is only very a slight possibility in the case of the flaked glass artefacts given their abundance on many of the NMP sites. As most NMP camps were in remote areas, it is highly unlikely that before the NMP arrived Aboriginal people would have access to such an abundant source of glass for knapping as would have been necessary to produce the large glass assemblages we have seen.  So we don’t think the majority of the flaked glass artefacts could pre-date any of the NMP camps.

We have also considered whether the flaked glass artefacts post-date the NMP camps. It is possible that local Aboriginal people who survived frontier violence might have visited NMP sites after the police had abandoned the area and moved elsewhere, looting the dumps and knapping the discarded bottles they found. However, given the negative associations most local Aboriginal people would have had with NMP camps, we think it is unlikely that, had they looted the dumps, they would have stayed on site to do any knapping. Even today, more than 100 years later, many of the Aboriginal people we are working with have strong negative emotions towards the NMP, and often feel uncomfortable (or at the very least very sad) when visiting former NMP camp sites.

Thus, we think it is the Aboriginal people directly associated with the NMP camps who are most likely to have knapped the glass during the period of NMP occupation. While some NMP camps might have had “fringe camps” associated with them where local Aboriginal people lived, this seems unlikely to have been commonplace. Rather, most Aboriginal people who would have spent time in NMP camps were either troopers, or their partners and children.

Despite some people thinking that knapping was a male activity, there is plenty of evidence that women also made stone artefacts and were involved in the transportation of stone as a raw material (e.g. Arthur 2010; Gould 1977:166; Hamilton 1980:7; Hayden 1977:183, 185; Jones and White 1988:61, 83; Tindale 1972:246). The idea that only men knapped stone is largely a construct of the highly male-biased ethnographic research that was done into stone knapping through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Gero 1991). Since there were plenty of Aboriginal women in NMP camps there is no reason why these women, like Aboriginal troopers, could not have also been responsible for knapping glass bottles.

It is interesting to speculate on why Aboriginal people living in NMP camps would have knapped glass artefacts. Although we know that Aboriginal troopers were issued with equipment, such as clothing, cutlery and quart pots, there is little written evidence to suggest they were given knives, and little evidence to suggest that Aboriginal women were issued any such equipment (though they were often given some meagre quantity of rations).

Certainly at the Boralga NMP camp, where we have clear delineations between trooper and officer living areas, there is a marked difference in the material culture associated with each category of employee. For instance, in the trooper areas we see negligible quantities of ceramics and smaller quantities of bottle glass with very few intact bottles, and quite a lot of flaked glass aretefacts, whereas in the officer areas we see large quantities of ceramics and large numbers of intact bottles. We know from the food debris discarded at Boulia and Boralga NMP camps that Aboriginal people were supplementing their meagre rations with traditional foods such as kangaroos, fish and shellfish, and were likely using traditional methods and equipment to secure and process such food. As such, one possibility is that Aboriginal people, both men and women, were knapping glass to provide themselves with cutting implements necessary for daily life and survival because such objects had not otherwise available to them.

Another possibility is that the process of knapping allowed Aboriginal people who had otherwise been removed from their traditional lifeways and lands, to continue to maintain traditional cultural practices, albeit using a newly introduced material. Given the social, cultural and economic upheaval that they would have experienced in their lives, it is not hard to imagine them taking comfort and pride in maintaining knapping skills that, should they leave the Force, might prove critical to their survival.

It is also not hard to imagine, especially in the wet season when patrolling must have been limited by the state of the country, that knapping was a somewhat meditative means by which to pass the time on quiet days or in the evenings, perhaps similar to wood carving or whittling. The process of selecting a suitable glass bottle, finding a hammerstone that fits ‘just so’ in one’s hand and selecting where to strike the bottle base and with what force in order to produce a sharp-edged flake may have been a task that a person could lose themselves in, accompanied by the pleasing musical aspect of the hammerstone hitting the glass. There is a certain pleasure and pride that comes with making something with one’s own hands, and this may also have contributed to the production of glass artefacts, simply because one could and it was fun to do so.

The flaked glass artefacts found on NMP camps are a physical marker of Aboriginal cultural innovation and adaptation, and perhaps a sign of resistance: that, even though Aboriginal people were taking part (often not voluntarily) in a radically different social structure and living on country far away from their homelands, they were choosing to maintain practices that grounded them in their own cultural traditions.


Arthur, K.W. 2010 Feminine knowledge and skill reconsidered: women and flaked stone tools. American Anthropologist 112(2):228–243.

Gero, J.M. 1991 Genderlithics: women’s roles in stone tool production. In J.M. Gero and M. Conkey (eds), Engendering Archaeology : Women and Prehistory, pp.163–193. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Gould, R.A. 1977 Ethnoarchaeology, or, where do models come from? In RV.S. Wright (ed.), Stone Tools as Cultural Markers, pp.162–177. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Hamilton, A. 1980 Dual social systems: technology, labour and women’s secret rites in the eastern Western Desert of Australia. Oceania 51(1):4–19.

Hayden, B. 1977 Stone tool functions in the Western Desert. In R.V.S. Wright (ed.), Stone Tools as Cultural Markers, pp.178–188. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Jones, R. and N. White 1988 Point blank: Stone tool manufacture at Ngilipitji quarry, Arnhem Land 1981. In B. Meehan and R. Jones (eds), Archaeology with Ethnography: An Australian Perspective, pp.51–87. Occasional Papers in Prehistory. Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.

Tindale, N.B. 1972 The Pitjandjara. In M.G. Bicchieri (ed.), Hunters and Gatherers Today, pp.217–268. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

10 thoughts on “‘It’s the Way it Shatters that Matters’: The Use of Glass by Aboriginal People in NMP Camps

  1. Hi Lynley,

    Glass pieces (I hesitate to call them flakes) which have a nice sharp and relatively straight edge are preferentially used when making boomerangs for sale (David Dillon pers.comm.). There’s also literature on the use of glass in carpentry workshops as fine scrapers for finishing. Try Williamstown (I don’t have refs to hand). (f you haven’t considered this, perhaps a useful avenue?

    1. I believe that I have a very goog example of this use of glass found in my large garden in an old part of Ashfield today. It feels and looks like a genuine stone piece that I found in a midden at Bobbin Head

  2. Hi Lynley.

    Interesting speculations here. Do you know if there is ethnographic data on Aboriginal use of glass at native police camps, of is the interpretation based on the flakes themselves? And if so, how many flakes had covincing diagnostic features, residues or use wear. I ask because I often am dealing with unsupportable claims for Aboriginal glass flaking. See Richard Wright’s comments on Ozarch https://groups.google.com/forum/m/#!topic/ozarch/ygoB1Bb0P3s

    1. Hi Gary
      We literally have hundreds and hundreds of clear flakes with definite bulbs of percussion, and dozens of cores with multiple flakes removed from them. Anything that is questionable we haven’t categorised as being flaked or used. The assemblage from Boralga in particular is especially convincing because they are from a sub-surface, excavated context in a remote national park where no vehicles have ever driven over the area. As yet we don’t have ethnographic information, simply because no-one systematically recorded the activities of troopers or their wives at the NMP camps (though we do have a few rare comments in letters, such as from Stanhope O’Connor talking about the troopers taking metal and reshaping it to make axes and chisels to make shields and the like, and he drew a picture of the scar on tree trunk after the outer bark had been removed). The sheer numbers of the flaked glass artefacts at these NMP sites is what is going to make them especially valuable for other people to compare with, when the latter do only have a small number and there are doubts over their validity. We’re not talking one or two random pieces that might or might not have been flaked or that might have been caused by cattle trampling or a car driving over a bottle – these are absolutely, large assemblages of 100% unquestionably flaked bottle glass. We think we have a PhD student lined up to do a detailed analysis of them, though obviously their results will be sometime coming to fruition, however we wouldn’t have written a blog post on them if we were in any doubt whatsoever about whether they were really deliberately flaked or not. Cheers Lynley (PS While I can see the OzArch discussion, for some reason I am unable to log in and reply directly there, so will restrict my comments to this post, but if you want to copy and paste it to OzArch you’re welcome to).

    2. I think that I have an example of an aboriginal glass knife. I only wish that I could post you a picture.

  3. I would like to send a picture of what I believe is a knife fashioned from glass. It’s very similar in shape to a stone knife that I found at Bobbin head.

  4. Hi Lynley

    Interesting article but I don’t think local indigenous groups necessarily avoided using the local bottles. Here’s an interesting comment from the edge of the frontier in WA, 1898:

    They are savage and courageous, and are always waiting for an opportunity. If the heap of assorted ‘dead marines’ (empty beer bottles), which was left at Stockdale’s lagoons, and out of which the niggers used to fashion lovely spearheads—which were warranted to come off the shaft and shops in a man’s inside – is still there, the missionaries must have observed that Christians had been before them and failed. (‘More About the Aborigines’ Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette, 4 August 1898 p 4)

  5. Hi Lynley

    Re/ use of the glass, I guess you’ve read Tamika Goward’s thesis?

    I notice she quotes work in NT and Central Qld (the former a police camp) analysing use-wear of glass artefacts and the conclusion for those sites that the glass was primarily employed in wood-working such as making spears and thin clubs. So, fitting your concept of the glass being mainly trooper-made, and evidence that the troopers had to find their own tucker, it could pertain to making hunting gear. (see Tamika Goward, October 2011, Aboriginal Glass Artefacts of the Sydney Region, A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Archaeology, University of Sydney, 20).

  6. Many years ago an article came my way describing Aboriginal use of the porcelain caps used atop telegraph poles. also stated there was so much trouble given by Aborigines shinning up the poles and taking the caps and smashing them to gain the sharp edges required for their tools .
    Is this correct and if so, can someone provide me with a reference.

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