Date: 26 May | 11am
Sixty five years ago, I was given two beautifully worked Aboriginal Men’s Sacred Boards and spent time twirling them around my head to produce the eerie, penetrating sound we knew as bull-roarers.
Fifteen years later, under the guidance of Kevin John, a Pastoral Inspector, I made my first 4WD adventures into the sand dune country of Quinyambie Station, known then as the Tirari Desert.
What I saw then was to form a lifelong appreciation of Aboriginal cultural and working artefacts.
Amongst these red sand dunes were occasional grinding stones or “Nardoo Stones”, as the station people called them. These had been used by generations of tribal people to grind down the Nardoo Spore and other seed products, to form the ancient meal-paste, which provided their staple diet.
These stones fascinated me, as most of them had been worn paper-thin through scores of years of use, and then becoming broken, were left on the desert-floor. It was obvious that they were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. To think about the ancient people who had carefully harvested, then ground their food on these very plates in my hand, gave me a deep feeling of the history and the endeavour for survival, which these people lived by.
And so began a passion for collecting ancient stone implements and cultural items that was to consume me for the next sixty five years.
By travelling into the central desert regions on our Land Rover Safaris, I was able to venture into remote areas, often being the first motor vehicle to drive there. By looking carefully, I was soon able to recognise campsites, burial sites, ancient fire sites and ceremonial sites. These sites were left untouched, but on occasions an unusual artefact would be taken for my collection. Later, there were hundreds of oil, gas and mineral survey, road and track-building gangs working in these areas. Their collecting of artefacts was at that time quite devastating, but I doubt if they appreciated these same cultural objects.
My journeys led me all over Central Australia. However, I soon realised that the most important old stone implement areas were centred on Cooper Creek and floodplains, the Coongie Lakes and the sand dune country between Birdsville and Innamincka.
It became obvious from the number of artefacts, campsites and skeleton sites that these areas were amongst the most important area to the ancient aboriginal people. It was evident that, over the centuries, thousands of people had lived and moved through this area.
The aboriginal stockmen in these areas became aware of my interest in ancient culture and the collecting of artefacts. They began showing me and offering me their own personal artefacts (often found while riding on horseback attending to cattle).
I made a decision that was to become an important basis for the rest of my collecting endeavours.
Whenever a stone axe, knife or implement was offered to me, I would pay substantial money to the owner. If they asked for £25, I would give them £50 (many week’s wages in those days).
By constantly doing this with every transaction, I eventually imbued people with the idea that what they had was valuable and should be guarded with care.
I am pleased to say that this system was successful and people developed a greater appreciation of these old ancient artefacts.
My very favourite items were the beautiful black stone axes of the desert people. These skilfully honed crafted axes could be many hundreds of years old and, in some cases, thousands of years old.
They show different worked forms – either wielded by hand, or fixed to wooden shafts, but the one common feature was the careful shaping and grinding to produce a keen edge, capable of cutting down small trees.
Many of these axes in the Cooper-Innamincka-Birdsville area may have been traded down from the Mt Isa area.
The smaller axes found further south near Lake Frome could have been traded up from the Victorian area.
Whatever their source, they are valuable and precious heritage cultural objects, as only a few of them exist.
They are the true diamonds of the desert nomads.
There were only ever a few of them in existence and the majority have already been found and presented to museums or are closely held by collectors. The chances of finding a decent example in the deserts today is nothing short of miraculous. They really are the crown jewels of artefacts.
I have travelled several million kilometres (a large part of this being cross country without tracks) and by comparison with my collection of stone artefacts, I have never seen or found a black stone axe.
All of my axes were purchased from aboriginal people, drovers and outback people over forty years ago.
This has made my appreciation of the rarity of stone axes more significant than of any other item in this collection.
APY LANDS AND WOODEN ARTEFACTS
During the 1970’s I was able to drive and fly a large number of times into the Docker River-Petermann Ranges-Gibson Desert area, as well as the communities of the South Australian APY Lands of the Musgrave and Everard Ranges.
It was my great privilege to be able to visit and stay with the people of these communities, as the areas were restricted from access by normal travellers.
We employed some of these families as guides for our tours and, in return, would be offered wooden artefacts not available to the public.
The men produced well-crafted boomerangs, woomeras, shields and small animals. The women often marked these with red-hot wires from the camp fires, to produce intricate patterning.
Once again, I would offer significant money to these people for their wooden cultural items.
In recent years, these items were no longer made.
This was perhaps twofold – a loss of skills necessary to craft the object and secondly, the cutting down of the slow- growing mulga trees for the carving was actively discouraged by conservationists (rightly so).
Whatever the reason, the size and number of wooden artefacts from these lands has diminished or disappeared.
Many of the boomerangs and other wooden carvings on sale here offer an opportunity that may not be presented again in such numbers.
There are also examples of wooden artefacts from the Adelaide Plains people, purchased from collector, Graham McInerney of Victor Harbor.
In 1976, I led a party of four people across the Centre of Australia, the first to do so, while retracing Ernest Giles in 1876. This was well documented in the book “Across the Gibson” by McInerney and Mathieson (Rigby).
As we neared Mt Madley in the centre of the Gibson Desert, I noticed a column of black smoke on the horizon. It took half a day to drive there and we could see that it was a signal fire in the spinifex. This was a mystery, as it was man-made, but we could not see anyone. In the same area, we found an abandoned aboriginal campsite.
There were several discarded spears, being bent, dried out and of no further use. I brought one of these home.
One year later, we were astonished to see an article by a Dr Bill Peasey in Western Australia, about Warri and Yatungka, two aboriginal outcasts whom he had rescued from Mt Madley in the Gibson Desert because of drought.
They were the last two aboriginal people living a nomadic existence in the Australia deserts. The campsite we had visited was one used by Warri and Yatungka.
This story is very well documented on the internet and makes a fascinating read.
Warri’s spear holds pride of place in this collection today.
Other spears of note include those of the Dr Shinkfield collection and a rare example (the only known one in existence) of a solid gum wood spear of the Cooper Creek people.
MICROLITH AND FLAKED STONE TOOLS IN COLLECTION
When displayed here, the stone implements do not appear to be special. However, when driving through a sand dune desert, where no rock is evident, it is a great prize to suddenly come across a wind-blown hollow in the dune and see a small scattered collection of rocks.
These have been walked in from a long distance away and a group has sat down here and created their own small artefact workshop.
There is often a core rock with several beautifully crafted fine edge tools and many small chippings scattered around.
Such a site is a great discovery.
Many of these small stone flakes show evidence of being carefully chipped along different faces, to form a useful cutting implement or a chisel implement, often called a Tula.
The Tula, in particular, are specially shaped flakes, very finely chipped along two faces, to form a small curved implement. This Tula is then attached to a wooden handle with a strong resin gum, such as spinifex gum, to form a very useful chisel tool for working wood.
I find it remarkable that these beautiful small Tula have been found right across the Central Australian desert areas, from the old Tirari Desert, through the Strzelecki Desert, Sturts Stony Desert and into parts of the Gibson and Great Sandy Desert. Just how did these different tribal people, scattered over such a wider area, all come up with the knowledge and the skills to create these beautiful small Tula?
In this collection, there are specific groups of Tula, showing a widespread variation in their sources.
They are a truly great aboriginal stone cultural item, which should be greatly appreciated.
The flaked stones are often chipped from a finely grained metamorphic core rock and then scattered in a concentrated area. I was once working with an aboriginal man on a hunting trip in Central Australia and, after bringing down a kangaroo, he searched around nearby, found a small sharp flake and proceeded to cut a small incision in the base of the kangaroo’s belly. He then prepared the kangaroo for cooking and never once used a manufactured object.
If you look carefully at these microliths, you can see the skilful chippings, which have shaped each piece for its own special use.
These small stone flakes were important in a myriad of ways during the daily life of an aboriginal family and once used would be tossed aside.
They were the cutlery of an ancient people.
ABORIGINAL DOT PAINTINGS
We have been conducting safaris for over thirty years to the Central Australian Desert Art Centres.
There are also examples from the Kimberley.
During our visits, we ourselves would always buy paintings to ensure that both our passengers and the Art Centre people would get a good appreciation from our visits.
On some occasions, we would feel obliged to do this, if our travelling passengers did not patronise that particular gallery. As a result we were always welcomed back.
However, we would make a request to the Art Centre Manager (after our passengers had surveyed all works) that they themselves select paintings that were by noted artists and of a valuable collector status.
This meant that the paintings shown in our collection often would not be available to the general public, but be destined for galleries in the capital cities – and that they were nearly always by noted names.
As a result, we have several of “The Doors Masters” from Warlukurlangu at Yuendumu and other widely exhibited National Competition winners.
One of these paintings is quite historic in the development of Aboriginal paintings.
I was travelling into Fregon (Kaltjiti) in the APY Lands at the time that the women were being introduced to acrylic and board for their painting efforts.
Quite often, these early paintings reflected sand tracings made with their fingers while sitting around a campfire.
You can see from this example that the smooth flowing forms (of a paisley nature) had a few dots throughout it – but this was well before the eventual “Dot painting form” from Papunya and Napperby became evident.
This early work by Tjinkuma Wells is an important example of the evolution of the later “Dot Paintings”.
Once again, it has been a pleasure to collect so many traditional stories portrayed on canvas.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA ARTEFACTS
I had always wanted to visit the exciting strong culture of Papua New Guinea and in 1978 made my first flight, accompanied by author and historian Bill Gammage. Having lived and lectured in PNG, Bill’s knowledge of the customs and traditions of PNG was legendary.
This gave me an invaluable foundation for my future knowledge and explorations into a wild, beautiful country.
The people of PNG live and practise their culture daily – however, on occasions they bring this to culmination in spectacular displays known as “Sing Sings”.
Many of the items collected here represent not only daily use, but also this ceremonial use.
There are excellent examples of drums, known as waluwa, which were used daily as signal devices and also used for music and tempo in ritual dancing. These drums and masks come from the famous Gogodala people of the Balimo area in the Fly River Basin of PNG. The skins on the drums come from “File Snakes” found in the nearby swamps and are no longer allowed to be imported into Australia.
When Christian missionaries entered this area in the 1930’s, they actively encouraged the native tribes to embrace Christianity.
In order to do this effectively, the missionaries dictated that traditional carvings, face masks, waluwa and other tribal ceremonial objects should be burnt, to show acceptance of the Christian way of life.
This led to a devastating decline in the tribal cultural system.
This was thankfully reversed in the early 1970’s with a strong revival of the traditional cultural movement.
This is accurately documented in the excellent book “AIDA” by Adelaide’s A L Crawford.
One of the central figures in this revival movement was Bege Mula of Waligi Island, near Balimo in the Fly River Basin.
I became friends with Bege, visiting with safari groups and staying in his village.
These drums (known as “waluwa”) shown here are from Bege’s tribal group on Waligi.
The perfectly carved miniature racing canoe also came from Bege’s group, who are known worldwide as canoe builders. The painting, decoration, paddle and symbols are accurately reproduced according to tradition.
The large masks are worn by the Gogodala villagers during ceremonial dances.
The missionaries did not have it all their way. One large black palm club-like spear in the collection came from the Kikori River and was sold to me in 1984 by a tribesman who pointed to a bloodstain on the spear. He said this had occurred when his father killed a white man near the mouth of the Kikori River.
The Reverend James Chalmers was killed at Goaribari Island in the delta of the Kikori, so there is a very high probability that this was one of the weapons, which killed him.
The beautiful stone axes of the Mt Hagen highlands area often exceed the Australian Aboriginal stone axes in design and beauty. However, they are nowhere near as rare.
The outstanding examples of the light green axes from Mt Hagen are sharp and keenly edged.
These were collected in 1978 and on subsequent visits have proved to be impossible to find.
The black stone axes of varying size which came from the Hagen-Chimbu area are as sharp – and are now becoming much harder to source, as they are being replicated by soft stone axes, polished with stain to appear old and genuine.
One stone disc club, the only example I have seen, came from the village of Telefolip in the highest mountains near the Irian-Jaya border. There is also a dark stain on this stone blade, which the tribesmen assured me was the blood of his demised victim.
Many of the PNG cultural items were purchased from very remote villages, where normal travellers do not penetrate.
The quality and strength in these items is outstanding. I have often seen replicas for sale in markets and at Sing Sings, but they do not reflect the integrity of the authentic artefact from the remote villages.
It has been a lifelong pleasure gathering and admiring the objects in this unique collection and I can only hope that those who acquire them can have a similar sense of history and satisfaction with their purchases.
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