Archaeologist Dr Josephine Flood, 15 March 2017
Edited by the author after delivery
GEORGE MAIN: Welcome, everyone, here to the National Museum of Australia, to this very special event where we’re about to have the privilege of hearing the eminent archaeologist Dr Josephine Flood reflect on her explorations during the 1960s, 70s and 80s into the deep patterns of human life here in the south-eastern highlands of Australia. This is the first of a series of lectures jointly organised by the Canberra Archaeological Society and the National Museum, and Lucy Blackam, who is president of the society, is here and she’ll field a few questions at the end. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we’re meeting here tonight on Ngambri and Ngunnawal land and that we will be talking of the high country to which many groups hold deep links, including Walgalu, Ngarigo, Yuin and Wiradjuri.
I pay my respects to the elders of the past and the present who have cared for the high country and its surrounding lands and waters for so long. My name is George Main. I’m a senior curator here at the Museum where my job over the next couple of years is to lead the development of a new permanent gallery of environmental history, which is due to open in 2020. This new gallery will feature objects and stories about the intersection of people with pathways made by other species and by natural forces; pathways like the passage of weather systems and cyclones, the deposition of fertile desert clays across the Murray–Darling Basin by ice age dust storms, the flow of rivers, the seasonal migration routes of baleen whales and bogong moths.
The Museum holds a really significant collection of archaeological material associated with Josephine’s work up in the high country and we’ve started talking with Josephine and with traditional custodians here in the Canberra region about how some of that material – especially especially that which relates to the fascinating history of human engagement with the bogong moth pathway – could be displayed and interpreted in the new gallery.
When I first met with Josephine, she told me that her undergraduate training at Cambridge was in the humanities in classics and that she’d only later developed an interest in the science of archaeology when she moved to Australia in 1963 as a ‘ten pound Pom’ at a time when Australian archaeology was just beginning to blossom. I think that the reason that Josephine has become such a household name in Canberra and beyond is in part because of her disposition towards the humanities.
She’s brought an artfulness and a talent for storytelling to her archaeological inquiry. And I think it is these talents that have enabled Josephine through her writings to bestow a great value on the very long established practices of bogong moth hunting and the lively community gatherings that moths enabled over thousands of years. So I will hand over now to Josephine. Thank you.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Well, thank you. I’m very happy that George Main rang me in the United Kingdom and said, ‘Please come. We need you here because we’re going to do a display on the moth hunters.’ So that’s how I got here. I’m going to start with why I got involved in Australian archaeology and switched from classics. The problem with classical archaeology was that my students were probably never going to go to Greece or Italy and I like field work so I decided to switch. This was in the 1960s when very little indigenous archaeology had been done in Australia so I was given for my PhD (1969-72) a huge chunk of country, the whole of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory), southern New South Wales and the alpine region of Victoria, to be the first archaeologist to examine this region. And the sort of questions we were trying to answer were, ‘Where and when did people come into Australia and down into the south-east?
[shows map of Australian Pleistocene sites] Briefly, a great deal of work has now been done and we’ve got a lot of answers to those questions. We now think that people first came into northern Australia, basically the Arnhem Land area, about 65,000 years ago. They moved southwards and also westwards, across into the Kimberley and down the West Australian coast. They came down through the centre and went to Mungo and other fresh-water lakes in the Willandra Lakes region of western New South Wales, but my particular question was what happened then. I was looking to try to trace early occupation down in the south-east of the mainland. Across Bass Strait, Rhys Jones was trying to solve ‘the problem of the Tasmanians’. At that stage people thought that Tasmanian Aborigines might have come in recent millennia on rafts from the Pacific Islands. Now we know there was a land bridge across Bass Strait in the ice age and there was human occupation in Tasmania at 40-odd thousand years ago. So Aboriginal occupation of Australia happened much earlier than was thought in the 1960s.
[shows map of south-eastern highlands of Australia] I did my PhD here at the ANU (Australian National University) and I was very lucky to be able to do it because I had three children under the age of four and various authorities predicted, ‘You’ll never make it,’ but I said, ‘Oh yes I will’ [laughter]. And I must say a big thank you to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (as it then was) because they gave me a scholarship which paid for the child care, and because I took the kids out on the excavations as well with university students to look after them [laughter]. And it worked. They never fell into the pits, I’m glad to say.
My study area was the south-eastern highlands, and just to summarise, what we found was that there are ice age sites there, Pleistocene sites pre-10,000 years old. Archaeologist Ron Lampert of ANU had already found Pleistocene occupation in Burrill Lake rock-shelter on the south coast of New South Wales but none of the sites I excavated in NSW and ACT during the first two years of my PhD were more than 4000 years old. I therefore ventured further afield and investigated rock-shelters and caves on the fringes of the alps. I was looking for old sites and in particular limestone caves where you get very good bone preservation. I talked to cavers such as Andy Spate and also went to see Alexander Gallus [Sandor Gallus], in Melbourne. He had discovered Koonalda Cave in South Australia, which contains wonderful rock engravings and Pleistocene occupation. So, I went to see him because I heard that he’d been investigating limestone caves in the Buchan area in the Snowy River region of Gippsland in eastern Victoria. He put me onto one wet cave at river level (East Buchan #2) where he had found a few stone artefacts, but as I was driving along the Buchan-Orbost Road, I looked across and I saw a cliff just below the crest of a small hill.
[shows view of Cloggs Cave from the Buchan-Orbost road] Towards the left-hand end of the cliff, it looked as if there might be a cave and, indeed, there is. This is Cloggs Cave, named after a previous landowner (now East Buchan #6). So I walked across the field, scrambled up the scree slope and went in and had a look. It was a beautiful bit of prehistoric real estate; dry, earth floor, just the sort of place one would like to sleep for the night. There were no stone artefacts to be seen but a rock-painting on the back wall of the rock-shelter outside the cave entrance. I immediately went to see the farmer and said, ‘Please, can I come and do some excavation in this cave?’ To my surprise he said, ‘Yes, please do, because they are going to take the whole top off this hill for limestone mining and we have already received a compulsory purchase order’. He added, ‘Just be sure to find something significant,’ [laughter] and we did.
[shows view of the rock-shelter and entrance to the inner chamber of Cloggs Cave] To reach the cave you just scramble across rock ledges above the scree slope. You can do it with your hands in your pockets so access is pretty easy. The main cave is inside the left hand cleft. In the rock-shelter the black on the ceiling of the clefts and overhangs is from smoke from endless camp fires. We excavated under the overhangs in the rock-shelter and uncovered occupation going back about 4000 years. On the rock-shelter wall there is an abstract, linear rock painting. We weren’t sure if it was Aboriginal or not, but I got a rock art conservator to take a tiny little chip of the white paint, gave it to Museums Victoria in Melbourne, whose scientists found that the paint was made from a very rare mineral called wedderlite, mixed with animal fat, probably emu fat, so the painting is certainly Aboriginal.
[shows plan of Cloggs Cave] From the rock-shelter an easy scramble leads up into a six-metre long tunnel, which is high enough so you can just about stand up in it, and then another easy scramble leads down into the inner cave. There we did four square metres of excavation. This was about a quarter of the available deposit so there is plenty more for the future should further research be thought desirable.
[shows profile of Cloggs Cave] The cave keeps an even temperature and the cave floor slopes gently down and is very dry, so Cloggs Cave was a relatively warm, comfortable camping place with dim light from the entrance passage.
[shows photos of excavation pit] It is 1971 and here am I, a much younger version, in our excavation pit, which went down to the base of the deposit, at about two metres.
[shows close-up view of the deposit in section] In a sideways close-up view of the deposit you can see little bones poking out. The white at the top is ash from a hearth layer dated to about 10,000 years ago and below that the dark colour comes from charcoal that we were able to date.
[shows slide of artefacts] In eight cubic metres of deposit we found only 70 artefacts, which is very little. This wasn’t a base camp, in contrast to ice age camps found in Tasmania, where wallaby hunters lived for months in huge limestone caves like Kutikina on the Franklin River, where there are thousands and thousands of stone artefacts. They lived there all year around and hunted Bennett’s Wallaby, which are easy to catch. At Cloggs Cave the food supplies were relatively poor, the main items being eels from the river and possums in the trees. The artefacts we found were primarily used for skin-working plus pebble tools for chopping, maybe chopping toe holes up trees to get the possums. The scrapers were for scraping the flesh off the skins of either macropods or possums. There were also bone points used for poking holes through the skins, which were then sewn into cloaks using kangaroo sinews as thread.
[shows section view of the deposit] Human occupation extended down to a depth of about 150 centimetres. At the bottom there’s a damp patch which is against the rock wall and it is just damp coming through from the rock wall, but on the left you can see diagonal strata. The lowest artefacts are found just above that layer but what we found down at the bottom was megafauna, giant, extinct kangaroos and so on. Basically, what you have here is about 30,000 years of human occupation and then below that no more artefacts, no more charcoal, but bones of the megafauna. There is no association between humans and megafauna.
[shows section drawing of the deposit with radiocarbon dates] Dr Rachel Wood of the ANU radiocarbon-dating laboratory has recently refined and re-calibrated the C-14 dating done in the 1970s and the age of the oldest human occupation here is now 30,000 years or older. She has also been trying to do direct C-14 dating of megafaunal bones, which she did for her PhD at Oxford. She went around museums in Europe and succeeded in getting direct dates on Neanderthal bones stored in museum drawers there, dating the collagen inside the bones. Unfortunately, because of the environmental conditions at Cloggs Cave, here there was no collagen so we’ve decided to do OSL (optically-stimulated luminescence) dating on the megafaunal layer instead. I’ve just been down to Victoria to get Aboriginal permission for this further work on Cloggs Cave and it is hoped to carry out this research and also conservation work on the deposit next year.
[shows slide of megafaunal bone] An outstanding in situ find was the jaw bone of one of the extinct giant kangaroos. It is called Simosthenurus occidentalis. There were also thylacine and Tasmanian tiger bones, and a lot of the bones were chewed by animals but there were no signs of human predation such as cut marks.
[shows drawing of megafauna] The top two species are Macropus titan and Sthenurus, both bigger than a human. They became extinct in the Pleistocene. One of the big questions at the moment in Australian archaeology is why and when did the megafauna become extinct? Was it at roughly the same time all over the continent or not? Or did it coincide with the arrival of a new predator, man, in a region? Or was it habitat or climate change? We’re still debating this.
[shows slide of environmental record] Cloggs Cave preserves a wonderful environmental record because it was a bone bed. Owls sat on rock ledges on the side of the cave and regurgitated their pellets full of small rodent bones into the earth floor below. Dr Jeanette Hope of ANU analysed all the bone for me, for which I am eternally grateful. What we found was that in the Pleistocene bottom layers there is one rodent, Pseudomys higginsi, which became absent from the deposit about 14,000 years ago and then is replaced by another species – Burramys oralis. Now, the bottom rodent is a wet sclerophyll species and is now only found in Tasmania in the wet rainforest there, but was later replaced by a dry sclerophyll species. In addition, coprolites (faeces) of herbivores are found in the deposit and analysis revealed what grasses they were eating, so Cloggs Cave provides us with a unique record of the local environment over some 40,000 years.
[shows photo of the alpine pygmy possum on ski stocks on Mt Twynam] The alpine pygmy possum (Burramys parvus) is something we didn’t find in Cloggs Cave. It was thought to be extinct in Australia until it was found in a ski lodge up at Mount Hotham in the alps. Clearly Burramys parvus is not extinct and signifies an alpine or subalpine environment. What is really significant is that it was never at Cloggs Cave, therefore, the environment there was never alpine nor subalpine because, if it had been, we would have found its bones among the thousands of other rodent bones.
[shows photo of gate on the cave] I finished this excavation in 1972 and put a strong metal gate onto the cave to protect it. We shored-up the pit, and put a wooden lid over the top with earth on it, so that when anyone looked through the gate they couldn’t tell that there’d been any disturbance. I also put a notice up to say that there are no passages leading off this cave; nothing to attract cavers and nothing to see except what one can see from the gate. The site is on private farmland but people still broke in and later on the shoring was removed so that now the deposit is slumping at the bottom.
Conservation work is needed and so the Aboriginal community down in East Gippsland, who are called GLaWAC [Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation], and I had a meeting last week. We hope to begin a new project next year to conserve the deposit but also to carry out OSL dating because, of course, methods have improved enormously since the 1970s.
[shows slides of New Guinea 2 Cave, Lower Snowy River] On the lower Snowy River, about 30 km north of Cloggs Cave, is a limestone cave called New Guinea 2. (The name refers to the wet vegetation reminiscent of New Guinea, but I recently found a historic record of an Aboriginal name for this area – Nurudj Djurung – and the cave’s name may well be changed by GLaWAC, who now own the area.
[shows slides on excavation of New Guinea 2] Dr Paul Ossa and his team from La Trobe University excavated the rock-shelter outside the cave in the early 1980s and I visited the excavation while in progress. In the rock shelter there were huge blocks of stone, which they had to dig around and they actually had to drill through some of these huge blocks to make any progress downwards. Some people have therefore doubted their results but their methods were meticulous and the chronological, artefact and bone sequence were virtually identical to those of Cloggs Cave. One difference was the presence of bones of the alpine pygmy possum in the lowest layer (now dated to about 25,000 years) but NG2 is some 30 kilometres closer to the sub-alpine region than Cloggs Cave. I personally therefore do not doubt Ossa’s results because they fit so well into the general pattern of the past in eastern Victoria.
[shows photo of artefacts] The bone points and stone artefacts closely resemble those found at Cloggs Cave.
[shows slides of the inner cave with prehistoric engravings on the walls] Inside the rock shelter there’s a deep cave with a stream running through it and banks on either side. An old (unexcavated) cooking hearth lies on one earth bank. On the walls there are great panels of criss-crossing engravings, which look remarkably like those in Koonalda Cave, SA. They were not made by animal claws but with some sort of cutting tool, probably a sharp stone blade of quartz. There are also finger markings in the soft limestone. They have not yet been fully recorded or published, but GlaWAC now owns the site and are busy on conservation and recording work there.
[shows photo of Birrigai shelter] The oldest site yet found in the ACT is Birrigai shelter. It is open to the public and anyone can go to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and take the well-marked walking track up to Birrigai shelter, formed from two huge granite blocks leaning against each other. The history trail of the Birrigai Outdoor School used to pass right through the shelter, which is open at both ends. One day in the early 1980s a teacher noticed there were stone tools in the earth floor and she phoned me up and said, ‘You know, you should come out and investigate’. I was working for the Australian Heritage Commission in Canberra right through the 1980s and I was very reluctant because I was terribly busy. (My job was to put all the most significant Indigenous sites in Australia on the Register of the National Estate to save them from development and other threats). Eventually I was persuaded and went to Birrigai and discovered another perfect piece of prehistoric real estate. It is a weather-proof granite shelter with a soft earth floor. It lies at 730 metres above sea level but you can keep dry there out of the wind, rain and snow. So I thought it was a pretty good prospect for ice age occupation.
[shows photo of excavation by Canberra Archaeological Society] The Canberra Archaeological Society provided the labour force. The shelter is small with low headroom but can accommodate a group of about twenty people. We only excavated one metre square. The dark colour at the top is charcoal from 19th century Aboriginal fires and there are also rabbit burrows there. Once Europeans started arriving in the Canberra area from the 1820s onwards, some Aboriginal people retreated into the hills and lived in these camping shelters.
Again, there were very few artefacts, but they were there, continually, sporadically. And when we sent off the charcoal samples from the bottom, we couldn’t believe the dates that came back. They came back as 20,000 years. So I sent, at my own expense, another lot off to a different laboratory just to check it out, and they came back the same. So we have a site, which goes back into the ice age and now the antiquity has been refined to about 25,000 years, which means that it’s before the Last Glacial Maximum. However, people didn’t spend much time here and it was never a base camp. They just came occasionally, probably for hunting in summer. I had residue analysis done on the cutting edges of the tools and we found vegetable remains and animal blood on some of them.
[shows photo of Lake George] Birrigai probably acted as a transit shelter for people coming across from western New South Wales, across to Lake George, through the lowest part of the whole dividing range – the ‘Lake George Gate’. Like Lake Mungo, Lake George would have been a very rich environment in the ice age and old-looking tools have been found there, both in situ in the side of Fern Hill Gully at the northern end of the lake (by Dr Ross Coventry) and in sand deposits on the private property of Butmaroo on the south-eastern shore. There Rhys Jones, Jim Allen and I found a waisted axe and other large stone tools reminiscent of the Pleistocene Kartan industry (of Kangaroo Island, SA). Sadly, Rhys Jones’ early death from cancer meant there was no further work on the site or publication and those artefacts cannot now be located, although I have been searching ANU stores and Museum archives for them and other lost artefacts, so they may well turn up.
On a personal note, I feel guilty to have only excavated one Lake George site (Nardoo) during my PhD, but, with a view to the urgent need for further archaeological work at Lake George, I led a Canberra Archaeological Society visit there in the early 1980s. However, then the Birrigai excavation intervened, and later my own research became focussed on working with Indigenous people on the rock art of the Victoria River region, NT. Then in 1991 I married an old flame from Cambridge days and took early retirement to move to UK and write, although I still spend about half each year in Australia, now based in Sydney.
Nevertheless, when asked about 5 years ago at the end of a public lecture here what were the most important archaeological projects still to do in S.E. Australia, I put Lake George first, plus further research on the Australian Alps and re-dating Cloggs Cave. I have just returned from Victoria consulting with the Indigenous community there (GLaWAC) and we hope to carry out OSL dating and conservation work on Cloggs Cave next year. Furthermore, excellent PhDs have now been completed on the first two suggested projects (by Amy Way and Fenja Theden-Ringl respectively). Notwithstanding this, further work is still urgently needed at Lake George, where sand-mining still threatens potentially Pleistocene sites on the lee side and housing development is proposed on Butmaroo. Future and this recent research work at Lake George is and has been severely hampered by the present excessively restrictive regulations on excavation and open site survey by the New South Wales heritage authorities and by the numerous unresolved Indigenous land claims to the lake. So I’m afraid we’re probably going to lose key Indigenous sites around Lake George, which could have proved to be the Mungo of the east.
[shows photos of Bogong Cave] Bogong Cave is high up above Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. There are some rocks up on the skyline called Billy Billy Rocks and nearby Bogong Cave is at an altitude of 1433 metres above sea leave. It was the highest Aboriginal site I excavated. It was a real pull-up from the big Aboriginal campsite at Smokers Gap and all we could carry up was excavation gear so we didn’t take tents up, we just slept in the cave.
There are moth wings and other debris in the earth floor since Bogong moths sometimes use the walls of this cave as an aestivation site. We dug a small pit and found in the bottom layer a bogong moth pestle, associated with charcoal dated to 1000 years. This is the only dated evidence so far of the antiquity of the Aboriginal practice of moth-hunting.
[shows photo of Aboriginal traditional owners at Smokers Gap] Dean Freeman and Travis are traditional owners of the Tidbinbilla region and their ancestors were moth-hunters. They are now deeply involved in the preservation of the Indigenous heritage of the ACT. Dean has in his hand a moth pestle and the mortar found at Smokers Gap. These were used for grinding up the moths into cakes to carry down to the valley to the families camped below. These artefacts have now been given to the Museum and will feature in the new gallery of environmental history to be opened in 2020.
[shows photo of moth pestles fluorescing under ultraviolet light] The evidence from Bogong Cave proves that moth-hunting goes back a thousand years and we think it probably goes back 5000. Why? Because there was an ENSO [El Niño–Southern Oscillation] event then, which could have been the trigger to drive the moths to escape the heat of their breeding grounds in southern Queensland and western New South Wales by migrating up to the cool of the mountains to aestivate on the mountain tops. Aestivation is the summer equivalent of hibernation.
[shows photo of bogong moth] Most of you will have already encountered bogong moths. They are not very big (about 2.5 cm long) but can be a wretched nuisance. Each spring they fly in their millions through Canberra about the first of October, and one year invaded New Parliament House, attracted by the bright external lights. The ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] always used to ring me up as the ‘moth lady’ and say, ‘Will you advise people what to do if they’ve got a house full of moths?’ [laughter] And I would say, ‘Open the windows. They’re migrating. Let them go. Send them on their way”. Occasionally, the moths get blown off course and land up in Sydney but they are heading for the cool of the mountain tops.
[shows photo of Mount Gingera, Namadgi National Park] Mt Gingera is one of the prime moth habitats on the top of the Brindabellas and you can visit it with a short walk up to the summit. Each year the moths go into dark, dry crevices amongst the large summit rocks.
[shows photo of moths on the walls at Mt Gingera] The moths sit quiescent on the walls and only become active at dusk. George Main was telling me that recently he camped up on Mt Gingera and at dusk there was this amazing sound – a sort of weird unearthly buzzing noise out in the sky and they’re just having a fly-around and then go back to their resting place on the walls.
[shows photo of moths on Mt Gingera] The quantity of moths varies from year to year but in a vintage year they cover every little bit of rock wall. Dr Ian Common, who was an entomologist at CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation], once counted 17,000 on one square metre of wall, where they form a scale pattern like tiles on a roof. They are therefore easy to collect because you just run your hand or a stick along the bottom row and they all fall down into a bark dish or fine net held below. I’m glad to say that the Museum has taken the initiative of getting somebody to re-create these nets. They have to be very fine mesh and are made of pimelea or kurrajong fibre. (Further information on moths is available from Ben Keeney of the Department. of Earth Sciences at ANU, who has just completed his PhD on the bogong moth).
[shows photo of a moth feast on Mt Gingera] Experimental archaeology was necessary and I roped in my family to collect, cook and eat moths on the top of Mt Gingera. I’ll give you the recipe [laughter]. What you do is build a fire on a big granite slab. Once the fire has been going well, you scrape it away and then pour the moths into the ashes. You cook them for about a minute on each side, stirring them round with a stick. Then, when you think they’re done, you winnow them to get rid of quite a lot of the ash. Then you either eat them straightaway or you make them into cakes. Aboriginal people used to make them into cakes like ‘dampers’ and carried them down to the women, children, and old people camped in the valley below. Historical accounts of moth-hunting tell us of 500 people camped in the Gudgenby valley and similar big gatherings at Blowering and Jindabyne, NSW, where many festivities and ceremonies accompanied the moth-hunting
[shows photos of Adrian Flood, Darrell Lewis and Josephine Flood eating moths] My eldest son Adrian, a bit younger then, was persuaded to sample a moth. He wasn’t too sure about all this. On the other hand Darrell Lewis, whom some of you know, had no hesitation. And I found they tasted like roast chestnuts. I used to give moth and wine parties [laughter]. When we launched my Moth Hunters book in 1980, it was a moth and wine party. I would also always keep some in the freezer in case anybody wanted to sample them.
We needed to analyse their food value so put some in a thermos flask on Mt Gingera and took it to Sydney University Human Nutrition Unit, who found their abdomens incredibly rich in protein (20% fat, 27% protein and the rest ‘mainly water’). There are historical accounts of Aboriginal people coming up the Snowy River in spring pretty emaciated after a winter living on vegetable food, possums and eels, and then returning sleek and fat after up to five months of summer feasting on the rich and easily-caught insect food of Bogong moths.
[shows photos of stone arrangements in Namadgi National Park] Initiation ceremonies were carried out on the mountain tops and stone arrangements have been found on Sentry Box Mountain and Mount Namadgi in Namadgi National Park, ACT. From Sentry Box Mountain you can see Mount Namadgi in the middle of the range with lots of rock slabs on the summit. The Namadgi stone arrangement is a long single line of stones going right across big slabs and two corridor arrangements. It is well worth a visit and the pull-up from Shannons Flat. Apparently, after the initiation ceremonies the elders would point out the tribal territory and they would say, ‘Those people over there are friends. That lot there are enemies,’ and so on.
[shows photo of site signage] My first helicopter ride ever was to take signs and bags of cement up to Namadgi to put them around the stone arrangement, because people sometimes move the stones and mess things up. Also, there is an old (now banned) pastime called ‘boulder trundling,’ which some bushwalkers go in for, seeing who can trundle the biggest rock down the mountain. Therefore we put up these informative signs, three of them, so that from whichever direction you came across this stone arrangement, you would know not to disturb this Aboriginal site.
However, things went wrong because the helicopter crashed on the mountain top. I’d never been in a helicopter before but it dropped like a stone and landed on its side on heather and rock. I said, ‘That was a bit of a rough landing, wasn’t it?’ [laughter]. And the pilot said, ‘We’ve crashed.’ I don’t understand how helicopters work, but I think one of the wires that goes from the front to the back had broken, but the radio was also broken. Nevertheless, we were conscientious, we put up our signs, got them all set in concrete, and then we had to walk out to the upper Cotter ranger station because the helicopter couldn’t be resuscitated at all. And the pilot was wearing thongs on his feet, but we got there just as it was getting dark. There’s no track and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a very rocky sort of scramble-down. And of course, our families back here in Canberra were going absolutely frantic, but it was all okay in the end. But I’ve never been in a helicopter since [laughter].
[shows photos of Yankee Hat rock-shelter] The rock-painting sites of the ACT are in Namadgi National Park and are open to the public. To visit Yankee Hat you go to the Namadgi Visitor Centre and walk across on a well-marked walking track from there and the rock art sites are just on the tree line at the bottom of the hill shaped like a Yankee Hat. Back in the 1960s the Boots family of Gudgenby put fencing around to stop cattle getting in and rubbing the paintings away so the site was being protected, and we did an excavation because it was one of the very few Aboriginal sites that were known. I might say, when I started my PhD in 1969, some people said there weren’t any Aboriginal sites in the ACT. Others said, ‘Well, there are rock paintings down at Gudgenby,’ and so I wrote a letter to the Canberra Times asking, ‘Anybody know any sites?’ I got a very good response, particularly from the shooters who go around the hills and notice stone tools lying on the ground. Eventually, we found 200 open-air campsites in the ACT and excavated four rock shelters.
[shows photo of Rendezvous Creek rock-shelter] Rendezvous Creek shelter also has rock paintings, including birds such as the plains turkey (now locally extinct) and contact art such as a man on a horse. We found small stone tools there and these sites tend to go back about 4000 years, but Fenja Theden-Ringl who has just finished a PhD on the high country has excavated a 5000-year-old site up at Nursery Swamp, which is on a high spur north of Gudgenby. I think it could be associated with moth hunting in that people may have been going up there on their way to the high mountains because I can’t think why else you’d toil up to Nursery Swamp [laughter].
[shows photo of Hanging Rock rock-shelter] In Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve I also excavated Hanging Rock shelter, and found similar occupation to the Gudgenby sites. Molonglo River near Pialligo, and I have had the great experience since I’ve been in Canberra this time of seeing in the Museum’s stores out in Mitchell artefacts that were collected from the shores of the Molonglo River and the Murrumbidgee before the lake came into being in 1963, such as the HP Moss collection. They are quite distinctive and I think ANU archaeology students should be roped in to begin studying these collections because they’re magnificent. You’ve got ice age type artefacts and they’re very easy to access in the Mitchell repository because they’re all labelled, digitised and catalogued, and they’re in pull-out drawers. I was just astonished to see these wonderful, rare, old artefacts that are just sitting in a museum drawer and have never been studied.
[shows photos of Pialligo campsite] The first Canberra Archaeological Society (CAS) expedition I ever went on was in 1964 led by Professor Jack Golson to a huge Aboriginal campsite on sand dunes by the River Molonglo at Pialligo. It was just by the airport and was being used as a rubbish dump. We collected the stone artefacts then and Peter Bindon of CAS collected more later and all these artefacts are now in the Museum but we could not save the site.
[shows photos of traditional owners] In the 1980s we began working with Aboriginal people here. Matilda House and I went out to the Yankee Hat site paintings together. Also her son, Arnold, and we recorded scarred trees both in the Tuggeranong area and out at Lanyon homestead where there is a magnificent canoe tree just north of the homestead. Such trees are vulnerable and need photographing and recording systematically before it is too late. We’ve lost a fine axe-grinding groove site in Canberra through vandalism and they’re very rare. Luckily, the Canberra Archaeological Society took a full suite of photos so we at least we know what it was like, and photos and records are in the Canberra Heritage Library in Woden and in the AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) archives. Meanwhile, I’d suggest that signs are needed on the approaches to Indigenous sites, warning that all such sites are legally protected and there are severe penalties for anyone doing any damage.
[shows photo of Dean Freeman and Josephine Flood in Birrigai shelter] Finally, what of the future? I feel reasonably optimistic about it because the Indigenous people now involved in heritage protection in the ACT and elsewhere are really keen and active. Dean Freeman and I talked at length in the Birrigai shelter about its protection and interpretation, which we see as a joint endeavour. I am confident that the Indigenous heritage of the ACT is now in good hands. [applause]
LUCY BLACKAM: Thank you for that, Jo. Just to finish up, we’re going to have some questions from the audience if anybody would like to start. Just down the front here.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask a question about what you started the talk off with. I’ve had this understanding for a long time that Aboriginal people were here in Australia much longer than 50,000 years and you said in one of your early slides, they come from somewhere, they weren’t here. Why is it that they’ve came from somewhere?
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Well, there’s been a lot of work done now on DNA and we can trace the passage of Homo sapiens, us people, from North Africa leaving there perhaps some 80,000 years ago, coming across the Arabian Gulf, down through India right the way across down South East Asia. This journey has been traced both from archaeological sites and the Aboriginal DNA you can trace all the way coming across, so it definitely did happen. One of the things we’re still debating is how they actually got to Australia and we think they came by boat. And they came across from the islands like Timor and the ones between Indonesia and here because of the volcanic activity. If you’ve got a volcano erupting and you’re losing your home, you jump onto a log or a boat – and a modern researcher, has built bamboo rafts with stone tools to see how long the voyage takes – about ten days from Timor to land in Australia.
So there has been so much work done in recent years that I think it’s quite definite now that Aboriginal people haven’t been here in Australia forever. They came and they made a go of it, survived in what is a very tough continent. You know, we don’t have the grains one could use to develop agriculture in Australia. Aborigines remained semi-nomadic in that they tended to move around exploiting different food resources in different places. I could recommend one of my books, The Original Australians, which has a map of the Aboriginal journey from Africa based on study of the DNA of living populations along their route.
QUESTION: How does archaeology match with the spirituality of Australian Aboriginal people? What about the Aboriginal Dreamtime, all the stories of how the nature changed and the rainbow serpent had made the hills, and the valleys and the ancestors just being part of the land?
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Well, in fact, what we have discovered is that Aboriginal oral traditions go way back. As you know, there was a sea level rise between about 14,000 and 6000 years ago when the sea reached its present level. Previously it was about 130 metres below what it is now. And there are stories about the rising of the seas and Kangaroo Island getting cut off at the end of the ice age and, also, volcanic eruptions. Now, you can date volcanic eruptions exactly and we have stories, oral traditions of the Aboriginal people, which relate to a volcanic eruption 10,000 years ago. This is in the Atherton Tablelands, but also down in Western Victoria. So there’s lots of good evidence that Aboriginal oral traditions do reflect real events.
LUCY BLACKAM: Jo, I have a question up the back here.
QUESTION: Thank you very much indeed for a most fascinating talk. Yankee Hat seems to stand out in the rock-shelters that you’ve shown us tonight, in the fact that it has quite a number of paintings, many of which are also over-painted. What do you think that is?
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: It’s a very weather-proof, dry rock-shelter, with a good, sloping roof. There’s water not too far away and you’re in a good, strategic position looking out over the valley. So, you know, if you’re classifying prehistoric real estate in the ACT, you would put it probably at the top. It also has a smooth back wall, which a lot of them don’t.
QUESTION: The elders tell us that Ginninderra Gorge and just to the north west, just across the border, was a very important ceremonial ground. Only belatedly are reports coming out how important that was, so it’s all set for a joint operation and a lot of work to be done. Do you know anything about it?
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: No. I don’t. It was probably after my time in the sense that for the last 27 years I’ve been working on rock art in the Northern Territory and not doing anything local around here at all. I wanted to work with Aboriginal people and, also, they love us researchers to go up there. But we have to do the research in school holidays so they can bring the children out, teach them all about their culture and about bush foods and fauna. So I’ve been out of local work for a long time. A lot of work has been done by consultants and, sadly most of that is not published so we don’t know what they’ve found.
Again, I hope that maybe the Canberra Archaeological Society can do something about this because they can provide a workforce but, also, they can keep an eye and make sure that the right thing is happening as to where the artefacts that are found actually end up and future protection for the sites. Here in the ACT the National Trust have also been active on conservation of Aboriginal sites and we also have the local heritage authority, but I don’t know how active they are. I understand that artefacts collected by consultants are in their store in Lyneham but it’s not accessible to researchers like me. The president of the Canberra Archaeological Society is here tonight. Will she please stand up?
QUESTION: Why yes.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Okay. There’s a task for you. Please follow these things up.
(Note: subsequent lengthy meetings were held by Josephine Flood with both Lucy Blackam and the above questioner to follow up his concerns about Ginninderra)
QUESTION: Thank you, Ms Flood. I found a lot of what you said very affirming. Those line pattern rocks seem to denote tribal areas and clan groups, but near a lot of the axe groove sites I’ve found quite a few mapping sites that then lead you onto other ceremonial grounds.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Yes.
QUESTION: It’s a shame that you mentioned Lake George and the development there because with the men’s site there’s like a moon tree. And then there’s some of the root stock at the base of the tree denotes some of the women’s business on the women’s site on the other side. It’s disappointing for me that there are so many interconnected sites. We’ve got quite a big creek system here in the ACT so when you come from the axe groove site in south Canberra, it goes to the Tuggeranong Art Centre. You’ve got the Ginninderra Creek that goes to Belconnen Art Centre. You’ve got the Canberra Glassworks. You’ve got the theatres and the arts complex along Sullivans Creek. But it seems as though a lot of the cultural history has been reframed by a lot of these arts institutions and I find that very disappointing because none of the Aboriginal heritage reports refer to the interconnected sites and they don’t refer to any of the songlines. So when you talk about the bogong moth, what I’ve found is between ceremonial grounds you’ll find pathways of moths or wallaroo or other species like the legless lizard. And in those reports that go into Aboriginal heritage they don’t actually discuss the relationship between the people, their customs, the traditions or the ceremonies that helped facilitate that biodiversity and that symbiotic relationship.
So I think it’s very disconcerting that we are actually destroying a lot of these cultural pathways. We’re destroying a lot of these migratory routes and we’re reframing the context. I’ll give you an example. You mentioned the trees.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Yes.
QUESTION: I find it disconcerting I think is the word, where you mentioned the (Lanyon) canoe tree.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Yes.
QUESTION: The long slithers in the trees. If you follow those, they’ll lead you to the planting grounds. The round sort of, shield-like trees, if you find two patches together with, like a reference mark on the other side that’s about the size of your hand, it refers to, like a sacred site, so the different patternings of those scar trees denote different ceremonial and customs. So I find it disconcerting when the value of those trees are diminished to me a craft product. When the older men teach younger men how to do the markings or when they’re doing the grooves or when they’re placing the rocks, they’re describing the whole lineage of customs to the young men. So when you just say, ‘This denotes that clan group or this denotes that,’ – I find it a degradation on the ceremonial practice.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: It’s certainly not meant that way, but the problem is we don’t know, you see? Because this sort of thing that you said today I have never heard anyone say that before. I’ve never seen it written down so people like me don’t know about it. But I hope that you’re passing on this sort of knowledge to the people who are influential and I was delighted when I was out at Tidbinbilla to find that there’s a book done by the local Aboriginal people on the local plant foods. Now, that is a step forward, but if you could hand on your sort of knowledge, so that other people know, it would be great. If it’s not in the old historical records and nobody has ever done a report or written a book about something, then there’s no way we can know. So your knowledge is wonderful, but please pass it on in some way or other.
QUESTION: Just a quick thank you. I’m a descendant of the [inaudible] people from the –
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: From which people?
QUESTION: High country. And I sit at home watching TV of the deeds that go on in your country. So I have to thank you for coming to our country and digging up our past. It’s been a thrilling evening for me.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Well, it’s been a great pleasure for me. I have two passports and I have three children who live here and five grandchildren so I go to and fro. I feel I’ve got a foot in both countries. I lived here in Canberra for 28 years and I know when I became an Australian – it took 2 years but it was when I began supporting the Aussies rather than the Poms at cricket.
QUESTION: I’d also just like to say thank you for the talk today but thank you also for some of the work that you’ve done in the past. I know you’ve done some work at Umbagong District Park and were instrumental in helping that place be renamed as Umbagong in recognition of the axe-grinding grooves and significance of Aboriginal people there. And part of that work has led to the development of an Aboriginal Landcare Group that’s now working to protect and restore it.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Oh, good.
QUESTION: I’d like to say that, as my mother just said, that what you have documented and recorded for us gives us a very good basis to continue research. I would also like to say building on what was just said before about this sort of holistic understanding of our environment. In a sense, we as Aboriginal people are just starting to sort of offer ourselves up as well as part of the archaeological record in a very living, modern way and so for people of my mother’s generation and others, of course, it was very difficult to share anything or even have anything passed on because there were so many pressures to not do that. So, I would like to see the Australian Government develop its Indigenous arts, languages and culture program, which is now growing, thank goodness.
I’ve managed myself in the past an actual holistic kind of way of recovering knowledge, culture, language, which is my particular interest. The Ngunnawal mob and the Ngambri here in Canberra are working very hard and we now have our Prime Minister actually opening his, for example, Closing the Gap report using the language of this area, so for the first time ever in our history in Australia a Prime Minister has actually launched something using a language of the country on which he is privileged to be working. And, you know, the Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies now has got recognition for its amazing records and more funding to keep those records properly archived and do things with them.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Yes.
QUESTION: And the National Museum is, of course, a natural partner here and all the universities and all the state libraries and collections. So I think, you know, building from the wonderful work that you and others as pioneers in, let’s say, the white establishment academic world have done. Your legacy for us, now there are more Aboriginal people also coming through the academic establishment – I’m part of that; is that we do club together, work with the Canberra Archaeological Society and other historical society groups and communities that, as you were saying, are now bringing on their own archaeologists. I mean, this is a great step forward. We will have a cohort of people from the Indigenous community who have the technical knowledge and expertise to contribute.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Yes.
QUESTION: I think it’s a wonderful moment in Australian history where we can really build on all of this.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: I absolutely agree with you and that’s why I’m feeling good about the situation here but, also, in Victoria and the Northern Territory, but one thing I didn’t mention at all is any of us who investigate Aboriginal culture or find things, we have an obligation to conserve it and to put our records and our photos and everything else into the right places. Now, all my colour photos back from the 1960s are in the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, which keep them under perfect conservation conditions, which is what you need because we have rock art sites that collapse and the only thing we have left are photos but, also, artefacts need to go to the correct place in whichever state you find them in or are working in.
I did this for the Canberra Centenary. I put all of my written records and digitised photos of the ACT into the Heritage Library in Woden, and I’ve given open access to anybody and, also, anybody can use any of my photos. I’ve decided this at my age, I turned 80 last year [applause]. It was a sobering moment. I thought I have so much to do still and maybe not an infinite amount of time, so I’m getting on with it. And I am making all my stuff accessible somewhere or other and, of course, I’m hoping that in 2020 this Museum will have a beautiful display that covers moth hunting and the whole story of Aboriginal life in Australia from the beginning.
LUCY BLACKAM: Thank you for that, Jo. It was another fascinating talk and it’s lovely having you back in Canberra. We just had a small gift for you tonight for coming along.
JOSEPHINE FLOOD: Oh, thank you very much.
LUCY BLACKAM: Just to finish up tonight, I just thought I’d make you aware of our next lecture, which will be with Wally Bell. He’ll be doing an Aboriginal perspective of archaeology so, hopefully, we will have a strong interest in that one. It’d be lovely to see you all there. Thank you.
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Date published: 13 October 2017