Digging in the archaeology collection

Nick Hadnutt, Curator, Archaeology, Queensland Museum

During a routine audit of the Museum’s ancient stone tools, I happened across a stone axe with some interesting text upon. Investigating the text connected me with a World War 1 hero.

One of the roles of a curator is to investigate and research the collections they are responsible for in order to better understand them. In doing so, new connections, data and contexts are being discovered and recorded for future generations. Some of these connections are made through pure happenstance. It is this circumstance that has led to significant contextual information being added to an unassuming collection item in the archaeology collection at Queensland Museum.

Each year, Museum staff conduct audits of collections to confirm their security and condition. Recently, I audited the prehistoric collection. This international collection of 900 artefacts ranges in date from 5000 years B.P. (before present) to over 200 000 years B.P and includes Palaeolithic handaxes, arrow and spears heads, reindeer antler picks and a Neolithic bracelet or necklace. These fascinating artefacts represent the development of stone tool technologies over hundreds of thousands of years. In addition to the significant individual artefacts in the collection, the collection contains artefacts have been donated by some of the leading researchers from the earliest beginnings of this field of study in the mid-19th century, providing a physical link to those pioneering researchers.

During the course of researching and documenting this collection, a small Neolithic axehead caught my eye.  The attached registration label records this artefact as a “Flint Celt”, recovered from Harbonnieres France. The terminology is not unusual – many early records of axeheads record them as “Celts’ referring not to a people but the tool use. Professor S.B.J  Skertchly, in his 1911 Museum Catalogue, describes the use of the word “Celts” as referring to the “low-Latin word Celtes, a chisel” (ref here). A handwritten inscription on one side of the axehead reads “E1563 Harbonnieres Coll. By L.R. Blake, M.C. 1918” (see Figure 1). This inscription raised my interest. Firstly, the date placed the collection of the artefact during the period of the First World War. Secondly, “Harbonnieres” is a French township and was positioned within the 3rd objective set for the massive Allied push on the 8th August 1918. Was it possible Blake collected this ancient artefact during the action that saw the beginning of the end for the German army? The “M.C.” possibly stood for Military Cross, which is a third level decoration awarded (in 1918) to officers for an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy – in other words, a significant award. In summary, a Neolithic stone tool, collected on the frontlines in France during the final year of the war by a decorated soldier. This written inscription was enough to prompt a search for more information regarding Blake and his interest in stone tools, resulting in my connection to an incredible story. I needed to know more about Blake.

L.R. Blake, M.C. is Captain Leslie Russell Blake, born 28 October 1890 in Hawthorn Victoria (Dartnall, 2012), the youngest of 6. Tragically, Blake’s mother died of cancer when Blake was 20 months old. Blake’s father re-married and, just as tragically, passed away from tuberculosis when Blake was 7 years old. Blake and his 2 younger half-sisters were sent to Queensland to live with their aunt. By 1907, at the age of 17, Blake had completed his education and was appointed to the role of Geological Surveyor with the Queensland Department of Mines. A few short years later, at the age of 21, Blake was appointed geologist and surveyor to Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Blake was the youngest member of the expedition party. The highly renowned and successful expedition charted Macquarie Island and the Antarctic coastline and investigated the ocean between Australia and Antarctica. Blake’s role was to map and record Macquarie Island and its geology as well as collect geological samples. His work was of such high quality and incredible accuracy that his maps were still used for navigation in the 1970’s. By February 1914, Blake returned to Australia and commenced as field assistant in the Queensland Geological Survey working in Queensland’s goldfields.

In August 1914, England declared war on Germany and Blake attempted to enlist, however, medical issues prevented him. Undeterred, Blake successfully enlisted in 1915 and, with the rank of Sergeant, was placed in the Field Artillery Brigade 5, Battery 13. Blake embarked on the 18 November 1915 from Sydney, aboard the HMAT Persic (A34) bound for Egypt. However, just before embarking, Blake became engaged to Eileen Elliott. They decided not to marry until he returned from war. The embarkation role lists him as “7306 Gunner (Gnr) Leslie Russell Blake, 5th Field Artillery Brigade”.

We know a little of Blake’s movements due to his exemplary military record. Blake received a number of awards and was promoted twice during his service. He was commissioned with the rank of Second Lieutenant and then Lieutenant in August 1916. In October 1916, Blake was Mentioned in Dispatches whilst in Pozieres. His citation reads ‘Showed conspicuous and consistent gallantry, supplying excellent reports and obtaining valuable information’. In early 1917, Blake transferred to the 2nd Division Artillery Headquarters as a staff reconnaissance officer. He received a Military Cross shortly after ‘For conspicuous gallantry in action. He carried out reconnaissances under very heavy fire with great courage and determination obtaining most valuable information.’ (Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 62). He was wounded by shrapnel in September 1917 but re-joined his unit in January 1918. He received a further promotion to Captain in May 1918, again demonstrating his skill, courage and intelligence. A photograph of Capt. Blake was taken by official photographer, friend and fellow member of Mawson’s Antarctic Expedition, Capt. Frank Hurley, which appears in the Memorial’s collection at E00661 (see Figure 2). Unfortunately, in October 1918, shortly before the conclusion of the War, Blake was badly injured behind Allied lines during a German artillery barrage. He passed away the following day aged 27.

The flint axe is recorded as having entered the Museum collection on 5th April 1922. It was donated by Blake’s employer, the Geological Survey of Queensland. It is possible they were sent the axe as a matter of interest after Blake’s death or perhaps he mailed it to them whilst on campaign. Regardless, this small, ancient tool has connect us with a modern hero and explorer, demonstrating the power of objects to convey incredible stories.