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Ceremonial Axe – Papua New Guinea

WLA metmuseum Ceremonial Axe New Guinea

Ceremonial Axe – Papua New Guinea

This ceremonial axe has a greenstone blade and a carved wooden haft. The axe blade is made of polished stone sourced from a volcanic island and fitted into the slit axe’s head and wrapped with fibres to secure the blade in place. The axe handle is made of red hardwood and carved in bas-relief with a serpentine motif known as mwata, a mythical snake. The axe’s knob at the very bottom of the handle has a traditional Massim carving stylized with an open mouth. This Ceremonial Axe from the Massim region of southeast Papua New Guinea was highly prized.

Axe History

An axe has been used for millennia to shape and harvest timber, as a weapon, and as a ceremonial or heraldic symbol. Initially, axes were tools of stone or hand axes, used without handles made with ground cutting edges introduced in the Neolithic period ending 4,000 to 2,000 BC. The first axes with handles are known from the Mesolithic period (c. 6000 BC). From the late Neolithic onwards, axes started to be made of copper and later yet with other with other stronger metals.

In the Pacific, stone axes continued to be used until recently and are still produced and in use today in parts of Papua and Indonesia.


By the late Neolithic, elaborate axes had acquired a religious significance and probably indicated the exalted status of their owner. Many ancient axes that have been discovered show no traces of wear and were ceremonial or used in funeral rituals or gifts to the deities.

In Papua New Guinea, ceremonial axes have been used for bride price payments, funerals and other important ceremonies.


  • Why are stone axes produced today in some parts of the world?
  • How long would it have taken to produce this ceremonial axe?

Explore the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Ceremonial Axe – Papua New Guinea

  • Title:               Ceremonial Axe – Papua New Guinea
  • Date:              Mid to late 19th century
  • Geography:   Papua New Guinea, Massim region
  • Materials:      Wood, stone, fibre
  • Culture:          Massim people
  • Dimensions:  W. 11 3/4 x D. 27 3/8 in (29.9 x 69.5 cm)
  • Museum:        Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET


“Do what you can,
and God will take care of what you can’t do.

– Papua New Guinea Proverb


Photo Credit: 1) By Wikipedia Loves Art participant “shooting_brooklyn” [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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