Professor Mark Moore says nominating his favourite 3D model among the extensive collection of virtual stone artefacts on the Museum of Stone Tools is the equivalent of asking: ‘which is my favourite child?’
Moore is an archaeologist at the University of New England and the Director and Principal Curator of the Museum of Stone Tools, a freshly launched online resource containing 3D models of stone artefacts from all over the world.
The Museum contains models of cores and flakes, axes, spear points, arrowheads and grinding stones. There are examples dating from 2.5 million years ago through to modern creations emerging from recent cultural revitalisation of traditional stone tool methods.
Visitors to the museum can click on and manipulate each 3D model – turning and viewing different facets, zooming in, and gaining a sense of colours, textures and materials.
Alongside each model, the website adds contextual information explaining the type, location and age of each stone tool, and archaeological and cultural heritage research detailing manufacturing techniques, or how an item was found and what it was likely used for.
Moore tells Cosmos the concept for the Museum materialised as a way to use his time productively when COVID-19 restrictions limited his ability to do archaeological field work.
But the open access resource was equally motivated by his desire to share his research and interest in stone artefacts beyond the rarefied audience of academia and journal papers.
Many of the Museum’s 3D models are drawn from resources developed by the University of New England since 2015 to support students studying archaeology online.
“One of the things we focus on is teaching students about objects and how to interpret objects from an archaeological perspective. It’s really hard to do when the students aren’t right in front of you in the classroom. So we started this initiative where we’ve made these 3D models. My expertise, being stone tools, is lots of 3D models of stone tools.”
Other examples and 3D models on display in the Museum have come through Traditional Owners, as well as teaching collections at universities and museums.
For example, the Museum’s blog explains how the Anaiwan people from Northern New South Wales are using 3D artefact modelling techniques as part of managing and preserving their cultural heritage, while ensuring stone artefacts can remain on, or be returned to Country.
Most of the Museum’s 3D models have been made using photogrammetry, where hundreds of photographs are taken at all angles of an artefact, then stitched together using a software program.
The Museum aims to promote stone tools research to a broad audience, including university researchers and students, members of the public, or even primary and secondary school teachers and students.
Moore first became interested in stone tools around the age of seven or eight, growing up in rural Indiana in the United States, surrounded by paddocks for growing soybeans and corn.
“As a kid there’s not a huge amount to do […] so you just tend to get up to stuff, walking through the woods, playing with friends, going across paddocks.”
One day, crossing one of those plowed fields, Moore found a Native American stone artefact, known colloquially as an arrowhead. “I was very excited about it, and that’s what started the interest.”
That curiosity soon sparked an interest in flintknapping, the process for making stone tools, and eventually led to studying archaeology.
“I saw a demonstration then by a skilled flintknapper, in Illinois when I was 15. Once I saw how it was actually done the proper way that it was done – I was off. I got tools and tortured my parents to take me places where I could get stone, and basically taught myself how to make them. So I came into archaeology from that end, with a curiosity on how to make these things and having found them in paddocks,” he says.
The Museum contains examples of stone tools from all over the world, and many from across Australia.
“One of the really interesting aspects of the Australian stone technology is it was practiced until historical times in Australia,” Moore says.
That means Traditional Owners retain knowledge about stone tools – knowledge missing from the vast majority of the world – about how tools were created and used, including details like how handles were put on stone axes and knives, the way sharp stone flakes were held and used, and the use of different types of resins on the back edges of flakes to protect the fingers.
“We’ve got people alive today that can tell us how these tools were used as tools, how the handles were put on them, what parts of the tools were the working parts, what parts were the important parts.
“That’s really interesting for archaeologists to look at what Aboriginal people are telling us from the perspective of their living culture.”
When pressed, Moore reveals his favourite (stone tool) child in the Museum is “not the most showy, it’s not the most beautiful. It’s not the most technologically complex”.
But, the 3D model of the pebble-edged core found at Moonee Beach in New South Wales “is just a work of art”, he says.
“You can look at this particular model and zoom right in, and rotate it. And you can see the flake scars and the texture of the stone and it’s almost like having it there and handling it.”