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Use of gorgets and the condition in which they survive

The condition of the National Museum of Australia’s gorgets is generally good. Most of them exhibit evidence of only slight wear and corrosion. It is not surprising that they are all tarnished through wear and most have some spots of verdigris because they were exposed to the air and rarely if ever cleaned. ‘Verdigris’ (‘green of Greece’) is the green or bluish patina of basically copper sulphate which forms on copper, brass or bronze which has been exposed to the air for a long time.

Almost all the gorgets have a smooth patina although they are scratched and pitted which suggests that they were handled frequently if not worn constantly.

The condition of the museum’s gorgets seems to be typical of most that still exist. McCarthy commented that the gorgets held by the Australian Museum had the same well-worn appearance which he also attributed to prolonged handling:

The condition of many of these plates indicates that they have had considerable use, some being discoloured and bent, and the lettering is almost worn out on several of them due no doubt to handling by their owners and his friends.

In doing this, they perpetuated the important custom of their people of fondling sacred objects and rubbing them on their body as the sacred songs connected with them were chanted and the individual absorbed the spiritual essence of his ancestors embodied in these symbols. [1]

However, some of the plates in the Australian Museum’s collections were very new-looking and without evidence of wear. McCarthy [2] attributed their condition to their having been presented ‘to old men so that they were not in the possession of the natives for many years’. The gorget which was given to Bobby of Yulgilbar by the Ogilvies and which is now in the National Library of Australia is also in almost pristine condition. It is even kept in a beautiful presentation case.

Some gorgets may have been rarely if ever worn or worn for a short time before being acquired by non-Aboriginal collectors or reacquired by the people who presented the gorgets. Evidence in the writings of Jimmie Barker and comments in the notes about the gorgets in the National Museum of Australia’s collections suggest that the gorgets were not always a valued gift and some were rarely or never worn or handled.

A curious similarity between most of the gorgets is the presence of groups of random indentations in the form of either circular or short stabbed lines on the reverse side of each gorget. It is possible the marks are evidence of the gorgets having been used as anvils. However, it is more likely that the marks were made by their Aboriginal owner to personalise the gorget. Aboriginal people usually made personal marks on objects that they wanted to identify as their own. For example, an Aboriginal man near Bathurst was observed by William Suttor marking a possum skin with his ‘totem’: [3]

... circling round the fire, were younger men, sitting tailor-like, one crooning in low, monotonous, but not by any means harsh, tones, a tribal hunting-song, all the while scratching with a sharp-edged ‘bindoogan’ shell the fleshy side of a dried opossum’s skin, doubled over on the thick muscles of his naked thigh, and thus marking on the skin his ‘totem’.


[1] FD McCarthy, ‘Breast-plates: the Blackfellows’ Reward’, The Australian Museum Magazine, 1952, vol. 10, p. 330.

[2] FD McCarthy, ‘Breast-plates: the Blackfellows’ Reward’, The Australian Museum Magazine, 1952, vol. 10, p. 331.

[3] WH Suttor, Australian Stories retold and Sketches of Country Life, Glyndwr Whalan, Bathurst, 1887, p. 20.

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