These days, not many Aussies consider the ibis a particularly admirable creature.
But these birds, now colloquially referred to as “bin chickens” due to their notorious scavenging antics, have a grandiose and important place in history – ancient Egyptian history, to be precise.
Using DNA from ibis mummies buried around 2,500 years ago, our research published today explores this bird’s stature in ancient times, and how it was reared.
Our findings suggest ancient Egyptian priests practised short-term taming of the wild sacred ibis. This was likely done somewhere in natural ibis habitats, such as local lakes or wetlands. Also, it was probably done close to the Thoth temple at Tuna el Gebel, in a bid to meet an ibis demand fuelled by religious burial rituals.
We’ve bin chicken out some DNA
The preservation of bodies through mummification is a hallmark of ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Unfortunately, unfavourable environmental conditions such as high temperatures, humidity and alkaline conditions often result in scepticism about the authenticity of genetic results from ancient Egyptian human remains.
However, animal mummies in the region are much more common. And the sacred ibis, (Threskiornis aethiopicus), is by far the most common bird mummy in ancient Egypt’s underground catacombs, with more than two million found.
The Egyptian sacred ibis looks very similar to the Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca). We once thought they were both sacred ibises, but the two are actually sister species in the ibis family.
Our analysis of 14 sacred ibis mummies, which we collected ourselves from catacombs, helped reveal the role of this bird in ancient Egyptian society and religion.
We analysed and compared mitochondrial DNA, which is a section of DNA inherited from the mother and passed only through females. In doing so, we were able to compare the genetic diversity among the ancient ibis mummies to that of modern sacred ibis populations in Africa.
All hail the Ibis
Ancient Egyptians thought animals were incarnations of gods on Earth. They worshipped the sacred ibis as the god Thoth, which was responsible for maintaining the universe, judging the dead, and overseeing systems of magic, writing, and science.
It’s not surprising then, that professionally mummified Ibises were sacrificially offered to Thoth at his annually celebrated festival. In fact, offering sacred ibis mummies in ancient Egypt was a common practice between the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) and the early Roman Period (AD 250).
For ancient Egyptian priests, the mummification of animals like ibises was not simply a ritual duty, but also a profitable business. Considering the number of ibis mummies found, one has to wonder how the priests secured supplies for this practice.
Some evidence from ancient Egyptian text suggests the birds may have been raised in dedicated large-scale farms over the long term – either next to or within temple enclosures.
In the writings of the priest and scribe Hor of Sebennytos, from the second century BC, he reported regularly feeding about 60,000 sacred ibises with “clover and bread”. This could be interpreted as domestication, or controlled breeding.
In 1825, French naturalist Georges Cuvier described the skeleton of an ibis mummy from Thebes that he’d unwrapped, saying:
One sees that this mummy must have come from a domestic bird in the temples, because its left humerus was broken and reset. It is highly improbable that a wild bird with a wing broken would have been able to capture prey and escape predators. Hence it would have been unable to survive long enough to have healed.
Researchers today have also suggested the seasonal taming of ancient wild ibises, wherein the birds were reared over a single generation by priests, in natural habitats close to temples. Moreover, it seems they were not domesticated, which would have required breeding in captivity over many generations.
The rearing is thought to have occurred at locations such as the Lake of the Pharaoh, in which a natural basin was filled annually by flood waters from the Nile River.
These actions were almost certainly aimed at collecting a large number of adult birds, which were required for the Egyptian ritual of offering a mummified ibis to please Thoth.
1.75 million birds, then suddenly none?
Millions of sacred ibis mummies have been found stacked floor-to-ceiling along kilometres of dedicated catacombs in Egypt.
This amounts to an estimated 1.75 million birds deposited at this location alone. Another catacomb at Tuna el-Gebel contains approximately four million sacred ibis mummies, the largest known number of any mummified birds at a single Egyptian site.
But these birds disappeared from Egypt around 1850, centuries after the cessation of the mummification practice. How and why they disappeared remains a mystery.
Clearly, the people of today treat the ibis in a very different way to the ancient Egyptians. For the latter, they were sacred birds that held a special place in society.
Perhaps we should remember that and recognise, at least a little, their honoured status in the past.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
We are all touched by relationships with animals — as domestic and working companions, wild inspirations, threats, or pests.
Some of us may know about the enduring worth of organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fewer of us may know about the 19th century foundations for animal advocacy among ordinary women beginning, more often, to find their voice in the public sphere.
The life of Frances Deborah Levvy (14 November 1831–29 November 1924) is worth revisiting because her ethical, political, and journalistic contributions speak to our current concerns for the more-than-human world.
A mainstay of the New South Wales’ branch of the Women’s Society for the Protection of Animals, Frances, with her sister Emma Clarke, founded Australia’s first Bands of Mercy. Membership of the Bands required pledging on entry:
I promise to protect all animals from ill-treatment with all my power. When I am compelled to take the life of any creature, I will spare all needless pain.
The Bands of Mercy were based on the Bands of Hope, formed in the United Kingdom to support the temperance movement and, like them, were formal voluntary organisations in communities. Founded in 1875, they helped young people learn about and model the humane treatment of animals, coming under the RSPCA from 1882, the same year they were introduced into the United States. It was Levvy who then introduced Bands of Mercy in Australia in the mid-1880s, growing the membership from 15 to over 20,000 people over her life.
Born in Penrith, Frances was one of four children of Barnett and Sarah Levey, the former a watch-maker and theatre director, both from London. When Levey died in 1837, his widow converted from Judaism to Christianity, which appears to have shaped Frances’s moral and religious outlook. On their mother’s death Frances and her sister Emma adopted the surname Levvy. After moving to Newtown in Sydney in 1874 with her sister, Frances later went to Waverley where she lived – single and focused on her mission – until her death in 1924.
Clues to what motivated Levvy’s lifelong dedication to the humane movement are found in The Daily Telegraph of Tuesday 30 January 1906. There, the reporter describes Levvy in ways that map onto ideas emergent at the time that women’s apparently natural propensity to nurture in the private sphere could spill into the public arena and contribute to social progress.
Levvy is painted as having:
a gentle, persuasive manner … intensely in earnest in her whole-hearted and disinterested wish to save our dumb [sic] friends from ill-treatment … the right woman in the right place. It is so eminently a woman’s work which she has undertaken, to inculcate gentleness and kindness in the hearts of the children of our city …
It seems to me that it is not at all improbable. There is an evident wish to believe it.
‘Loving friend of dumb animals’
Over several decades, Levvy effectively harnessed the printed word’s power to influence how animals were treated. She developed and edited a monthly periodical, The Band of Mercy and Humane Journal (1887–1923), which inspired offshoots such as The Band of Mercy Advocate (1887–1891).
Levvy was equally adept at building community networks, and coalitions and defying moral strictures regarding the public conduct expected of “ladies”. As one report on her work (replete with deeply gendered and class-based assumptions) noted:
The draymen and vanmen at the wharves and the drivers at the cab stands are regularly visited by this loving friend of dumb animals, from whom they receive copies of the Band of Mercy journal. This paves the way for a little general conversation on the subject of kindness to animals, and then some particular instance is … [introduced]; a horse has gone lame or has a sore shoulder, which should be dressed with a decoction of tannin — or the flies are stinging and worrying, and it is suggested that … pennyroyal added to a pint of olive oil should be passed lightly over the horses to secure their immunity from this pest.
It has been suggested that Levvy’s “greatest capacity was for writing” and my own research shows that an astute use of the periodical press ensured her work was known and supported. The editors of Boston’s The Woman’s Journal, wrote glowingly of her work in 1888, noting her journal provided “a place of record for the good deeds done”. In 1906, it described the journal as having “the distinction of being the first newspaper of the kind in Australia”.
The power of the press is worth stressing here, because it underpinned growing freedoms of speech and capacities to challenge the status quo that Levvy tapped into. Debates in the press around animal protection touched on fashion (and its relationship to prescriptive forms of femininity and consumerism) and sport (with its association with betting).
Seeing young people as agents of change
In her writing and activism, Levvy often turned to children and, through them, to women — whose power she thought should extend from private to public spheres.
The 1906 report in The Daily Telegraph also describes how she gave lessons on animal protection at schools. She educated boys about the most humane method of transit of stock by rail, or training a colt to harness and saddle. And she set the following essay topics for mixed sex, upper level classes:
Does civilisation in any way depend on possession of animals? Give reasons, state requirements, and value of poultry-keeping, incubator, food, incidental diseases. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Bee-keeping: Requirements and value. Hives, honey-producing flowers, food in winter, etc. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Is the exhibition of wild animals in travelling menageries consistent with humanity? Give your reasons.
Levvy, herself, reflected in 1906 (in relation to her work on equine welfare):
The difference between now and twenty years ago … is most marked. It is hardly ever now that one sees a sore-backed, lame, miserable-looking horse in the streets. Look at the cab horses and cart horses, what fine, well-kept animals they are.
Levvy was of her time. She was, for example, deeply immersed in the progressive, democratising, and evangelical impulses that marked the 19th century.
But she was, I think, also ahead of her time, being among those women who understood and used the power of the press for socially transformative ends, and who recognised that young people are not citizens in waiting but active and influential agents for change.
At a time when the treatment of both animals and children was often questionable, and often based on narrow ideas of them as property, her actions and ideas were quietly radical and highly effective.
Historians have long been engaged in a fractious, sometimes spiteful, debate about the legacies of the first world war. This is especially so because the politics of the war continue to resonate in our own discussions of national identity and purpose.
We debate the extent to which the Anzac tradition reflects our understanding of what makes a good Australian, and how important our cultural affinities are with Britain. Did the war curtail a progressive spirit, and entrench political conservatism, or did it encourage a new confidence in ourselves?
These evaluations were already present the moment the war ended in November 1918. Australians had endured a terrible trauma. Sixty thousand of them were dead from a population of not quite 5 million. Another 150,000 returned sick or wounded, physically and mentally.
Those at home were quick to draw attention to their own sufferings, too. They had known the war not only in its military dimensions, but as an ordeal of waiting and worrying, of constantly fearing the worst. The Victorian parliamentarian John Percy Jones simply declared the war
has kept me in a condition of mental agony. I am hardly able to realise even yet that the fearful times through which we have been passing are now over.
What, then, should we make of that sacrifice? Some called the nation to unity around the experience of the war, and in doing so elevated the Anzacs to the peak of Australian virtue.
In the federal parliament, Senator Edward Millen declared:
this war, amongst other things, has made Australia a nation in a sense that it was not before. It has given us a new conception of national life.
A divided nation
But it was also clear the war had driven apart Australians in the demands it made on the people. Calls to unity faltered, as intense debates over recruiting for the army crystallised in two failed attempts to endorse compulsory military service by plebiscite.
The conscription campaigns divided Australians bitterly. Those who voted against the principle found their loyalty to nation and empire questioned. Those in favour faced accusations they betrayed Australia’s future by sending its young men to die.
The party’s now unequivocal anti-conscription sentiments found it tarred with the brush of disloyalty and ensured a conservative ascendancy in federal politics until 1929.
Even in private life, those political divisions were deep and abiding. One woman wrote to her soldier husband at the front that she had broken off friendships over the issue:
they don’t come here now since conscription I told them what I thought of them.
Returned soldiers as ‘most deserving’
It is small wonder that those on the political left – many historians included – should feel uncomfortable about the effects of the first world war on Australian society and culture.
The tendency of the war had been to draw Australia more closely into the British Empire’s embrace. The German threat provoked deep expressions of cultural unity with Britain from Australians, and further encouraged them to see their future security in terms of even closer defence and economic ties with the empire.
The Anzac tradition itself embodied those difficult politics, as it promoted the Empire-loyal “digger” as the embodiment of the Australian national character.
In Anzac’s rhetoric, Australian soldiers had proved themselves the exemplars of a series of desirable qualities such as courage, initiative, and loyalty to mates. But they had not so much achieved independence for Australia as raised Australia to equality within a British brotherhood.
For those on the political left, the veneration of the digger displaced all other potential contributions to the making of Australian nationhood, including the contributions of women, pacifists and political radicals.
It reorganised hierarchies of citizenship, so returned soldiers assumed the position of the most deserving, whether in terms of government largesse or in cultural terms as the embodiment of national character.
But conservative historians have naturally been much more comfortable with that interpretation of the war’s effects than their counterparts.
It speaks to a sense that Australians held close to their British descent and traditions, while also recognising the economic and security value of continued close ties. And it gave Australians a figure whose characteristics were not only to be admired, but emulated in civic life and subsequent conflicts.
A century on from the national trauma of 1914-18, the politics of that event remain present. The kind of Australia we prefer to see depends on whether we regret or embrace the effects of the first world war on Australian politics and culture.
As we gather again on the anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars”, we might observe that the conclusion of the war only started the long and continuing effort to come to terms with its meaning.
In a large storage room in the basement of the former Musée d’Histoires Naturelles in Lyon, France, stands a rare relic of the colonial era: a full-body plaster cast of an 18-year-old Badtjala man from K’gari (Fraser Island), Queensland.
While the history of Europe’s “human zoos” is well documented from a European perspective, the research behind my novel Paris Savages builds on knowledge of Australia’s little-known connection to this confronting past; a past with lasting and damaging legacies.
The man from whom the cast was made, Bonangera (Benanyora, Bonny or Boni) stands naked and holds a boomerang over his head. The plaster has been painted a dark brown. His eyes have been coloured red. Rows of horizontal cicatrices, or tribal markings, are visible as scars on his chest. Also discovered in storage were casts of the man’s hands and feet.
The collection began to draw attention in 2009 when researchers at the museum, since relocated and now known as the Musée des Confluences, linked it to the European visit of an Aboriginal trio from Fraser Island.
From the inscription on the base of the plaster foot, “Boni, l’australien”, it is likely this was the same “Bonny” famous physician and anatomist Rudolf Virchow examined in 1883.
Also studied were two other Badtjala people: Jurano/Jurono/Durono (aged 22), known in Europe as Alfred, and Dorondera/Borondera (15), known as Susanne. German man Louis Müller took the group to Germany in 1882 to perform in ethnographic exhibitions.
Cast in plaster
During our document research in Germany, Birgit Scheps of Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig and I discovered a missing cast of Jurano was in fact a death mask, establishing that at least one of the troupe sadly died in Europe.
From the Lyon full-body cast, Bonangera appears proud and serious. It is likely he was concealing pain, for the gypsum plaster was often contaminated with lime and burnt the skin. But it is impossible to know how he truly felt.
Indeed, there are few first-hand accounts of any of the 35,000 performers from around the globe who French researchers estimate toured the West between 1810 and the mid-20th century.
Throughout Germany, France and Switzerland, Bonangera threw boomerangs and spears, participated in mock fights with Jurano, and climbed tall poles vaguely reminiscent of the giant satinay and hoop pine trees that grew out of sand on Fraser Island. He danced and sang in a voice described in the German newspaper Illustrirte Zeitung as reminiscent of “the monotone negro melodies of America”.
In the Lyon basement, remnants of other “ethnic shows” include a canoe used by “Laplanders”, Sami people.
Inside a compactus are masks and shields. Bonangera stares straight ahead, his expression unchanged for, what would now be, 136 years. In an era aspiring towards postcolonialism, the cast is chilling.
Daniel Browning’s heavily researched documentary on the discovery of the cast, Cast Among Strangers, features an interview with acclaimed Badtjala artist and academic Fiona Foley, who travelled with Browning to Europe.
Disturbed by the silences in the history, I contacted Dr Foley about drawing on this episode as the basis for a novel. She informed others in her community and fact-checked aspects of the work.
Browning’s research establishes that members of the Badtjala group toured cities including Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Basel and Lyon. It is now known that Bonangera also visited Geneva. Groups were commonly shown at mass exhibition sites such as Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation.
The Dresden casts of Bonangera and “Susanne” were made at the Berlin Panoptikum, where my research with Hilke Thode-Arora and Scheps confirmed the group performed. Also in the Dresden storage space were casts of Aboriginal performers from Queensland’s Hinchenbrook and Palm islands who, Roslyn Poignant writes in Professional Savages, were taken by self-confessed “man-hunter” R. A. Cunningham to Europe and America, where they performed in P.T. Barnum’s shows.
While the Sami negotiated contracts, even going on strike if conditions were not met, an 1882 account in the German journal Das Ausland has Dorondera turning her back on the audience. Was she asserting her agency over conditions she was unhappy with?
After performances throughout Germany, according to the Berlin Panoptikum archives, one of the Badtjala men (likely Jurano) was admitted to Berlin’s Charité hospital in 1883. Dorondera disappears from the records without trace.
On August 23 1883, the French newspaper Le Progrès covered Bonangera’s Lyon performances with a “Samoyed” troupe (indigenous people from the Russian arctic) and their reindeer. It is an incredible image to imagine.
His last recorded sighting was reported in Salut Public on September 3 1883. Bonangera performed in Lyon throwing a boomerang, the racist account marvelling that people “little more than monkeys” could accomplish something by “playing” that Europeans could not do. We can only wonder what Bonangera made of his audience.
The last “human zoo” to close featured people from the Congo who were exhibited at the Brussels World’s Fair. The year was 1958.
Even the sound of a bayonet could be frightening. The audible whetting of blades in the enemy’s trenches could puncture a night’s rest with premonitions of steely death. The sight of gleaming blades, too, turned the stomach of many a soldier. For all the sheer, witless terror it could produce in those who heard, saw and perhaps felt its cold steel, there was no weapon more visceral than the bayonet.
It might have been a moment of inspired panic that brought the bayonet into existence. The bearer of a musket – maybe a soldier, maybe a hunter – having fired his weapon and missed his target, found himself at the mercy of a fast-approaching assailant.
With no time to reload, he plunged the handle of a dagger into the muzzle, converting it from firearm to elongated knife or pike. Perhaps he had missed his target altogether and expected to be assaulted at any moment, or perhaps his wounded quarry had disappeared into a thicket and needed to be chased at speed.
As time was of the essence, it could not be squandered in the cumbersome act of reloading. Shoved snugly inside the muzzle of a firearm, even a short dagger could deliver a lethal strike.
From its first use somewhere in southwestern France sometime in the first half of the 17th century, the genius of the invention spread far and wide. History has it that the first acknowledged military use of the bayonet was at Ypres in 1647. It also reveals that, for all its genius, the days of the “plug bayonet” were numbered. While the wooden handle was plugged in the musket, the weapon could not be fired. Worse than that, over-vigorous use might damage the barrel, or the blade might break while wedged firmly inside.
Over time, ways were found to attach blades to the outside of barrels, whether running alongside, on top or beneath them. The blades could be short and dagger-like. Or they could be as long as swords, so that when attached to long-barrelled weapons they could deliver their bearer the advantage of reach. In cross-section, they might be broad and thin like a carving knife, round like a stiletto, or star-shaped.
In their countless variations, bayonets appeared on many a battlefield in Europe and other parts of the world, until in the last decades of the 19th century they appeared to have met their match. The American Civil War and the Franco–Prussian War seemed to teach one incontrovertible lesson – that advances in military technology had rendered the humble bayonet obsolete. In the face of machine-gun fire or a bombardment of artillery, the infantryman with a fixed bayonet might never see his killer, let alone plunge the cold steel into him.
Yet while machine-guns, mortars and artillery might serve to mow down the serried ranks of the enemy or blow them apart, ultimately even positions strewn with corpses had to be occupied and claimed. It remained the infantrymen’s vital role to make contested territory their own. If the very sight of fixed bayonets did not persuade any surviving defenders to surrender, then the bayonets might still have work to do.
A 20th century revival
The 20th century proved that declarations of the bayonet’s demise had been premature. It remained standard issue for infantrymen all over the world, even if its shape and use varied.
The Russians clung fanatically to their faith in the socket bayonet. The Japanese reintroduced a sword bayonet in 1897, inspired by a French weapon. Where stealth was of the essence, as it was in night attacks in the Russo–Japanese War, the bayonet delivered silent death. Americans, too, insisted that their infantry carry long bayonet blades – an intimidating 40 centimetres – on their belts, ready to be fixed when the need arose. In time and with experience, though, the Germans opted for shorter knife bayonets of 25 or 30 centimetres.
In Britain, and all her Dominions, the so-called “Pattern 1907” bayonet was preferred. Over the centuries, the fundamentals of the bayonet had barely changed, and the Pattern, too, consisted of a blade, a guard with crosspiece and muzzle ring, and a wooden hilt. Along much of the length of the blade ran a groove, a fuller. It reduced the weight of the weapon and also allowed air to pass into the wound, making it easier to extract the blade.
While most of the standard weapons of the British Empire’s armies were manufactured in Britain, Australia, like India, manufactured its own Pattern 1907 bayonets in both wars.
In the first world war they were made in a factory in Lithgow, while those from the second world war were stamped with 13 (for Orange Arsenal) or 14 (for Munitions Australia). The wooden grips were stamped with “SLAZ”, an abbreviation of their British maker, Slazenger, active in the sporting goods business back to the 1880s.
Kept normally in a scabbard attached to the soldier’s belt, when fixed to the standard-issue Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, the Pattern 1907 extended the soldier’s reach by more than 40 centimetres.
Australia’s willing killers
Bayonets were standard equipment in the first world war, even as the accelerated development of military technology enforced the trend to mechanised, industrial killing. Australians earned themselves a reputation for using their bayonets with relish. Well trained and drilled in their use, they plunged, parried and stabbed with great vigour at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The Australians, as the historian Bill Gammage has put it:
by reputation and probably in fact, were among the most willing to kill. They had an uncomplicated attitude towards the Hun, conditioned largely by propaganda and hardly at all by contact, and they hated him with a loathing paralleled, at least in the British Army, only by some other colonial troops. Accordingly many killed their opponents brutally, savagely, and unnecessarily.
It was not only the Germans who became acquainted with the Pattern 1907. At Gallipoli Albert Jacka won Australia’s first VC of the war by shooting five Turks and bayonetting two others. Another Australian, Nigel Ellsworth, noted that in advance of a night attack on Turkish lines:
one can’t buy a place in the main firing trench, and men are known to have refused for their positions during the fighting. They stand up in the trenches &; yell out ‘Come on, we’ll give you Allah’ & … let some Turks actually get into our Trenches then tickle them up with the bayonet.
‘Steel has an unearthly terror’
Archie Barwick, a farmer from New South Wales, spoke of being transported into a state of “mad intoxication” when he took to the Turks with fixed bayonet.
I can recollect driving the bayonet into the body of one fellow quite clearly, & he fell right at my feet & when I drew the bayonet out, the blood spurted from his body.
A New Zealand officer writing home from Gallipoli claimed that the Turks “redoubled” their fire over the New Zealanders’ positions at night. It was “the one hope of deterring the dreaded bayonets of our men … steel has an unearthly terror for them”.
In a similar vein, another Australian wrote boastfully to his family of the short work he made of Germans:
They get it too right where the chicken gets the axe … I … will fix a few more before I have finished. It’s good sport father, when the bayonet goes in their eyes bulge out like a prawns.
If there was a danger in the over-zealous use of the bayonet, it was that the weapon might be driven so far and firmly into the opponent’s body that it was difficult to extract it. The Queenslander Hugh Knyvett recalled a case where a fellow Australian drove his bayonet through a German and into a hardwood beam, from which it could not be withdrawn. The blade had to be released from the rifle, “leaving the German stuck up there as a souvenir of his visit”.
By the latter stages of the first world war, the Australians’ skill had manifested in the use of a particular lethal movement with the bayonet known as the “throat jab”.
In recalling his own role in that battle in the night from 24 April to Anzac Day, Walter Downing wrote:
Bayonets passed with ease through grey-clad bodies, and were withdrawn with a sucking noise … Many had tallies of twenty and thirty and more, all killed with the bayonet, or bullet, or bomb. Some found chances in the slaughter to light cigarettes, then continued the killing.
Still, in reality the bayonet’s role in the first world war was more prominent in the telling than on the battlefield. Sober analysis showed that the vast majority of deaths and casualties were put down to machine-guns and artillery. As for the Australians themselves, more than half of those admitted to field hospitals in France suffered injuries from shells and shell-shock, and more than a third from bullets. The combined tally from bombs, grenades and bayonets was just over 2%.
The fear of cold steel
After the war, even former combatants voiced their awareness of the bayonet’s shortcomings. It might have been helpful for certain mundane tasks like opening tins, chopping firewood or perhaps roasting meat over a fire, but in a charge across open land in the sights of German machine-gunners, it was at best an unwelcome burden.
In close quarters, too, it had its drawbacks. Fixed in readiness to the end of a Lee Enfield and lugged along a trench, its most likely victim was a comrade in arms, who might receive a prod to the buttocks or a poke in the eye.
Nonetheless, by 1939, the bayonet still had its place in every army. The true value of the bayonet was in the soldier’s mind, not at the end of his rifle.
That was true in two ways. While the greatest threat to the 20th century soldier was the bomb or the bullet delivered anonymously from afar, the most animating of fears was that of “cold steel” inserted into his body in a mortal duel, the most intimate form of combat death.
The most feared weapons in war are not necessarily the most dangerous. One reason why field hospitals counted relatively few casualties caused by bayonet wounds may well have been that many a soldier turned and ran before taking his chances against a surging line of men, bayonets glistening, and in all likelihood adorning their advance with the kinds of cries or yells designed to curdle blood.
In those circumstances, only in the rarest cases would bayonet steel clash with steel. Unlike the arrival of the bullet or the shell, the bayonet’s advent was seen, possibly heard, and with judicious retreat was probably avoidable. As one soldier of the second world war put it, “If I was that close to a Jerry, where we could use bayonets, one of us would have already surrendered!”
More crucial, though, than the psychological effect of the bayonet on the enemy was its impact on the men who wielded it. To take the lives of fellow human beings required not just weapons, but a mentality that tolerated the act of killing and even facilitated it.
In this war, as in the last, at military training schools across the world, instructor sergeants taught their charges to lunge, thrust and parry. Bayonets in hand, recruits were exhorted to plunge their weapons into swinging sacks of sawdust or bags of straw, aiming for those parts marked as weak and vulnerable.
To ramp up the level of realism, some British recruits practised “in abattoirs, with warm animal blood thrown in their faces as they plunged home their bayonets”.
Confidence in the use of the bayonet, it was believed, would give infantry the courage to advance from their positions and confront the enemy directly. They developed was what some called “the spirit of the bayonet”, l’esprit de la baïonnette. More crudely, it was a “lust for blood”. Although the statistics insisted it was unlikely that the bayonet would be the cause of death, it was crucial because it engendered in its bearer the desire to advance and to kill.
A mental reflex
Ideally the effect of such training, then, was not just to acquire the strength and skills akin to those of a fencer or swordsman. It was to develop a mental reflex perhaps best understood as the form of associative learning that psychologists term “classical conditioning”.
Just as Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to salivate on the appearance of a metronome – an artefact the dog had been trained to associate with the presentation of food – so in the mind of the infantryman the command to fix bayonets would trigger a hyper-aggressive state.
At that point it might even have seemed to the soldier that all agency had shifted to his bayonet, which would tug him into wild acts of violence, as if he had “no choice but to go along with its spirit”. As one infantryman put it, the “shining things leap from the scabbards and flash in the light … They seem alive and joyous; they turn us into fiends, thirsty for slaughter.”
If any soldiers in the second world war were entitled to the view that the march of military technology had rendered the bayonet obsolete, it was the parachutists and mountain troops Hitler sent to invade the island of Crete in May 1941.
Superbly trained and equipped, they had proved to themselves and the world that warfare had entered a new era. Germany’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, had demonstrated that in the modern age, death could be delivered anonymously and at a distance, above all from the skies. The age of intimate killing was over.
Or so it seemed. In Crete they were to confront Australians and New Zealanders who, like their fathers, were deeply familiar with the spirit of the bayonet. On the upturned brims of their slouch hats, the Australians displayed their allegiance to a powerful tradition in the form of the Rising Sun badge, a semi-circle of glistening bayonets radiating from a crown.
Like the Anzacs of the Great War, the Anzacs of 1941 were well trained in the use of the Pattern 1907 – they could lunge and stab with all the skill and deadliness of their forebears. When the order was given to fix bayonets, these Anzacs of 1941, too, would be expected to spill blood.
NB: Bayonets were used in charges as recently as in the Falklands War, the Second Gulf War and in Afghanistan. In many parts of the world to this day, training for infantrymen introduces them to the “spirit of the bayonet”.
It was one of the most brutal events in New Zealand’s past. Government troops marched into Parihaka and took control of the settlement. They systematically destroyed the community’s ability to sustain itself, suspending the ordinary course of law and imprisoning people without trial for participating in what was a justified act of non-violent resistance.
While it is important that we apologise and reconcile, it is equally important that we learn from the experience so it is never repeated. This is why I have looked back at how law has been wrongfully applied as an instrument of power to crush non-violent dissent.
This story began in 1866 when Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi established a settlement at Parihaka on land confiscated by the government in the 1860s as a penalty against “rebels” in the Taranaki wars. Te Whiti and Tohu began to develop a community which adopted non-violent measures to resist further land loss. It quickly grew to more than 2,000 inhabitants.
Accordingly, after surveyors failed to mark out reserves promised to Māori in southern Taranaki, in March 1879 Te Whiti ordered the surveyors to be peacefully evicted. In May of the same year, followers of Te Whiti and Tohu began to plough land across the disputed areas, as an assertion of their rights to it. By the end of July, 182 ploughmen had been arrested.
Worst land laws in NZ’s history
The government responded in early August with the Māori Prisoner Trials Acts. This enabled their continued imprisonment “for offences against public order” until a date was set for their trial.
The crime of removing survey pegs or ploughing was liable for a penalty of up to two years in jail. The date for trial was continually postponed and the numbers continued to build up. Between July and September 1880, 223 more Māori were arrested for placing fences across the road in an attempt to protect their cultivations.
Only 59 fencers received a trial, but all were sent hundreds of kilometres away to prisons in the South Island. In late July, a new Māori Prisoners Act of 1880 deemed it lawful to hold people in custody. To avoid any confusion (or questioning of what was going on), a text was added that said:
All the said Natives so committed for and waiting trial … shall be deemed and taken to have been lawfully arrested and to be in lawful custody, and may be lawfully detained.
The West Coast Settlement Act 1880 allowed any armed constable to arrest without warrant anyone interfering with surveys, engaged in unlawful ploughing or fencing, or obstructing a road.
In 1881, a commission set up to examine the matter concluded that the Crown had failed to fulfil promises about Māori reserves. It recommended some be granted. The government started creating new reserves by late September 1881, but these were not returned to Māori outright and instead placed under the administration of a public trustee. Many were sold or leased in perpetuity by European farmers.
The new law did not resolve the situation. People in Parihaka continued to erect fences around traditional cultivation sites. The government decided to use direct action.
Fearing that the non-violent resistance was a prelude to armed conflict, the government called up 31 units of the volunteer militia and five companies of the armed constabulary and a naval brigade (655 troops and nearly 1,000 settler volunteers). They entered the site on November 5 1881.
The troops found the road blocked by 200 children singing songs. The troops carried groups of older girls off the road and finally met residents sitting in the centre of the marae (meeting area). After reading out the Riot Act and telling those gathered to disperse, some 1,600 Parihaka inhabitants were expelled and dispersed throughout Taranaki without food or shelter.
The remaining 600 residents were issued with government passes to control their movement. Soldiers then destroyed most of the buildings at Parihaka. The government issued an indemnity order for all of those acting on behalf of the Crown at Parihaka.
Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested and charged with sedition for saying that “the land belongs to me”. They were held without trial for 16 months. With the West Coast Peace Preservation Act of 1882, the Crown decided not to prosecute the case, but the governor was given the right to retain them in custody, or free them with, or without, conditions if deemed necessary.
Local Māori were also prohibited from gathering in groups of more than 50. Anyone threatening to breach the peace could be jailed for 12 months.
One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia.
It was the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes (later Premier of NSW) described as “the birthday of Australian democracy”.
Transportation ceased in New South Wales in 1840. Over the following decade, colonists worked hard to transform their penal colony into a respectable civil society.
By the late 1840s, people like Parkes believed they were on the brink of not only greater self-government but perhaps even democracy.
However, Henry George Grey – Colonial Secretary in charge of all the United Kingdom’s colonial dependencies – had been planning to resume transportation. In 1849, he decided to test the waters by sending out a boat of convicts. When the vessel sailed into Sydney Harbour, thousands rushed to Circular Quay to prevent it from docking.
The people had been triumphant and confident they had sent a firm message.
They were, therefore, deeply outraged in 1850 when they discovered Grey was so indifferent to their protests, he was planning to send another boat.
Rallies and petitions were organised throughout NSW, including two, the press snidely described as “ladies petitions” in Sydney.
Of the 36,589 signatures collected, 9,189 were from Sydney women – at least 42% of Sydney’s female population at the time.
These were delivered to the NSW Legislative Council, then the UK House of Commons and Queen Victoria.
While historians have typically focused on the male orators and agitators of this age, these “ladies petitions” challenge the narrative of colonial democracy as created by men for men. These documents also suggest women could not have been completely confined to the domestic sphere, nor entirely excluded from politics.
For me, they also promised a rare encounter with voices difficult to hear within the colonial archive.
Reading the petition
Although the right to petition the monarchy had been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, in the 19th century petitions were regularly used to galvanise the masses and give voice to those excluded from political processes.
By the time colonial women put ink to paper in 1850, over 10,000 petitions were tabled to British parliament each year.
While most petitions of this era were destroyed once submitted, a few survived. Much to my delight, after weeks of searching the stacks, Rosemary Sempell, archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records, found the original 207 pages from the “female inhabitants of Sydney.”
The opening address describes the “deep anxiety and alarm” these “wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney” felt in regards to transportation and how it would prevent them fulfilling their “sacred and responsible duties [regarding the] moral instruction” of the colony and their children.
Most of all, these women were furious Grey had repeatedly ignored the colony’s “solemn and unanimous” rejection of transportation.
Ultimately, it was this disrespect for due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.
The petition was signed by a broad range of Sydney women: members of the colonial elite such as Lady Eleanor Stephens, middle-class mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts, and those who signed their names with a simple cross that suggested they may have had firsthand experience of transportation.
A rising of ‘sister politicians’
When this petition was tabled in Legislative Council, it was described as “the first of its sort” in Australia and conservative politician William Wentworth was quick to question whether members of the council should consent to such political activity.
He warned husbands “would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed” if their wives were not “political ladies”.
He also predicted such activity would encourage other petitions “praying for the rights of women”, perhaps even cause “some Mary Wollstonecraft” to rise up and instruct her “sister politicians” to ignore “their husbands” altogether.
Although the Australian suffragist movement did not begin in earnest for another 30 years, Wentworth may have been correct in connecting this moment of female activism with all that would unfold. At the very least, these petitions proved colonial women could unite against a common enemy.
The women who signed this petition did so because they believed the colony was ready to chart its own course, and they wanted to be part of the process.
It might be telling that in the final sentence of the address the word “particularly” has been crossed out and replaced with “patriotically”. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of “local feeling”. One that mattered to these women and was also effective in finally putting an end to transportation to NSW – as was resolved in the UK House of Commons the following month.
The colonial archive has encouraged us to assume only men were involved in the push for greater political freedoms in Australia. These “ladies petitions” confirm that thousands of Sydney women were not only present at the birthday of Australian democracy, but determined to play a role in its future.
In this first foray into the political domain, Australian women also proved they could have their voices heard: not only by other colonists and the British Parliament, but even, the Queen herself.
The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in the search for these petitions: Edith Ho, State Library of NSW; Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW; and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
You leave Sydney and head for holidays on the South Coast. You plan to catch a quick surf, check out the boutiques and cafes, stroll around a local museum.
If you’re stopping in Berry you’ll notice a large steel sculpture in honour of two brothers, Alexander and David Berry. And in the main street you will encounter a bronze bust of Alexander, celebrating his determination to “replace bush and swamp”. The local hospital and a monument near the railway station recognise David. Old two-storey buildings along the main street, big trees and established gardens all add up to a picture of genteel pastoral history.
This polite scene ruptures if we know that Alexander Berry collected and traded in the bones of Aboriginal people, including those he had exhumed from their graves on his vast estate, Coolangatta.
Cultural institutions in our capital cities have begun to pay greater respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Australian Museum in Sydney states “The First Nations collections belong to ancestors, to First Nations people of the present and to the young people of the future”. Melbourne Museum is “working to place First Peoples living cultures and histories at the core of our practice”.
But away from the cities and – despite the good intentions of many staff members – small museums lag behind, presenting tourists with stories that give a narrowed view of local histories.
Three towns, the same story
In a regional town museum you will probably encounter some version of the pioneer or settler story. This narrative is illustrated with the many farm tools, pieces of mining equipment, clothes, books, furniture and other domestic and civic artefacts donated by locals over the years.
In this version of history, pioneers move across the land, unencumbered by prior Aboriginal occupants, making it productive as they go. Small museums seem to get stuck in this white pioneer groove.
Historian Amanda Nettelbeck observes that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories are often presented as two separate sides of colonial history, rather than as an obviously connected relationship between British settlement and Aboriginal dispossession.
In the museums of Berry, Kangaroo Valley and Nowra, three towns central to the NSW South Coast tourism economy, the idea of a frontier (that space of conflict over land, resources, rights and sovereignty) is avoided. But how is this achieved, when the pioneer story depends on the frontier for its existence?
Looking at these three museums reveals artefacts of Aboriginal provenance are presented in ways that cast them as either relics of a distant past, symbols of a generic Aboriginality or curiosities with no political context. They celebrate the pioneer without acknowledging the founding dispossession of local Yuin people. Frontiers are messy; pioneers clean things up. And museums keep the story simple, neat and tidy.
Too hot to handle
This is not to say the dedicated volunteers who run these museums come down on one side of the “History Wars”. The staff who care for their collections are often keen to address their lack of information on specific Yuin histories.
In 2017, Nowra Museum hosted the travelling exhibition This is where they travelled, which accompanied Paul Irish’s book Hidden in Plain View: the Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney. In the same year, the Berry Museum hosted the Yuin anthropologist, the late Les Bursill, who delivered a lecture on Yuin history of the South Coast. Kangaroo Valley Pioneer Village committee members responded to a draft of this essay, saying they would renew signage in the museum and were keen to pursue new research on local Aboriginal histories.
Despite this, the overwhelming story remains that of white settlers’ hard work and perseverance. And although part of the reason for the static nature of museum stories is lack of funds and a reliance on the time and energy of volunteers, the narrative’s repetitive nature – and its general wear and tear – may also be due to its omissions. Bruce Pascoe reframes the perception of Australian history as boring, by drawing our attention to what’s left out: “Australian history isn’t boring, it’s just too hot to handle.”
The blinkered storyline of small museums is a symptom of what US scholar Mark Rifkin calls “settler common sense”. Settler common sense describes the feeling of “taken-for-granted” possession of, and belonging to, a place which has been taken from someone else.
Settler common sense exists as “a given”: we (as a white person, I include myself) have the unquestionable right to possess that which doesn’t belong to us. It normalises settler possession of, and control over, land and the stories about that land. The pioneer or settler narrative relies on that assumption: white rights to non-white land, and white rights to the telling of history.
In one of the cottages in the recreated village hang two bark paintings, donated in the 1970s by a local who acquired them in Arnhem Land. In another cottage is a display case containing miniature souvenir versions of clubs, boomerangs and animal figurines.
Below these are a group of unlabelled grinding stones, which may or may not be from the local region. Labels for other objects in this display read “boomerang made from mulga wood” and “more mulga wood boomerangs” (mulga is a small tough acacia which grows in arid inland regions, not Kangaroo Valley). Other labels read: “replica of an emu egg”; and “fighting weapon could be used to split the enemy’s head open”.
These items are presented without context and without any relationship to Kangaroo Valley. They are accompanied by an illustrated word list entitled “Interpreting Aboriginal Symbols” and although the words are indeed Aboriginal, the language is Warrgamay, spoken by people of the Herbert River region of North Queensland.
By presenting objects that are replicas, miniatures, unlabelled or misleadingly labelled, the museum allows a generic “Aboriginality” to be visible while keeping it unrelated to Kangaroo Valley and local people. The presentation does not disrupt the Kangaroo Valley settler narrative because Aboriginal existence is presented as inauthentic and elsewhere.
Other histories about Kangaroo Valley tell a different story. The museum’s own archival sources document the many meetings in the region (albeit from colonial viewpoints) between local Aboriginal people and colonisers during the 1800s and 1900s, the large gatherings at Kangaroo Valley for ceremony and song-learning “for which they sometimes travel far” and the Aboriginal families who relied on work at the four timber mills in the town in the 1940s.
More than portraits
Drive south over the scenic mountain range from Kangaroo Valley and you will cross the Shoalhaven River to Nowra.
Nowra Museum’s exhibition of local Aboriginal presence is built around a collection of timber and stone artefacts and an impressive black and white photograph of an elderly couple, James Goulding and Mary Carpenter. They are seated on chairs in a garden, and wear European clothing typical of the early 1900s. Goulding, who also wears a top hat, has a ‘breastplate’ suspended from a chain, around his neck.
In a display case near the photograph, is a brass breastplate engraved with the name “Neddy Noora” and “Shoal Haven 1834”. Alongside this is a reproduction of a drawing that was part of a series of portraits of Aboriginal ‘kings’ and their wives done in Sydney by German-born Charles Rodius, in the early 1830s. The portrait shows the young Neddy Noora, wearing the breastplate over his European clothing.
The granting of breastplates to Aboriginal people signified a reward given for assistance or rescue and they were an attempt at gaining influence over individuals thought to be leaders.
Aboriginal recipients also had a stake in these tactics, no doubt being well aware of the hierarchies so blatant in colonial society. Offered as a status symbol, acceptance was the “gracious and prudent thing to do”. However, by the end of the 1800s, breastplates lacked political currency and became prized by white collectors.
Engraved on the breastplate James Goulding wears are the words “Budd Billy King of Jarvis Bay” (sic). Budd Billy is an Anglicisation of Goulding’s Aboriginal name Budbili. Ngarigu linguist Jakelin Troy gives the meaning of budbili as “possum-skin rug”.
This single word from the Dharawal language of the Yuin nation, links a person and a place with important historical and cultural objects – a pre-colonial possum-skin rug and a colonial metal breastplate – both of which existed within the tangled cultures of the pre and early post-Federation era.
The breastplate given to Neddy Noora was found in Broughton Creek (near the town of Berry) in 1925. Neddy and another Aboriginal man, Toodwit (also known as Broughton), guided John Oxley’s expedition to mark an overland route between Sydney and Jervis Bay in 1819. Toodwit was central to Alexander Berry’s 1822 reconnoitre of the region.
Nowra Museum’s display has been updated recently to include a brief explanation of the political aspect of giving and receiving breastplates and when I contacted Lynne Allen, president of the Shoalhaven Historical Society, she explained that museum volunteers can provide visitors with an explanation of breastplates as a European construct.
She said that the large portrait of Mary Carpenter and James Goulding was “consistently amongst our visitors, Aboriginal or otherwise, the most popular of all our items”.
Does this popularity translate into greater awareness of our complex local histories? The people in these portraits are not just entangled with the white cultures that entered their lands but are linked to Yuin descendants today.
Berry Museum plays its part, presenting Alexander Berry as a soft-hearted adventurer yet hard-headed businessman, who was distressed by any form of human suffering. His interest in phrenology and trade in the skulls of Aboriginal people is not mentioned in Berry Museum.
In 1822, Berry and his business partner Edward Wollstonecraft were granted 10,000 acres on the Shoalhaven River by Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane. This possession of a vast section of Yuin land, renamed Coolangatta, gave Berry access to Aboriginal graves.
Collection of human skeletal remains, particularly skulls, was not uncommon in colonial societies. Berry and Governor Brisbane shared an interest in phrenology (the study of skull shape), and Brisbane donated a “skull of a native female of New South Wales” to the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh.
During the 1820s Berry also actively sought out skulls from associates in Tasmania. In 1827, in a letter accompanying a “craniological specimen”, Berry describes Arawarra, “the owner of the present specimen”, as a “once formidable warrior”, being carried by his son to “take a last look of Cooloomgatta (sic) now occupied by strangers”.
Berry describes how the “venerable old gentleman” died two days after this meeting and was buried on the Coolangatta estate. He goes on to describe the manner of Arawarra’s burial, stating that he “lived to an extreme old age and died in peace”.
The tourist space
Historian and cultural studies scholar, Katrina Schlunke, asks “what can and can’t be said in ‘tourist space’?”. Vandalisation of burial sites and collection of skulls does not fit with the image of Berry as a relaxing country getaway. And including the story of Arawarra carelessly may risk further desecration of Yuin protocols if not undertaken with extensive consultation with Elders and community members.
Museums have never been neutral in the choices they make about what to display and how, but avoiding traumatic or difficult histories is not neutral either.
Wiradjuri curator at the Australian Museum, Nathan Sentance, states that museums and archives “should not just work to document bad history, but work to prevent bad history from happening”. Including the “bad” history of the town of Berry may work towards a better understanding of how replacing the bush and swamps greatly benefited some people at the ongoing expense of others.
Reinterpreting local histories is not for the fainthearted and the more the “top” layer of the pioneer story is disrupted, the more the “too hot to handle” stories emerge.
The Berry District Historical Society’s website claims, “the complete story of Alexander Berry is full of adventure and courage”. This pitch tells us there is some serious reconsideration needed regarding what constitutes a “complete” story.
History is messy
In 2018, the 10-Year Indigenous Roadmap, commissioned by peak body Australian Museums and Galleries Association, was finalised. The aim of the roadmap is to change “interactions, communication, understandings and ultimately, the Australian view of First Peoples”.
Small museums, with their wealth of material, stories, experience and passionate volunteer staff, could play an important part in achieving that aim.
Megan Davis, Cobble Cobble woman, Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Law at UNSW, reported that in the dialogues conducted in preparation for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the overwhelming view was that “a nation cannot recognise people they do not know or understand”.
The truth-telling the Uluru Statement calls for, could be work that local museums, in partnership with Aboriginal communities, could contribute to in ways that profoundly reinvigorate how local histories get told.
The Flinders Ranges covers a vast area spanning over 400 kilometres. The nearest capital city is Adelaide which, like all of Australia, exists on Aboriginal land. Adelaide is in Kaurna Country, about 200 kilometres from the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful locations. This is a short drive, relative to most travel in Australia.
It is impossible to describe the Flinders Ranges as just one environment. The landscape changes as you travel from south to north and there is no way you could see its entirety in the span of a lifetime. But to give you an idea of how this land varies, lets start at its most southern end with its flowing green hills, near the small city of Port Pirie. This part of the Flinders Ranges is Nukunu Country. The land here is beautiful and your experience of it is very different, depending on whether you choose to drive on the eastern or the western side of the Ranges.
If you continue driving on the western side you will witness the place where the Ranges meet the ocean. You don’t need to pass through many towns, but you definitely should do so as they all sit on the beautiful coast of the Spencer Gulf. Port Germein, one of the stops, is a lovely seaside town and home to what was once the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. One and a half kilometres long, it lets you experience what it would be like to stand in the middle of the sea looking across to the Ranges. An amazing view indeed.
The eastern side will take you through farmland and small towns. Gum trees, creeks, gorges and green grass surround you and it is one of the first times you will find yourself up close to the Flinders Ranges. Here, you will be travelling through Nukunu Country, or if you veer further east, possibly Ngadjuri or Adnyamathanha Country. There is a stronger colonial history in the towns here, which you can see in the monuments and buildings that now seem tattered and old. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is one more stop I want to show you on the western side.
As you continue to travel you see the hills gradually turn into shades of dark green and brown. Their shape begins to change too, their soft edges turn to sharper points. The green grass transforms into red sand and you notice that the dark green and brown on the hills are the colours of the shrubs embedded into this sand. You eventually reach the small city of Port Augusta which sits at the top of the Spencer Gulf. This area is a meeting place for a number of Aboriginal groups that are separated on each side of the gulf, however, it is specifically connected to Barngarla and Nukunu. It is no surprise that this place is of great interest to so many Aboriginal Nations. It is the one place where the desert truly meets the sea. It is also the town where I grew up.
The beauty of home
Growing up in Port Augusta, I never realised just how beautiful this place was or how fortunate I was to experience such stunning views. It is not until you have lived in a city and travelled the world that you start to see the beauty in the place you call home. I spent many days during summer down at the beach during high-tide. But I was more concerned with opening my eyes under water than opening my eyes to the beauty of the Ranges.
My house was not far from an amazing view. If I took a short stroll to the end of my street I could look over a large white salt-lake to the Flinders Ranges. In this area the Ranges become more textured, their edges rougher, the creases highlighted by the shadows cast during sunset. The vegetation here is overflowing.
But even this is not the best part of the Flinders Ranges. To reach the highlight, you must travel from Port Augusta along a small gorge until you reach the point of intersection with the eastern side of the Ranges at the tiny town of Quorn. Continue through this town and the land begins to flatten out. There are fewer hills and you see horizontal red ground for miles around. You are now in a much drier area of the country. Dust. Fewer trees. But shrubbery everywhere. In the distance small hills are rising. As you reach these hills you are exiting Nukunu country and merging into Barngarla and Adnyamathanha country.
When you arrive at the small town of Hawker, you are presented with the option of two roads, and two different adventures. You must ask yourself which side of Ikara (Wilpena Pound) you want to see – the east or the west? If you choose the eastern side, you get to travel at a higher elevation. This section of road brings stunning views that you cannot see anywhere else unless you climb a hill. You feel engulfed by the Ranges, seeing their true magnitude. As you travel north you begin to really enter Adnyamathanha Yarta (Country). You are fortunate to see open plains alongside the beautiful ridges of the Flinders Ranges. Despite the perception that this region is dry, there are flecks of green everywhere. The ground is not just red: it varies between orange, yellow, white and black. These are the same colours that are present in the malka, markings and rock art that exists throughout our Yarta.
If you travel further north-east you will continue to see small hills in the distance that transform into mountains. You might even be able to glimpse a line of white on the horizon – the salt lake, Lake Frome. The further north you drive, the closer you get to Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. Here you can see creeks and high gorges and you begin to realise this area is not so dry.
Travel further west and you eventually arrive in Nepabunna, a central hub for Adnyamathanha people. During the 1930s, our people decided they needed assistance from missionaries because our land had essentially been destroyed by the influence of pastoralism. When farm animals were introduced to our country, the land began to change, our waters changed, and parts of our country were no longer open to us. It was decided that we needed to turn the place known as Nipapanha into a mission. Today, Nipapanha is known as Nepabunna and is home to a small number of Adnyamathanha people. Despite most of us living outside of this area, we still feel connected and call this area our home.
If you continue driving west, you will end up in the small mining town of Copley or Leigh Creek. This place is home to even more of us. The mine is located not too far outside of the town and operated for over 70 years. Coal was being mined here for use at the power stations in Port Augusta. When the power stations shut down, so too did the mine.
Travelling south out of Leigh Creek and Copley, you see even more amazing views. The hills around this area seem unreal. They create a strange illusion because they are close enough for you to see what is on them, but far enough away to look artificial. These hills are curvy and shapely; they look smooth. They look like what sand looks like when a snake slithers across it.
The views from this entire road are gorgeous. On one side you have a flat plain with no hills, because past this is the salt lake, Lake Torrens. On the other side the hills transform from smooth and curvy to the textured, ridged, multi-coloured ranges that circle Ikara. About half-way along this road, you will see the sign for Nilpena, the location of the Ediacaran fossils.
Ediacara is just one small location in the vast area known as the Flinders Ranges. Geologically, the fossils that are found here have transformed discussions about time periods and how the earth, and everything on it, came to be. Even the Ranges themselves are examples of this geological conundrum. They are not only scientifically amazing, they are incredibly breathtaking to witness. This region is truly an amazing place.
Despite the Flinders Ranges being so large, my ancestors and the ancestors of our neighbouring groups have explored it all. They mapped the entire country thousands of years before our colonisers had even thought of maps. Our people set borders between each other and formed customs that controlled how we entered each other’s country. They named every hill; every rock formation, big and small; every creek and every stream running off that creek. If you see something here, you can bet that we have given it a name.
The name of the Ediacaran fossils comes from their location in the Ediacara hills. But talking about the Aboriginal origins of this name is not as simple as you might think and it stems back to the colonial naming of all Australian places. Back in the time when the settlers were naming and claiming as many places as possible, some given names were original, some paid tribute to colonial figures and some were named after towns in other parts of the world. What is interesting is that many places were also named using Aboriginal words.
Some Aboriginal words that are used for places are not actually place names. In fact, there are many records of humorous words being given to settlers instead of the real name of a place. Due to the complexity of our naming, settlers often mistook words that referred to a specific spot rather than to the broader landscape that they were enquiring about. It was like using the name for a street as the name of a town. This adoption of names also led to the mispronunciation of words. Settlers were in no way linguists, and many Aboriginal words used as placenames have been altered and pronounced very differently to the way they were initially used.
Documentation of the word Ediacara does not clearly indicate which Aboriginal language it comes from, but there is some information about its meaning. One understanding is that this word is linked to a place where water is present. It is also believed that it could be a mispronunciation of the words “Yata Takarra” meaning hard or stony ground. Speaking to Adnyamathanha people about the meaning of the word Ediacara presents difficulties because of the linguistic history of Aboriginal place names. It is most likely that Ediacara was once pronounced very differently and it is possible that it may not be the name of the place where the Ediacaran fossils are located. Either way, the name that exists today in no way diminishes the Adnyamathanha history of the region.
Indigenous knowledge systems
From an archaeological perspective my ancestors have been in this area for over 45,000 years. Our histories are written in the land and passed down from generation to generation through talking and by marking rock walls. If you had traversed the land via the roads I took you on earlier, you would have passed many stories. But in order to tell you one of the main stories about the formation of our country today, I must return to the coalfields of Leigh Creek.
Although the closing of Leigh Creek mine caused distress amongst miners and power station workers, for me it felt like the land had finally won. It was no longer being attacked. Leigh Creek is not the only mine that exists on our country: we have had a long history of mining extending back to early colonisation. Up north uranium is extracted and down south, where the Ediacaran fossils are, copper and silver were once mined. I remember standing next to the Leigh Creek mine and looking inside the incredibly deep hole in the ground. You don’t feel well when you witness scenes like this because they are not pretty and you know that they are the direct result of human conflict. When I looked into that hole I saw a battle lost by my ancestors against developers. I saw my people’s fight and I saw their hurt. Mining coal may have been used to power parts of the state, but in terms of my Adnyamathanha community, it was a form of disempowerment.
The coal in Leigh Creek mine is connected to the story of Yurlu’s coal. Yurlu is a Kingfisher, but more importantly, he is the Master of Ceremonies. He came down from Kakarlpunha to Leigh Creek where he made a big fire out of mallee sticks. The fire was created to alert everyone to go south with him to Ikara where there would be a ceremony. Along the route of his travels he made several fires and these became the coal deposits you can find on the way down to Ikara. While doing this he was being followed by the two big snakes known as Akurras. These snakes pursued him all the way down to Ikara and you can see their travels represented in the shape of the hills and the ranges as they slithered south. They slid into the pound where they watched the ceremony, their bodies forming each side of the shape of the pound. There is more to this story, but this is enough to illustrate the breadth of our wisdom about our country. We never had any large animals to use as transport, we developed strong knowledge of place by traversing this land on foot.
Aboriginal stories are often viewed as mythology or folk tales, but they are much more than that. This is true of stories about Aboriginal places across the entire continent. Our stories come in many forms and provide various types of knowledge. In some instances they are used as maps. The places travelled to by the beings (they can be human, animal, plant or object) in these stories can be remembered over many generations. Even when these lands were no longer accessible during periods of environmental change, our people could recall them thousands of years later.
Our stories can be used as lessons, indicators of places or things that are dangerous. And I mean real danger, not “taboo”. Places where you can easily become disorientated and lost are in these stories as well as plants or other substances that are chemically dangerous to touch or consume. Our lesson stories can also lead us to places that can help us. They may describe natural springs in land where fresh water is uncommon, or they may map out the locations of rare food sources. They might relate to aspects of our culture such as the origin of certain ceremonies or the ways we identify ourselves in relation to each other.
Our stories are extensive and full of purpose, but because they are boxed into the category of mythology, the knowledge they contain is not seen as scientifically reliable. Western science has always prided itself on being objective and quantifiable and there is no doubt that it has presented some of the most important discoveries across the world. However, it has also been responsible for the oppression of my people. Western scientists developed ideas that enabled them to see Aboriginal people as lesser beings, that suggested “Western civilisation” was more intelligent than us. Western science is behind the forced removal of Aboriginal children, known more commonly in Australia as “The Stolen Generation”. Western science is the reason my people are seen as nomadic: it claimed we had no understanding of the land we existed on and that we were aimlessly wandering the country. Ultimately, Western science is the reason our land was originally taken away from us.
45,000 years of connecting to heritage
Western science and Indigenous knowledge clash because of their histories. In western society, science will always be placed on a higher pedestal, it will always be seen as more trustworthy. But Indigenous knowledge is the result of many thousands of years of observation. You cannot compare that to the past thousand or so years that western science has existed.
Scientific understanding of the Ediacaran period seems to be completely beyond the scope of Indigenous knowledge systems. It is unknown whether my ancestors had seen or even understood what the fossils were. However, the extent of our knowledge of the land and its creatures cannot be denied.
A similarity can be found between these fossils and our cultural heritage. Both are significant and vulnerable, and both need to be protected. When geologists and paleontologists started going to Ediacara the station owner made an admirable decision to restrict the removal of fossils for research. Therefore, all documentation of the fossils is completed on site. Additionally, their location is kept private due to the fear of vandalism and looting.
Adnyamathanha people have similar fears about our heritage. Our rock art is routinely destroyed and artefacts are removed from their original place. They are taken as souvenirs or vandalised out of disrespect for our culture. Unfortunately, we do not have the comfort of owning private land. Our heritage is used for tourism and whilst it is great that this shines a light on our history and culture, you have to wonder whether it is all worth it when our cultural heritage is in danger of destruction. Adnyamathanha heritage deserves as much consideration as the Ediacaran fossils.
Prior to Reginald Sprigg announcing his discovery of the fossils in 1946 they were of no interest to anyone, but we have continually been connected to our heritage for 45,000 years.