Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged archaeology

  • Some Crucial Materials

    Some Crucial Materials

    What was I ever taught about the first Tasmanians? Bugger all, as it happens. A lot of what I was taught wasn’t true. How is it that so few people find the humans of this landscape’s history as fascinating and important as I do?

    Today’s indigenous Tasmanian communities are able to tell of their own histories and traditions. Much, however, has been lost. Of course, any mob in modernity has jettisoned past practices, but for the original Tasmanians, a lot of loss came about because of force. One can only be stunned by how swiftly and savagely any sense of normalcy was destroyed by colonists and visiting seamen in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nevertheless, the Tasmanians survived.

    (I don’t recall exactly what I was taught, but certainly phrases like ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’ were familiar to me when I first started my own lines of inquiry into what Aboriginal life here.
    Even when I went to primary school this was outdated, and yet I’m quite sure it was still taught.)

    Scientists scratching through the layers of soil – through the bones and discarded shells of old campsites – are able to tell us more.
    A midden is a remnant of a significant part of original Tasmanian economy. These are some of the crucial materials of life on this island. The Tasmanians survived several periods of glaciation. They were, for thousands of years, the most southerly people on Earth.

    The truth is that, like many around me, I probably didn’t much care about history. Not for a long time. Perhaps I’d never have really bothered, if I didn’t come to be so obsessed with the Tasmanian landscape. Suddenly I wanted to know the human history of the land.

    I recognised that I had invested the world around me with meaning, and it became clear that Aboriginal communities would have done the same. Don’t we always blend practical matters with spiritual or social values? It made me think anew of the mystique of rock and fire, to wonder at the hidden meanings of native cherry and abalone and pigface. The curved emblems of Tasmanian rock carvings and body art provoked me to look for patterns in the world around me. Wallaby sinew and bull kelp took on new meanings for me. So too did the loop-di-loop of a grey fantail in flight. The whole bush became alive with inspiration, living presences and processes.

    Chancing upon a midden, a scattered bed of the shells of mud oysters and abalone, can be poignant for me. I don’t believe that these people were my ancestors genetically, but they were my predecessors in this place; if ever I am going to have home country, it is here, and I can only have any sense of belonging on this island by trying to comprehend what the first Tasmanians have been like throughout history, and today.

    The archaeological sites of the Tarkine area are among the most important in Australia. They tell us about the huts, traps and campsites of those who have lived here for millennia. Much of the Tassie they knew is irretrievable.

    Some readers may have overheard the public conversation about the reopening of four-wheel-drive tracks on the Tarkine coast. Many representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, as well as ecologists, are deeply concerned what this means.
    The planned tracks are said to avoid shorebird nesting sites, and middens will be covered with some sort of protective mat. I hope I don’t seem cynical when I say this sounds, to me, like an afterthought.

    I should say that not all Aboriginal groups are worried: the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, whose neighbourhood is the Tarkine coast, is in support of the tracks’ reopening. They suggest that inclusive access to these places will promote their value. The state government reckons that they can manage these places better with the tracks officially opened and licenses given out.

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t trust my fellow Tasmanians to look after our landscape and our cultural heritage. So few people seem to care that we live in the midst of a swirl of vibrant ecology; that we are ourselves are creatures bound to our ecosystems; and that the history of this landscape, and its peoples, readily inspires us to wonder.

    Not enough Tasmanians love this place in all its complexity. If they did, they would love the old people, the ancestors, the ones who came before us, the first Tasmanians. If so, these middens, which are accessible on all stretches of coastline around the island, could be places of contemplation for us all.



    We consider more Aboriginal folklore from western Tasmania in 'the Land of Sweet Forget'.

  • Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    If you stumble upon a strata of Permian mudstone in Tasmania, you’ll likely find some fossils in it. Don’t expect dinosaur bones: what we have are impressions of various flora and fauna from the sea, bivalves and brachiopods from the era that began roughly 300 million years, and ended with an apocalypse in 251 million years ago.

    Palaeontologists can recognise the Permian pretty easily, because nearly all of the creatures on the planet became extinct at this stage. At the time, Tasmania was covered with a shallow sea – much of the Earth’s landmasses were. The prevailing theory (although there are a few contenders) suggests that underwater volcanoes poisoned everything.

    Oh well. I stop at a cleft of mudstone somewhere, finger the pretty imprints of shells and the wavy lines of sea-fern fronds; then I get back in my car and drive to the next place, to an outcrop of Devonian conglomerate, perhaps, or the pub in the north-west town of Marrawah.

    I have spent comparatively little time at the helm of a motor car, preferring a life on hoof. Still, the power of the combustion engine gives me a great rush: what a phenomenological experience! I have a very fine vehicle, and its complicated mechanics and its ability to push me along at a great velocity. In fact, there may be no faster car in Tasmania than my 1992 Ford Laser.

    Sometimes whilst driving I see an echidna fumbling and fidgeting on the verge. “Such earth attunement!” shouts the poet Pete Hay. The most minute vibrations in the grass will attract their attention – they’re after ants.

    Given their poor eyesight I’m glad they’re not driving my car; I suspect they wouldn’t want to either, as I have seen them find an ants’ nest, and, positively covered in the insects, they appear (I’m afraid to say) like they are in the throes of an orgasm. They are in their glee and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I would swap my phenomenological experience for theirs too.

    Half-way down the winding road from Marrawah to my campsite of choice, I see a plaque and swiftly pull over to observe it. A map of the area has been forged and stuck on a concrete plinth; we can thank the Marrawah Women’s Progress Association for this, who organised it in 1977, or so the plaque says.

    A van is in the corner of the headland where I want to camp. It belongs to two European backpackers; I decide to chat with them, mostly to see if they are leaving and if I can claim their spot. I have given them some bushwalking advice and we are having an amiable conversation about their travels until, a propos of nothing, they begin to insult Aboriginal people. My mind goes blank with anger and turning on my heels to leave them immediately, I say, stupid with rage, “Shut up.”

    Later, when they are gone, I sit and face the sea, and try and let my anger cool in the sea breeze and the distance. The Women’s Association plaque has told me that Cape Horn is 15,586 kilometres from me, almost due west. But closer by is Cape Grim, Tassie’s north-west tip: there, in 1827, an Aboriginal party was massacred by a group of shepherds. These shepherds were apparently retaliating to the murder of some sheep. But we know that sheep are not the true meaning of all this: they were fighting over land use, both fuelled with theories and superstitions about spirituality and economy – which is to say, most of what gave their lives meaning and their relationships purpose.

    There are more cows than sheep in the north-west today. They too are an economic symbol, with “Cape Grim Beef” one of those contemporary phrases which lacks poetry but is nevertheless loaded with significance. It’s delicious dairy country up here too. I am lucky enough to have spent some time working with cows, and I like to look at them. They’re really rather lovely, although to touch them is to lay hands on a strange biological sculpture. They have a weird figure, bones and cartilage in places you don’t expect them.

    It’s a memorable form, and one which must have seemed monstrous to Aboriginal observers when cows were first dropped onto the island two centuries ago. Cows are seriously harming the environment, but it’s not really their choice. The real monstrosities have been caused by humans.

    At a conference in the year 2000, a scientist jokingly described the current geological era as the Anthropocene Era. The joke has lost its humour. Dig, in a million years, and you will find the evidence of our roads and buildings, our landfills of plastic, our soil-degrading farms, of Permian-style mass extinction. I think it would be embarrassing to be there on that day. “What were you lot doing?” they’d ask. “What insanity was the era of the Anthropocene?”

    I’d like to think they will find this plaque in Marrawah though; I can see this in a future archaeological museum, with a naff little write-up next to it. It’d be nice if it could be exhibited with the current graffiti intact: someone has spraypainted a multi-coloured love-heart and scrawled the word ‘Land’ in the middle. It could prove to an insightful archaeologist that at least a few of us loved our landscapes. “They weren’t all bad,” they might say.

    I don’t suppose the paint will last, however.



    I've been thinking a lot about forms in the Tasmanian landscape: fences and fantails, for example, or otherwise bird tracks and moon shapes.

    And also on the topic of environmental destruction in the north-west, we went to Savage River...

  • The Paddocks

    The Paddocks

    After following a narrow, muddy track for some time through the rainforest, we emerge to an open field of straw-coloured tussocks. We have come upon 'the Paddocks'. Outside the canopy of tanglefoot and sassafras, the rain is heavy and quickly drenches us. But across the field is a wooden hut, of a modest size, and we are aiming for its verandah.

    My friends didn't know that such a place existed. This hut, knocked together from native timber, disconnected from electricity, away from mobile phone signal, and hours on foot from the nearest road, is not a one-off: in Tasmania's isolated central highlands, such structures have been scattered along rivers, by lakes, and on mountainsides for more than a century.

    But by the nature of their purposes, settings, and designs, they are rarely visited and not widely-known.

    As we took off wet boots and put the william on the boil for cups of tea, the sound of the rain merged into the rushing of the Mersey River as it snaked around the base of a mountain range shrouded in mist. The Upper Mersey, archaeologists tell us, has at least 10,000 years of human history. The Paddocks, which have been managed by post-colonial stockmen for around a century, was probably fired by Aboriginal Tasmanians for at least a couple thousand years to aid their hunting practice.

    In the 1880s, the Field family - eminently successful cattle barons - employed George Lee to drive cattle in this high country. It was a three-day trip from the township of Mole Creek to the Paddocks, and following his marriage to one Alice Applebee, George would also take his sons Lewis and Oxley to the area. Like many mountaineers in Tasmania, they also hunted for fur.

    The sons inherited the land after George Lee's death. Oxley, who was illiterate and an alcoholic, sold his share of the Paddocks in the 1960s; Lewis Lee continued to visit the area several times a year, until his death in 1989. It was his hut that my friends and I would be sleeping in. Now belonging to other family members, it is generally accepted that bushwalkers may stay there, if they follow the correct etiquette.

    The mountain huts of Tasmania are remnants of a fascinating and unique culture. As Simon Cubit, the foremost historian of high country stockmen, writes, they 'are a little known but nonetheless important part of Tasmania's cultural heritage.'

    One wonders if part of their significance isn't derived from the fact that everything about the lifestyle these huts point to is remote, rarely-experienced, and not well known.

  • What Lies in the Middens

    What Lies in the Middens

    Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.

    His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.

    This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.

    The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.

    Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.

    Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.

    In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.

    The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.

    “These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.

    Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.

    We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.

    And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.


     
    George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.