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A Brief History of Sharpening Stones in Australia

Or at least relatively brief considering we're going to be spanning a period of 65,000 years.

Having been playing around with making whetstones from local slates a lot since I got here I've also been looking into the history of sharpening stones here. I am no particular expect on this - it's simply a collation of information I have found online and some assumptions based around it, so anyone who knows more please weigh in and share anything else.

In 2017 a fairly significant discovery was made on a site belonging to the Mirrar people in Kakadu national park, which pushed what we know of the history of people in Australia and the date of the first migration back considerably, to at least 65,000 years ago. Among the findings were a number of perfectly preserved stone axes, and a sharpening stone. No other cultures anywhere are known to have used sharpened axes such as these for at least the next 20,000 years, this is the world's first known whetstone: Aboriginal archaeological discovery in Kakadu rewrites the history of Australia

As well as this type of stone, which seems to have been used specifically for sharpening, there are also two-part stones. These have a number of uses for crushing and grinding in all manner of cooking and food preparation, as well as crushing rocks to create pigments, and sharpening. Kind of like a mortar and pestle / whetsone hybrid. They might normally be made from sandstones, but other stones are used too, including basalt and quartzite : Grindstones

Axes would also have been ground and sharpened on sandstone outcrops, resulting in permanent grinding grooves: Fact sheet: Aboriginal axe-grinding grooves | Aboriginal Victoria

We can probably conclude that most, if not all, Aboriginal peoples have been using whetstones for many tens of thousands of years.

Now let's skip forward quite a long way to the European settlement / invasion (another episode of British imperial history that didn't cover itself in glory, to say the least). If you were a British, Irish, or other European person arriving in a land as alien as Australia at the beginning of the 19th century it's probably fair to say that a knife and an axe were a couple of important things to remember to pack. But I've found very little information about what would have been used to keep them sharp. Europeans did learn from Aboriginal peoples concerning the land, so I imagine similar methods to the above would have been employed, as well as stones from elsewhere. Particularly popular were 'Turkey Stones' from Crete or Asia Minor (the frequency with which I find old Turkish Oilstones here is rather remarkable), and later Washitas, as well as other British stones, and coticules.

But what there isn't is much evidence of significant production of whetstones quarried here in Australia by Europeans. It is not until later in the c.19th that we really find evidence of Australian whetstones, or shearstones, being quarried and used by Europeans. And not until 1890 that we see the first major commercial operation at Mudgee in NSW after the discovery of a sizeable amount of slate the previous year: Mudgee Shearstone Opening Ceremony, The Shearer's Record . But as per the following article it is not known when operations ceased there: Early history of shearstone sharpening deposits

I also know a guy here in SA who recalls an old advert in an Adelaide newspaper for stones from the area around Mt Osmond. Most of the historical quarries there were for Tin and Silver ore, but also one for Glen Osmond Bluestone, a kind of rough slate out of which much of Adelaide is built. Which ties in with a story about my wife's grandfather, a butcher, who apparently sharpened his knives on handheld stone he called a 'Bluestone'.

As of today there seem to be vanishingly few people making whetstones in Australia. Indeed when I went to the Willunga slate museum it had a display of all the various possible uses for slate, but not including whetstones, and the person who showed us around seemed surprised when I asked him about it. I know of someone in NSW making them from shale or mudstone, a couple of people in Tasmania from sandstone for scythes, and I'm sure traditional Aboriginal stones are still used in some form in places.

But for a land as large, and as geologically diverse as this, there remains a curious lack of information about, or history of, homegrown whetstones. Almost any rock you find anywhere can be used to make something sharper, because quartz is harder than steel, and quartz is everywhere. So I advise anyone who fancies it, to get out there and get looking! NB - snakes like rocks too ;).

That's my potted history of whetstones in Australia, please feel free to add to it with any more information if anyone has any!
 
The number of hones, especially razor hones I've found in the antique shops is really low, in comparison to the straight razors you see (or used to see).

I wonder how the old timers used to sharpen. Did they do it themselves, or did they pay a pro honebloke? I suspect the later, mostly.

And before WW1, lot's of beards...
 
The number of hones, especially razor hones I've found in the antique shops is really low, in comparison to the straight razors you see (or used to see).

I wonder how the old timers used to sharpen. Did they do it themselves, or did they pay a pro honebloke? I suspect the later, mostly.

And before WW1, lot's of beards...

Says the guy who picked up a Charnley the other day, not knowing what it was, just cos he wanted to buy a stone in an antiques shop ;).

(Which incidentally was exactly what got me into all this - buying a random dirty stone just cos they had one, and turned out to be a Turkish.)

Speaking of which - did your translucent ark arrive yet...?
 
Says the guy who picked up a Charnley the other day, not knowing what it was, just cos he wanted to buy a stone in an antiques shop ;).

(Which incidentally was exactly what got me into all this - buying a random dirty stone just cos they had one, and turned out to be a Turkish.)

Speaking of which - did your translucent ark arrive yet...?
Not yet, but the post is all messed up. Should be here next week.

I need to find a old Turkish in the local junk shop. Then I will forgive their usual prices.

I did find two little black Thuris there, to be fair…
 
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