From Ethiopia to Ashburton – with thanks

Ashburton Museum’s collections are extensive. Recently, a re-examination of a small part of the natural history collection and its associated records unearthed a remarkable and exquisite stone hand axe. It is fashioned – perhaps by one of our ancestors – about 80,000 years ago, on the north east shore of Lake Langano, Ethiopia.

Lake Langano is about 145km from the present day capital of Addis Ababa. How on earth did this ancient obsidian hand stone axe come to be at the Ashburton Museum?

1. The letter of appreciation that accompanied the stone hand axe given to an Ashburton man. It details the location and origins of the artefact.

A letter

Fortunately, the stone axe is accompanied by a letter describing the object and the approximate geographic location of its collection.

The letter relates how the stone hand axe was given as a gift for the judging of a plant naming competition by the Bay of Plenty Branch of the Cacti and Succulent Society of New Zealand, in about 1999. The recipient was also the instigator of the society’s plant naming competition, as well as its first judge and a founder of the Society Branch. In 2004, he brought the gift with him, when he came to live in Ashburton. He then donated it to the museum, where it was later accessioned into the collection.

This particular hand axe was found in 1972 by E. F. (Ted) Lloyd when working for a United Nations Development Programme looking for geothermal prospects in Ethiopia. It was found alongside many other stone hand axes, in an area used for their manufacture in great quantities.

There are international laws that govern the exchange of significant cultural artefacts to protect them from illicit exploitation. On his return to New Zealand, Lloyd’s collection passed through rigorous customs clearance, along with his household effects. His biological specimens were kept at the border but the stone hand axe was allowed into New Zealand.

Along with Ron Keam, Ted Lloyd was a Rotorua geothermal volcanologist for over 50 years, and instrumental in developing our understanding of the decline and conservation of the geysers there. Both men were awarded the New Zealand Science and Technology medal for their work in this area of geoscience.

Locality information is a vitally important part of the record when any objects are found. The letter also includes the latitude and longitude coordinates locating where the stone hand axe was found, along with the district name of Galla Lakes as the place of origin for this stone axe. These place the stone hand axe’s discovery in central Ethiopia near Lake Langano. This is also believed to be the place of manufacture.


Ethiopian obsidian

In Ethiopia, water supplies are vital for animal and human survival in an arid environment, and hot water supplies from volcanic activity are highly sought after. These hot water supplies are related to volcanism in the Rift Valley.

The most likely source of obsidian are lava flows from the Alutu volcanic complex, which is located between Lakes Zwai and Langano. Alutu has several craters at different altitudes with the last eruption occurring some 2000 years ago. The oldest eruption is dated about 155,000 years ago. Exactly which obsidian lava flow the stone hand axe was fashioned from is uncertain.

Obsidian is a volcanic glass that has been prized for its cutting edge and beauty in all stone tool making cultures. Locally for example, the Mount Somers area provided Maori with some low quality pitchstone or obsidian for butchering of food reserves, some 850 years ago.

The brown colouring on the Ethiopian hand axe is a kind of weathering rind typical of older examples of hand axes. Younger examples have fresh glassy black surfaces, rather like the Mayor Island obsidian that is well known in New Zealand. Ashburton Museum’s example shows several black lines or bands. Banding is caused by chemical and physical changes that occur during rapid cooling of materials such as sticky flowage of lava – much like toothpaste being squeezed out of its tube. Our own Mayor Island/Tūhua obsidian also shows flow banding.

It is quite a thrill to hold in gloved hands an Acheulean middle stone age artefact, fashioned by an ancestor, some 80,000 years ago on a different continent and now held in the Ashburton Museum. Isn’t it amazing how an accessioned object in our museum has left us with the potential to explore such a rich ancient and modern cultural history.

By Glenn Vallender


  1. The letter of appreciation that accompanied the stone hand axe given to an Ashburton man. It details the location and origins of the artefact. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. A close up of gloved hands holding the about 80,000 year old stone hand axe. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. A close up photograph of the stone hand axe, showing the banded lines of weathered obsidian. ©Ashburton Museum.

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