This exquisite and rare stone sculpture, the Ambum stone has been dated to at least 3500 years old and widely considered to be one of the greatest objects created in the island of Papua New Guinea. Despite it being such a well-known piece, there is still much we don't know about this work and what it depicts.
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. We are unsure of what was in the creator's mind when the Ambum stone was brought into being. In the years before the figure left the ridge between the Ambum and Lai rivers, in the Enga region of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, it was used by the people in ritual context ̶ directed toward maintaining and increasing fertility.
To us, Westerners living in the 21st century, the Ambum stone suggests a young creature, perhaps a baby monotreme, a long-beaked echidna. The long curve and shape of the figure's head certainly reminds us of the ant-eating, egg-laying mammal. It crouches, curling forward, looking at the viewer with wide open inquisitive eyes.
Unlike an echidna however, a ridge runs up the centre-line of the head, between the eyes, to reach a peak between the ears, then down the back of the head to finish at the shoulders. Underneath its face, another ridge marks the central line of the enclosing curve in front of the neck and chest. Beneath the belly, the legs also begin as a belt around the back of the figure, come forward to beside the genital hump, then turn back to become incurving feet. But what initially appears to us to be an extended mouth, turns out to be something more like elongated nostrils. In fact, it is likely that it is not an image of a specific animal but perhaps something containing a presence from the past, possibly associated with an ancestral being, the Rainbow Serpent.
What we can appreciate is the effort and skill required in working with the tough lava based stone involving many weeks or months of laborious chipping and hammering at the surface with stone tools. In looking at its soft curves, we can see the dark lustrous shine which may be the effect of thousands of years of human hands, touching, feeling, handling. Scientists tell us that the large amounts of calcium in the surface layer of the Ambum Stone could be explained by nearby limestones and wet, swampy conditions. The figure may have spent thousands of years in a limestone cave, alone, and in silence.
The secret of the appeal of the Ambum stone is in its beauty and skill of its creator to reveal a form within such hard stone, thousands of years ago. A remarkable and fabulous work of art, created by humans that holds something deep from the past.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014