Arnhem Land archaeology looks out to sea

On the coast of Arnhem Land, in the hills above Anuru Bay, an extraordinary record of Indigenous rock art shows a cavalcade of sea-going vessels, from European 19th century square-riggers and Indonesian fishing boats through to merchant ships of the Second World War.

“The main way that Indigenous peoples represented their interactions with other peoples is in depictions of the vessels in which the visitors came,” says Flinders University archaeologist Ms Jennifer McKinnon.

Ms McKinnon, with Flinders research associate Mr Jason Raupp and postgraduate Toni Massey, recently returned from a joint expedition to the area with researchers from the Australian National University.

Initial work by ANU archaeologist, Daryl Guse, focused on the rock art sites in the Wellington Range, while the Flinders team concentrated on the water, paying particular attention to the coastal sites left by visiting Macassan fishermen.

The Arnhem Land coast was a hotbed of commercial activity: in a trade extending over centuries, the Macassans sailed from Sulawesi in their distinctive wooden praus to northern Australia to harvest trepang, or sea cucumbers, processing them on the beaches before trading the delicacy with markets in China.

Because of the remoteness of the area, many coastal sites are more easily accessed from the sea than the land, and Ms McKinnon said that there are also new insights to be gained from taking a maritime approach to the region’s archaeology.

“Most archaeology has a terrestrial focus, looking at shell middens, habitation sites and shelters, but nobody has been looking out to the sea,” she said.

“We have been talking to the traditional owners about helping them document their seascape. They recognise that the shoreline is an artificial boundary: they have sacred sites out on the water, and many of the islands have special meaning.”

The expedition located several new sites of Macassan activity, and carbon-dating of the remnants of the trepang expeditions may help solve questions about the duration of the trade. Recorded in European accounts from the 1780s, some researchers, including Mr Guse,  suspect that the trade began earlier.
“The rock art suggests that Indigenous people visited Indonesia themselves: images of monkeys and possible Macassan houses indicate that the contact may have been going on much longer than we have historical documents for,” Ms McKinnon said.

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