This exquisite and exceedingly rare sculpture, discovered in a cave in the early 1960s, was made more than 3500 years ago and is one of the earliest known Pacific works of art. Ancient stone mortars and pestles from Papua New Guinea are often fashioned into the forms of birds, humans and animals. However, the Ambum stone is on a higher sculptural level than other prehistoric pestles and has a greater level of figurative detail. When the process involved in producing the Ambum stone is taken into consideration it is all the more magnificent – working with the tough greywacke stone would have involved many weeks of laborious chipping and hammering at the surface with stone tools.
Despite the various animalistic features, such as the nose tip that resembles that of a fruit bat, it may depict a juvenile long-beaked echidna (spiny anteater), an animal that is thought to have been revered prior to the introduction of pigs for its useful fat deposits. The significance and function of the Ambum stone remains obscure, as little is known about the people who produced this beautiful work. Objects such as this are often considered sacred and credited with supernatural powers by present-day people in the region, where they are used as spirit stones in sorcery and other rituals.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008