A Living Archive: An Archaeology of Culturally Modified Trees at Calperum Station in the South Australian Riverland

Author: Mia Dardengo

Dardengo, Mia, 2019 A Living Archive: An Archaeology of Culturally Modified Trees at Calperum Station in the South Australian Riverland, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Bark objects likely comprised a fundamental element of Aboriginal material culture across Australia, yet due to their organic origin, rarely survive in the archaeological record. Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs), as the imprint of past bark removal, persist much longer and act as a proxy to study those bark objects. This study uses this unique value of CMTs to assess the local Aboriginal response to European settlement, and how this manifested in changes in bark use and procurement at Calperum Station from the pre- to post-contact period. A substantial body of ethnohistoric literature exists that can inform contemporary scholars of the practices of Aboriginal Australians as they relate to bark procurement and use in the Murray-Darling Basin. This literature, however, tends to privilege past European-dominated concepts, which invoke theories of a ‘dying’ Aboriginal culture. The attributes of CMTs on the Calperum Station floodplain in the Riverland region of South Australia demonstrate a local narrative of agency and adaptation that challenges the ethnohistoric record. A desktop study was originally conducted to understand the cultural practices that led to bark use, to assess how European colonisation impacted bark use and to comprehend what the post- contact landscape of bark use looked like in the Riverland. Next, a field survey was designed to locate and record as many CMTs as possible on the station. This was achieved through a systematic survey strategy with a non-random sampling technique. The sampling technique allowed the incorporation of previous knowledge and research on CMTs into the decision- making process. This permitted the exploration of areas where CMTs are most prevalent according to Australian literature, such as near water sources and eucalypt stands, and therefore ensured a sufficient dataset for analysis. Finally, a spatial and attribute analysis of the scars was undertaken to evaluate the local narrative of bark use at Calperum Station and how the trends are the result of the localised environment. Both Eucalyptus camaldulensis (red gum) (n=41) and Eucalyptus largiflorens (black box) (n=57) were targeted for bark removal at Calperum Station, despite the overwhelming attribution of bark products to red gum bark in the ethnohistoric literature. Similarly, shields and dishes made up over 71% (n=58) of the recorded typologies, even though canoe scars are by far the most documented typology. This study found that red gum trees were targeted for canoe bark (n=17 of 19) and that the Riverland region supported a diverse and ephemeral use of bark for canoes, shields, dishes, mybkoo, shelter material, shingles, and that the trees themselves were modified to obtain foodstuffs such as wild honey, possums and grubs. CMTs located in the landscape near the main river channel (n=30) supported most scar typologies which are indicative of basecamp activities. Whereas those discovered near intermittent water sources (n=6) are less diverse and perhaps show seasonality in bark procurement. Many scars contain steel axe marks (n=31) indicating unequivocally that bark procurement continued into the post-contact era. While there are inherent difficulties in attributing a cultural origin to these scars, they can be likely attributed to Aboriginal bark procurement by other scar attributes, such as morphology and location. Those trees without steel axe marks (n=66) could be cut with stone axes and hence the marks concealed by regrowth. Across Australia, little dedicated research to this cultural resource has been undertaken, despite the non-renewable and limited lifespan inherent to this heritage artefact type. It is clear archaeology has provided a more equitable means of evaluating Aboriginal cultural history and allows a more nuanced narrative of past land use and decision-making to be told.

Keywords: Indigenous archaeology, scarred trees, cultural entanglement, Murray River, culturally modified tree

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Amy Roberts