Dating Aboriginal Scarred Trees in north eastern Australia

This week and next I’m back in Weipa (NE Australia) working on a research project with Alngith People — Traditional Owners of the western Weipa Peninsula — as well as Dr Kathryn Allen (Monash University), to collect cores from Aboriginal scarred trees in the region.  The work we’re doing involves applying dendrochronology, dendroecology and radiocarbon dating techniques to date Aboriginal scarred trees, understand growth rates on a particular species of tree and to collect new data about environmental change in the region over the past few centuries.  In this post I want to outline the context and primary focus of the project, with another to follow on the methods and approaches we’re using as well as some secondary issues that we’re exploring.

What are scarred trees?

‘Scarred trees’ are simply trees that have some evidence of scarring as a result of people in the past removing bark or wood, engraving designs or motifs or cutting into trees for various reasons, including to collect food. In Australia, scarred trees have typically been created by Indigenous peoples. South eastern Australia is well known for the often large and imposing canoe scars carefully carved into the trunks of majestic river gums, and which are a common sight near waterways and wetlands. However, it is less well known that scarred trees are found in many parts of Australia and indeed, in many other parts of the world including in North America and Europe.

Scarred trees are a physical reminder of how Indigenous peoples in the past lived and are often of high importance to Indigenous communities in Australia today: they provide a link to the past and are generally a type of heritage place that communities try to preserve and protect where possible. Scarred trees are highly vulnerable to destruction via natural decay and fire while development is also a major threat as mining, urban expansion and so on see widespread clearance of otherwise undisturbed areas of forest and woodland across the country. This is particularly the case in western Cape York Peninsula where mining has considerable impacts on the local environment and where the foreseeable future is one that is dominated by ongoing mine expansion.

Scarred trees on Western Cape York

Many thousands of scarred trees occur on Aboriginal lands around Weipa, with well over 1,500 recorded on the Weipa Peninsula alone (1, 2). They are regularly found by archaeologists and Traditional Owners completing assessments before mining clearances and are frequently cut down and moved to make way for mining development. In the past few years, some Traditional Owners have chosen scarred trees of special importance and have placed these into monuments in the local area, in part to prevent them from being destroyed by mining (3).

Scarred tree monument at Ruchook Cultural Ground, Weipa

According to local Elders, there are several different types of scar tree. Some scars were created by people cutting timber to make spear throwers or woomera as well as other  tools (4). The scar tree that is most commonly found in the Weipa area are ‘sugarbag’ scars which were created by people cutting into trees to collect the honey and wax of the stingless native bees. In the early days, a stone axe was used to create a small hole near a sugarbag hive and then a thin, spongy branch was inserted into this hole to soak up the honey. These holes would then be sealed up again so that people could come back at a later time to collect more of the honey or wax. We’ve recently suggested that this approach was a form of resource management or ‘domiculture’, or a set of economic practices and ethics that were — and still are — a major feature of Aboriginal cultural traditions in the region (5).

In the late 1800s Europeans bought iron hatchets and axes and these were also used in the collection of sugarbag right through the 1900s. Indeed, Napranum Elders who grew up in the Weipa Mission remember their parents collecting honey and exchanging this with the Missionaries who would place it into a tank beneath the Mission Superintendent’s house. It was mixed with water as a cordial-like drink, and was eaten on porridge and damper every day. Sugarbag is still collected regularly by local community members today, using similar methods to those used by their parents and grandparents.

How old are scar trees?

On western Cape York Peninsula, scars mostly occur on one species of tree — the Cooktown ironwood — which as the name suggests is a tree whose timber is extremely dense and hard and is well known to be quite difficult to cut. This tree is also quite slow growing, with one study suggesting that a tree that was about 35 cm in diameter at chest height had taken between 180 and 300 years to grow, with growth rates of about 0.12 cm each year (6). What this means is that average sized ironwoods are likely to be at least several hundred years old and that the very large trees with 60 cm or more in diameter may in fact be much older than we had previously thought. Scars have been recorded on ironwoods of all shapes and sizes, and even found on ironwoods that have long since died, so  it is likely that some scarred trees date to the period before Europeans arrived in the region.

There have been no previous attempts to discover the age of scarred trees in the region and only one other study in Australia that has attempted to do so (7), though this was highly destructive and required that the tree be felled — which is not always an option when it comes to managing Indigenous heritage sites.

The presence or absence of iron axe marks does give us a general estimate of the age of a scar and it is likely that scars with sharp and distinct axe marks were made after the late 1880s. However, many scars do not have clear axe marks suggesting they might be older than this. The techniques we are using potentially allow us to place scarring events into a 5-10 year time bracket allowing both community members and us to place specific trees into a particular historical context.

There are a number of reasons we are interested in developing a technique to effectively date scarred trees:

  1. Having information about the probable age of a scarred tree will help to better manage these sites when difficult decisions about development are being made. For example, Traditional Owners may wish to manage scarred trees made in the 1960s, 1920s or 1850s in very different ways.
  2. It will provide historical information that can feed into a range of community heritage work including educational and interpretive projects.
  3. It will contribute to more academic research questions about the history of the region, particularly in terms of understanding what life was like for Indigenous people between the early 1800s and the mid 1900s and the ways in which the arrival of settler-invaders influenced Indigenous wellbeing.

So, this week we’re trying to relocate scarred trees on Alngith Country that have been recorded over the past 8-10 years. Next week, we’ll be selecting those trees that Alngith People want to core. Over the coming week I’ll post more information on the method we’re using and some images and video from the field.

Further reading:

I’m yet to upload my own publications here but if you are looking for a copy of something I’ve written just contact me and I’ll send it to you via express carrier pigeon.

1) Morrison, M.J., D.A. McNaughton and J. Shiner 2010 Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66). International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14(1), pp.86–111.

2) Shiner, J. and M.J. Morrison. 2009 The contribution of heritage surveys towards understanding the cultural landscape of the Weipa bauxite plateau. Australian Archaeology, 68, pp.52–55.

3) Barkley, R. et al. 2008 Collaboration and innovation in the management of cultural landscapes in mining contexts, western Cape York, far north Queensland. Historic Environment, 21(3).

4) Morrison, M.J. et al. 2012 New approaches to the archaeological investigation of culturally modified trees: a case study from western Cape York Peninsula. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 35, pp.17–51.

5) Morrison, M.J. and Shepard, E. [Forthcoming] The archaeology of “sugarbag” production: post-contact Indigenous economic diversification within colonial intercultural settings in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. Journal of Field Archaeology.

6) Cook, A.D. et al. 2005 Sustainable harvest rates of ironwood, Erythrophleum chlorostachys, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 53, pp.821–826.

7) Long, A. et al. 2002 The origin and date of two scarred trees at Horsham Saleyards, Horsham, Western Victoria. A report to Horsham Rural City Council and Goolum Goolum Aboriginal Cooperative, Horsham.

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Australian Indigenous archaeology and cultural heritage wrap, 5 March

I try to keep a close eye on new papers, books and so on relevant to Australian Indigenous archaeology and collate much of this information in Zotero. I thought it might be worth irregularly posting a list of new materials that I’ve noticed. If there’s some interest, I’ll turn this into an open Zotero group. This is by no means comprehensive, just a list of the items that I stumble across and that might be of interest to others.

I will avoid commenting on items; the authors speak well enough for themselves.

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Asking questions about heritage management in Australia

I sometimes wonder whether archaeology as a discipline in Australia has been bought.

When I began working towards a degree in archaeology in the mid 1990s it was a common view that there were  no jobs and that most of my fellow students and I were unlikely to find any form of employment as archaeologists.  Ten years later, the Australian economy expanded in part through mining and there was a boom in demand for archaeology graduates and experienced archaeologists to work in heritage management. Most employment for archaeologists now comes from the heritage sector and this growth manifests in other areas such as increased enrolments at Universities and new positions in (some) Government regulatory bodies. Development has been very good to archaeology in Australia, but has it been good for heritage management and our knowledge of the past? Maybe? I wonder.

CC Image by Ben Hoskings, http://www.hoskingindustries.com.au/

It’s not a question I can answer here, but what concerns me is that there are not many people asking questions. Consultant archaeologist Gary Vines, who works in Victoria, has a recent post  that I’ve just noticed. He bemoans the lack of strategic planning in cultural heritage management:

There are more Aboriginal archaeological sites being recorded than ever before.Nearly all are identified as part of predevelopment environmental approvals. Management entails salvaging some, leaving a few in reserves (very occasionally with some form of interpretation or on-going management but more often than not – not), of doing nothing – or next to nothing as the ‘contingency arrangements’ that rely on contractors and developers keeping an eye out.

The discipline needs more of this. Critical reflection and open debate – outside of academic journals – about the difficulties, challenges and long-term problems that such a tremendous amount of development will pose for conserving and enhancing the heritage values of particular regions. One Aboriginal group I work with – the Alngith People at Weipa – have had approximately >70% of their country irreversibly damaged through mining. It’s been dug up, reshaped and left to the weeds by thirty years of mining. The situation is worse in cities as landscapes are cut up, and we ‘manage’ points on maps with the least amount of effort possible rather than – as Gary suggests – thinking about the wider landscapes within which they occur.

Government regulators and consultant archaeologists need to be more actively promoting heritage planning at a regional level, cutting across policy and tenure boundaries. Professional archaeology associations need to be leading the way by reviewing and enhancing our codes of ethics. Governments won’t lead, they’re only capable of following and are far too interested in royalites and re-election, consequently promoting an extractive, violent and naive approach to managing a country. It’s just one knee-jerk reaction after another, all terribly short-term thinking that is ultimately about maximising profits. History has lessons for us on such matters, but we’re not much interested in history.

Archaeologist of all persuasions have a  moral obligation to be talking about these issues in openly accessible forums. I know many who do, who submit opinion pieces to newspapers, who get involved in local council issues or heritage organisations. But we need more. Academic publications are fine, but they emerge from the review/publication process too slowly to make any significant influence on public debate in a 6 hour news cycle.

Anyway, I digress. I actually just wanted to suggest you should go and read Gary’s post:

Australian Archaeology: Where is CRM archaeology going?.

 

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Updated research profile

I’ve finally found time to go in and update my research profile.

It’s a little terrifying that I’m working across so many different projects. Some are nearing completion, others are very new. The reality is that I only actually work on one project in any week and I have considerable assistance from three kind and helpful research assistants who are doing masters research projects with me (thanks Claire, Amy and Chantal!).

Part of the reason that I’ve done this is to clarify my research priorities. The major focus of my work is the archaeology of capitalism and Aboriginal wellbeing, and this will form the focus of an application for one of these early next year. A lot of work, and it’s certainly not too early to start developing the proposal. A full time research postdoc would be brilliant, though.

Close up of the nib of a caligraphic pen found on the former Weipa mission site. Date reads: 'June 15.86'

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A burnin’ ring of fire: Four Stone Hearth 115

Ring of Fire / Johnny Ainsworth

Welcome everyone to the 115th Four Stone Hearth Blogging carnival! (my apologies for the Johnny Cash reference).

For the uninitiated, the Four Stone Hearth is:

a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology in the widest (American) sense of that word. Here, anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places, focussing primarily on four lines of research:

  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

The Hearth is an important institution among anthropology bloggers, and dates back to somewhere around the early Holocene (2006) when anthro blogging began to get serious.

It’s an interesting exercise to browse through some of the earlier editions of the Hearth, which were run by many bloggers who are still around today: Anthropology.net, Afarensis, Aardvarchaeology, Hot Cup of Joe, Greg Laden, John Hawks and many others. If you’re not familiar with the Hearth, I would urge you to browse through some of the earlier editions to get a taste of what it’s all about.

Some say the Hearth is diminishing in its appeal, and if so I’m not exactly sure why. I suspect part of it is due to a more diverse social media that has reduced the need for anthro bloggers to congregate and chat around a central Hearth, so to speak. This edition is relatively strong and I hope it continues this way into the foreseeable future. It’s too great an institution to let it languish .

We have a range of topics today with contributors reflecting on themes as varied as space archaeology, Christian religious rituals, stone artefact caches, gambling, and much more. Please take the time to read through what our contributors have to offer; I’ve tried to keep my overviews of their posts  short in the hope that you visit their blogs and read what it is that they have to say.

So please enjoy!

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Archaeological grey literature in New South Wales

Yesterday, Agata Mrva-Montoya (@agatamontoya) at the University of Sydney forwarded me a wonderful resource for those who have an interest in accessing ‘grey literature’ resulting from archaeological work in New South Wales: the New South Wales Archaeology On-Line website that has been set up by the USyD library and the Archaeology of Sydney Research Group.

New South Wales Archaeology On-Line
New South Wales Archaeology On-LIne

“Grey Literature” are the unpublished material – typically reports – that are produced during research or heritage management work. These reports commonly include the original data or results of archaeological work and are an invaluable resource for research and management alike.

Unfortunately though, it is often not possible to publish this material in its original form. It may be too detailed, of only local relevance or authors simply may not have had the time to convert it into a publishable form. As such, grey literature is usually only found in the personal archives of archaeologists, in the report libraries of Government Departments and so on. This is a problem because it means that not only is it difficult to access, but people may not even be aware of the existence of potentially important and useful work.

This relatively new website that the good people at USyD have created is therefore a fantastic resource and quite frankly I think we need a lot more like it. It contains around 570 sources and seems that many of these have full text PDFs online. The Archaeology Data Service in the UK is a similar service and currently hosts about 8500 such reports, which I think illustrates the long term value associated with starting such an initiative.

Pushing this material onto the web is more important now than ever before. The Australian Research Council’s ERA scheme has recently devalued the publication of data rich grey literature by creating a ranking system that primarily recognises high-impact outlets that are international in scope. What this means is that it is potentially damaging to put any effort into publishing data-rich papers in low-ranked journals or edited books that have traditionally been the outlets where grey literature are published. I suspect that we will see a decline in interest in publishing in such locations, which will not do anything to help liberate grey literature from obscurity and irrelevance.

While not all grey literature can be made freely available due to confidentiality requirements, particularly where Aboriginal heritage is concerned, a national reports repository would be of great value to the discipline. As such, this resource is definitely worth making a note of, particularly if you work in New South Wales. My only concern is that the database does not seem to be in any web standard for bibliographic data (e.g COinS), but that’s a minor issue.

New South Wales Archaeology On-Line

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Digital archaeology: a workshop

I have agreed to present a half day workshop in my Department here at Flinders University on what I am calling ‘Digital Archaeology’. It’s aimed graduate students in our archaeology and cultural heritage programs who want to know more about how digital/web technologies are radically changing how we go about doing archaeology. It’s a little similar to what some in the USA seem to call cultural heritage informatics, but that’s not a term that is in very wide use here in Australia at this stage.

The workshop will be a three to four-hour long introduction to the technologies that students can use to improve how they collect, analyse, manage and share archaeological data. I want to focus on things that students can use now, and that will likely be around in one form or another for some time. Where possible, I want to advocate open access/source approaches. It will be entirely introductory and assume that participants have little or no experience using many of the technologies being covered. I may be assuming that they know too little, but I think we need to offer a basic entry point into this material for people who are not at all familiar with it.

I am, however, keen to make sure that this workshop is useful to participants and that it covers things that are of widest possible value. This may be a little cheeky of me, however I am posting my brief thoughts here on what I am planning to include in the hope that you, dear reader, might spare a minute to comment. I’m glad for people to adopt ideas too, but be kind and acknowledge where possible: in this regard, I have benefited from talking to/reading stuff by Ethan Watrall and others associated with the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative.

Core concepts:

  • What is digital archaeology?
  • What are digital data?
  • What are ‘open access’, ‘open source’ and ‘creative commons’ and why are these things important?

Digital research tools:

  • Web feeds and archaeology (or keeping abreast of what’s going on)
  • Managing bibliographic data with Zotero
  • Google Earth and its application to archaeology (managing GPS data, creating basic maps and some discussion of the way it has been used in research)
  • Geographic information systems – QGIS (this will be brief)

Digital images

  • What is metadata and why is it important?
  • Scale, resolution and formats: a quick primer
  • Managing and sharing images with Picasa
  • Sharing your work: Flickr and Picasa Web

Finding, collecting and cleaning digital data

  • Why is it important to standardise archaeological data?
  • Cleaning up other people’s data (using Google Refine or basic functions of a spreadsheet)
  • Creating geographic data (using Fusion Tables to create KMLs for gEarth/gMaps/QGIS)

Communication and collaboration

  • There’s more to the web than Facebook!
  • ‘Bloggy’ media (Tumblr, Twitter, Blogging)
  • Web collaboration (Google Docs at this stage)

Yes, it is a lot however its an introductory workshop that aims to increase awareness of these issues and technologies rather than how to actually use them all. I’m hoping that it may prompt a few of our research students to get more interested in this stuff. Comments appreciated!

Post image is Portable GPS Device – Finished (Kinda) by 3D King (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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