Aboriginal objects

There are three broad categories of Aboriginal objects related to ceremonial life, the pre-colonial era and the post-contact period.

Ceremonial objects

Like all cultures, Aboriginal people hold beliefs that gain expression through ceremonies. The holding of these ceremonies involves people who have undergone or are to undergo rites of passage leading to greater knowledge and status within the community. There are a range of objects associated with ceremonial practice including head and body decorations (e.g. armlets, anklets, belts, nose-pegs, necklaces), tools used in ceremonies (e.g. implements to create cicatrices and for circumcision, hammers for tooth evulsion, wallets/bags to hold sacred items) and sacred objects (such as incised stones, shells or wooden boards).

Some examples include:

  1. The symbol on the Torres Strait Islander flag is a stylised feather headdress. This headdress, dari, is worn by men during dancing and in some ceremonies.
  2. Some coastal Kimberley groups such as the Bardi use string or woolen crosses in dance routines.
  3. String made from natural fibres (e.g. human hair, possum fur, plant fibre) is sometimes used to hold feathers in place or used to make armlets and belts.
  4. Sticks, stripped of their bark, are often shaved to provide decorative hand implements used in dance routines.
  5. Stones or shells are knapped to produce sharp cutting edges for a range of ceremonies that involve body mutilating or marking.
  6. Animal bones are polished and used as nose-pegs after the piercing of the nasal septum.
  7. Human bones are sometimes decorated with ochre then stored on the ledges of caves as part of mortuary rites in some areas.
  8. Incised stones, pearl shells and wooden boards are passed from one group to another over vast distances as part of the ceremonial transmission for particular cults.

Pre-colonial material

The range of objects used by Aboriginal people prior to colonisation is very broad and includes ceremonial objects as well as everyday objects, such as:

  • spears
  • stone tools such as points, scrapers and adzes
  • woomeras
  • throwing sticks/clubs
  • boomerangs
  • wooden, bark or shell dishes
  • digging sticks
  • grindstones.

Most tools were portable and multi-purpose and usually made from plant or animal products. Dwellings and other structures (e.g. shelters, hunting hides, fishing weirs, burial platforms) were made from branches, bark and grasses although stone bases and dry-stone walling were also used.

Clothing and personal adornments were produced using skins, plant fibre, hair and fur and included kangaroo skin cloaks (booka), sandals, bags, necklets, armlets and belts.

In general objects made from organic materials seldom survived the rigour or use and exposure to the elements. Open scatters of stone artefacts, shell middens and stratified archaeological deposits are often the only record of pre-contact occupation and use of the land. Even in these circumstances the greatest quantity of stone artefacts at most locations is the debris or waste material from the production of a specific tool.

The production of traditional objects, such as those listed above, did not cease at the points of contact or colonisation. With the introduction of new materials and objects they became less important as everyday implements, gradually developing a new role as expressions of cultural identity.

Stone artefacts

The technology involved in the production of stone artefacts has evolved over time so, along with other dating techniques, they can be used to provide a guide to the chronology of the use of an area.

Common stone artefacts include:

  • choppers/hand axes
  • hafted/edge-ground axes
  • grind stones/hammer stones/anvil stones
  • points
  • adzes
  • blades.

Post-contact items

Aboriginal people invented new ways to use the materials that became available after colonisation to make more efficient tools just as they had done in the past. Glass, ceramics and metal objects in particular were re-worked to use as cutting, spearing, carrying and digging tools.

Initially the objects were remodelled using traditional methods. Later, with access to other technologies, modified tools were made (e.g. spears with steel points ground in the workshop at a cattle station). Some items were used unchanged from their original purpose (e.g. clay pipes for smoking) or re-worked for a different purpose (e.g. sheet metal as a scoop or yandy dish, tin cans as children's toys).

The archaeological record for this era is difficult to interpret unless oral historical records are also available.

Fringe camps were often located near urban refuse dumps where useful items could be scavenged and recycled. Some camps were seasonal (e.g. based on potato harvesting or grape picking) where casual labour and food could be obtained as well as recyclable materials for dwellings (e.g. corrugated iron, packing cases) and other purposes. Consultation with the current occupants or those who occupied the locations in the past provides the most reliable way to identify such objects.

Page last reviewed 20 December 2018
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