Monthly Archives: July 2018

Today in History: July 27



What Australia’s convict past reveals about women, men, marriage and work



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Male-dominated sex ratios in Australia’s history still affect attitudes today.
Wikimedia

Pauline Grosjean, UNSW

Success for women often comes at a cost. Award-winning, election-winning and high-earning women are more likely to be divorced in a strange trend that may affect other aspects of our lives.

However, divorce may not be the price for success, but a remnant of our convict past. Attitudes and ideas outlive generations, meaning misfortunes for successful women could be a symptom of history.

The ‘Oscar curse’: success and divorce

The “Oscar curse” refers to the fact that for a woman winning an Academy Award, it likely means getting a divorce. The same is not true for men. This curse affects other successful women, such as female politicians after they win an election.

In a recent paper, Marianne Bertrand and her co-authors showed, in a representative sample of Americans, that when women started making even just a little bit more money than their husbands, divorce was likely to follow. Women who have the potential to make more money than their husbands, due to their level of education for example, are less likely to be married. When these women do marry, they “act wife” by reducing their hours in the workplace – and their income as a result – and by doing more housework.




Read more:
Parents of teenage daughters more likely to divorce: study


Similarly, in Australia, just 60% of men and women disagree with the statement “it is not good for a relationship if the woman earns more than the man”. There is no noticeable difference between men and women, and responses have hardly changed since the HILDA survey first measured these attitudes in 2005. This raises the questions of where such norms come from and why they are so persistent.

Convicts and conservative attitudes

We may have to turn to our past for answers. In a forthcoming paper, for the Review of Economic Studies, Rose Khattar and I show that Australia’s convict past still exercises a strong and pervasive influence on gender norms, marriage and work in the country today.

It is not the presence of convicts that matters, but the drastic distortion in the ratio of men to women that came with it. Convict men outnumbered convict women by roughly six to one. These numbers were even more skewed at the start of settlement. Convicts were joined by free migrants, especially in the second half of the 19th century, whose numbers also skewed heavily male. The ratio of men to women was consistently skewed in favour of males in Australia until the start of the first world war.

Figure 1: Sex ratio in Australia: number of men to every woman, 1830-2011.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

We show that in areas of Australia that were more male-biased in the past, people are more likely to hold conservative attitudes towards gender-respective roles at home and in the workplace. In those areas, women today are less likely to work. When they do work, they work fewer hours and are more likely to work part-time rather than full-time.

Probably as a consequence of more conservative attitudes and fewer hours worked, women are less likely to progress to high-ranking occupations. As shown in the graph below, relationships in which women earn more money than their husbands are a rare thing. This is true overall in Australia, but particularly so in areas where the ratio of convict men to convict women was above the median.

In the vast majority of marriages, the husband makes more money than his wife. As shown by Figure 2, as soon a woman’s income starts to exceed a man’s, the likelihood of a relationship – either by divorce or by not getting married in the first place – drops significantly.

This drop is much higher (more than 22%) in areas that were more male-biased in the past (left panel), compared with areas that were more balanced (less than 6% more men) (right panel).

Figure 2: Distribution of relative income earned by the wife within a couple.
HILDA, Historical Census and Colonial Data Archive

Convicts and the marriage market

While women in areas that were more male-biased do less paid work, they also enjoy more hours of leisure time than women in other parts of the country. Women today in areas that were more male-biased in the past work fewer hours in the workplace, but do not do more at home. Instead, they enjoy more free time.

We suggest this is a holdover from an era in which the marriage market for women among Australia’s European population was imbalanced in favour of women. Given potential female marriage partners were in short supply, women in those areas may have had more negotiating power in the home and used it to enjoy more free time and work less, especially given that the labour market was not very favourable to women in 19th-century Australia.

Such behaviours and attitudes were then transmitted from parents to children, and persist until today.

It is also important to note that these behaviours and attitudes are related only to gender roles at home and in the workplace: we did not find any evidence of elevated misogyny in areas that were more male-biased in the past.




Read more:
Beyond breadwinners and homemakers, we need to examine how same-sex couples divide housework


Effects of biased sex ratios, which persist well after sex ratios have returned to their natural level, matter for places with lopsided gender ratios.

The ConversationThere are an estimated 100 million missing women in the world today, for instance, mostly in China and India, as a result of sex-selective abortions and inferior nutrition and care for girls and women. As Australia proves, the consequences of unbalanced societies can last for decades to come, for better or worse.

Pauline Grosjean, Associate Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: July 26



Rediscovered: the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs



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Melbourne in 1846: a view from Collingwood. T. E. Prout.
State Library of Victoria

Jason Gibson, Deakin University; Helen Gardner, Deakin University, and Stephen Morey, La Trobe University

Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).

These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)

Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).

Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.




Read more:
Explainer: the importance of William Barak’s Ceremony


Aboriginal Melbourne

Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.

The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.

An extract from Howitt’s place names notes, including the word for Brunswick, Bulleke bek.
Melbourne Museum, XM765, Author provided

The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.

An extract from A.W. Howitt’s notebook showing the name for the ‘Collingwood Flat’.
Melbourne Museum, XM765, Author provided

These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.

The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.

Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.

And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.

The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.

Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.




Read more:
The Murri Book Club and the politics of reading for Indigenous Australians


The trials of translation

Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.

Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.

However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.

Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.

The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.

Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.


This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.

The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.

Jason Gibson, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Helen Gardner, Associate Professor of History, Deakin University, and Stephen Morey, Senior Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The History of Thailand



Today in History: July 25



Fears about China’s influence are a rerun of attitudes to Japan 80 years ago


Honae Cuffe, University of Newcastle

July 1 marked the 80th anniversary of Australia’s iron ore embargo against Japan. The official reason was resource conservation, but the ban was really driven by a fear of Japan – which had been buying up assets like iron ore and scrap metal – gaining a stronghold in Australia that threatened our sovereignty and security.

Despite the passing of 80 years, Australia is having the same discussions we had back in 1938, only this time about China.

China’s growing commercial influence in Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries has sparked concerns about its political ambitions. Responding to these concerns with economic sanctions is likely only to pander to US desires to curb Chinese influence, placing Australia’s economic future and regional security at risk.

The economic sanctions Japan faced in the 1930s and early 1940s contributed in large part to the outbreak of the Pacific War.

With the recent tit-for-tat US and Chinese trade restrictions, is the world heading down a similar path?

What can we do differently this time around?

Australia must recast its foreign policy with a view to the role it wishes to play in its immediate region. This needs to be a little more adventurous than the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.

The Australia of the 1930s faced a region in flux. There were territorial disputes, the waning power of Britain – Australia’s primary ally and protector – and the growing military and commercial weight of regional power Japan, whose intentions remained unclear. Sound familiar?

In early 1937, fears emerged of a world steel shortage. While iron ore restrictions were being introduced elsewhere, the Australian government maintained that it was not a lack of resources that had created a shortage but an inadequate output.

It came as quite a surprise then, in May 1938, when the Australian government announced an embargo on iron ore exports, effective July 1 1938. The government cited a (then) recent and very brief report, compiled by the Commonwealth government geological adviser, which concluded iron ore deposits were much smaller than had been estimated and perhaps would not meet domestic needs.




Read more:
Australia is hedging its bets on China with the latest Foreign Policy White Paper


The embargo included existing agreements with foreign investors, such as the Japanese lease at the Yampi Sound mines in Western Australia, where preparations for the first iron ore extraction were well under way.

The government stressed that the embargo was not due to anti-Japanese sentiment. Nevertheless, this was the conclusion the Japanese government drew as it tried and failed to secure access to the Yampi Sound project.

The size of Australia’s current iron ore exports calls into question the logic of this report and the export ban it led to.

A foreign foothold in Australian territory

Throughout the 1930s, Japan pursued a policy of southward expansion, both territorial and economic in nature. At the centre of this policy was the need for resources to cater for Japan’s rapidly growing population. This involved the “economic penetration” of Far Eastern nations, investing Japanese capital to secure essential goods.

Australia, still recovering from the Great Depression, welcomed these investments.

‘Construct new Japan as Below’. Legend reads: Industrial Centre, Immigration Spheres, Expansion Spheres for White Races, Trade Expansion Spheres, Investment Expansion Spheres.
From the Collection of the National Archives of Australia, A601, 402/17/30.

Japan’s visions for territorial expansions became clear in July 1937. Japan – as Australia had long feared – proved itself an aggressor when its army invaded China, signalling the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Australia opted for a diplomatic response to this conflict, remaining impartial and encouraging “cooperation and conciliation” as the solution.

However, Japanese economic investments were being viewed with increasing caution.

Australia’s trade commissioner in Tokyo, Eric E. Longfield Lloyd, reported that Japan’s territorial expansion into China had been aided by a seemingly innocent system of economic penetration throughout the 1920s and ’30s. He feared that allowing the Yampi Sound project to continue, operated as it was by Japanese staff, would result in a “foreign foothold” in Australian territory.


From the collections of the National Archives of Australia, A601, 402/17/30.

Longfield Lloyd pressed for the project’s cancellation “by any means whatsoever”. One proposal was was an export embargo “by declaration of insufficiency”.

Here was the origin of the 1938 iron ore embargo.

Chequebook diplomacy

Much like in 1938, today’s fears about Chinese investments hinge on the question of political influence and security implications.

These concern have led to the limiting of property investments and the banning of foreign political donations.

Further afield, China’s vast infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative, has sparked speculation that the nation is using chequebook diplomacy – and perhaps debt-book diplomacy – to secure economic leverage and gain greater influence in regional and global affairs.

This is of particular concern in Australia’s immediate sphere of influence, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Most recently, the Australian government sought to protect its diplomatic and security interests when it outbid the Chinese telecom giant Huawei for the rights to construct a network of internet cables linking the Solomon Islands to Sydney.

Time for a long-range view of Australia and its foreign policy

The economic pressure exerted on Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s – in which Australia was by no means alone, with the US and Britain leading the charge – deprived the nation of its means of survival. This hastened the campaign of aggressive regional conquest in pursuit of raw materials that eventually led to Pacific War.

To be sure, China’s current economic position makes it unlikely that trade sanctions will lead to armed conflict. But throw in territorial disputes, erratic leadership, the US-China struggle for Pacific dominance, and the future seems a lot less certain.

With all this in mind, the 1938 iron ore embargo does serve as a warning against over-reliance and a blinkered outlook that sees only potential dangers in our immediate region.

Now is the time for Australian to broaden its foreign relations, avoiding the potential downfall of over-reliance on the Chinese market and the US alliance, while building new diplomatic ties.

There is such an opportunity in Australia’s neighbourhood, “that part of the world”, as shadow defence minister Richard Marles recently argued, “in which our influence matters the greatest. What we say and do in the Pacific carries enormous weight.”

Australia must take the initiative in its immediate region to develop varied and mutually beneficial economic, diplomatic and strategic relationships.

The ConversationIn this way, Australia can strengthen its own economy, the economies nearby and its role as a regional leader and collaborator.

Honae Cuffe, PhD Candidate, History, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


More Time Away


I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.


Spells, charms, erotic dolls: love magic in the ancient Mediterranean



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Statue of Eros of the type of Centocelle. Roman artwork of the 2nd century AD, probably a copy after a Greek original.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.


It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.

While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.

Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.

Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.




Read more:
In ancient Mesopotamia, sex among the gods shook heaven and earth


Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.

The Louvre Doll.
Wikimedia Commons

Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.

The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.

Violent, brutal language

The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:

Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …

Another part reads:

Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …

A Coptic codex with magic spells, 5-6th century AD from the Museo Archeologico, Milan.
Wikimedia Commons

Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.

But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.

Love potions

Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).

In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.




Read more:
Elite companions, flute girls and child slaves: sex work in ancient Athens


The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.

Desire between women

Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.

Statue of a young seated Hermes (the Greek messenger god) at rest.
Wikimedia Commons

In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:

Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …

Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.

Anubis depicted as a jackal in the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Wikimedia Commons

The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).

Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.

The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.

The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.

The ConversationStill magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage



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Ring trees were made by binding young branches of young trees with reeds. As the tree grew, it formed a ring.
Tim Church/Timmy Church Films.

Jacqueline Power, University of Tasmania

In the forests of Watti Watti Country of north-west Victoria, you can find trees, typically ancient river red gums, with their branches trained by the Watti Watti people to form rings. There is little knowledge about these marker trees beyond the community, and they are currently afforded little in the way of formalised heritage protection.

Watti Watti (sometimes spelled Wadi Wadi) Elder Aunty Marilyne Nicholls describes family and community connections to the river red gum forests along the Murray in the following way:

Often we visit to pay respect to the sacred sites that are earthed on the land among the red gum trees. In the forest are some really old red gum trees that are known as markers and often can be seen near a heritage site. These huge old red gum trees have massive trunks and big branches that are joined together to make a ring.




Read more:
Explainer: the importance of William Barak’s Ceremony


These significant trees would have had their young, supple branches fused together using string woven from cumbungi reeds. The binding process trained the branches to grow in the form of a ring shape over time.

The number of rings in an individual tree varies. Sometimes there can be up to four rings in a single tree. My research on ring trees aligns with the goals of the local Traditional Owners, who are working to educate and build knowledge in the area.

There are other, more well known cultural practices in various parts of the country that involve trees, such as “dendroglyphs”, also called “carved trees”, that had decorative patterns engraved for ceremonial purposes.

Other examples are scar trees that had sections of bark removed to make canoes, shields, coolamon (or carrying) vessels and for the construction of other timber objects.

The role of ring trees

Watti Watti Elder Uncle Doug Nicholls has explained to me that ring trees demarcate boundaries and mark special areas on Country. The trees mark significant cultural locations in the landscape and have been found at “water junctions and inlets, campsites and burial grounds.”

Knowledge of these important places which the ring trees mark could then be conveyed to visitors to Country involved in trade and ceremony. A defining feature of the Watti Watti landscape is the mighty Murray River (miilu is the traditional language term of this area for river), its tributaries, and associated floodplains.

Ring trees were often made from river red gums around the Murray River.
Tim Church/Timmy Church Films.

Water remains an important story associated with the ring trees, including “cultural flows” – the right to water for cultural purposes. Elder Aunty Marilyne Nicholls has explained that the ring trees all hold stories and have spiritual and cultural significance.

There is one ring tree that is recognised by the broader community and even sign-posted. It is located in the township of Koraleigh on the New South Wales side of the state boundary. Its context has been disrupted by colonisation, cut-off from the broader environmental and cultural landscape, and is flanked by a road and a paddock.

Due to the disruption of its context, this tree has become a single “site”, rather than part of the wider cultural landscape – isolated and dislocated from its complete story. It is now a stranger in an agrarian landscape. The tree is no longer alive, impacted by the drought and lack of access to the river, although its heart-shaped ring remains visible.

Connecting past and present

Many ring trees that can be found in the forests of the Watti Watti landscape have been killed because of the colonial practice of ring barking. Ring barking describes the forestry practice of cutting into a tree’s trunk to kill it and was used for opening the land up for grasses and to source timber for paddle steamers. While we don’t know how long the Ring Tree making practice has been taking place, it is likely that it halted during colonisation, which proved destructive to the continuation of cultural practices.

However, ring trees continue to play an extremely significant role for the Watti Watti community. According to Uncle Doug Nicholls, ring trees form a recognised place where important cultural ceremonies can take place.




Read more:
Where art meets industry: protecting the spectacular rock art of the Burrup Peninsula


Building knowledge and understanding in the broader community of these trees is important for their future protection. While formal heritage processes enable one avenue for protecting culturally significant sites, such as listing earth ovens and middens in the forests, Watti Watti Traditional Owners have been working to foster collaborations and space for dialogue about culture.

In the 1990s, the Indigenous Land Corporation, the federal agency which assists with Indigenous land acquisitions, purchased the Tyntyndyer Homestead in Swan Hill which is built on the traditional lands of the Watti Watti. Listed on the Victorian Heritage Register this colonial homestead has two stories to tell – a colonial one and a much older one – the story of the Watti Watti people.

This homestead provides a place for the coming together of Watti Watti Traditional Owners, as well as others in the community who support the goals of preserving the colonial heritage of Tyntyndyer Homestead.

The ConversationThe ring trees exist beyond the curtilage of this property. However the homestead is a focal point to connect with and tell the stories that weave through and across the landscape that is Watti Watti Country, and are manifest in the ring trees.

Jacqueline Power, Lecturer, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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