The National Library of Australia

First Australians

Documenting the material culture of Aboriginal Australia

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Images of physical evidence of Aboriginal Australians can tell us where and how Aboriginal people used to live, and can help us find other types of archaeological sites. They also provide Aboriginal people today with an important link to their culture and their past.

Jon Rhodes is an Australian photographer. He visited many sites of significance to Aboriginal people around south-east Australia and documented them. Rhodes’ photographs show scarred trees in of suburban Canberra; rock engraving sites across Sydney; ceremonial places next to golf courses, houses and roads; carved trees in NSW schools and museums; and painted caves in the Grampians.

Scarred Trees

Scarred trees (also called canoe trees) were produced as a result of bark being taken from trees to form canoes, coolamons, shelter and shields. The bark was usually elliptical in shape allowing for easy remodelling. The process exposed the heartwood. The bark at the edges of the scar usually healed, leaving the heartwood exposed and forming a scar. Sometimes the axe marks made by Aboriginal people are still visible, but usually the marks will be hidden because the bark has grown back. Sometimes, if the scar is very old, it will be completely covered by regrowth.

Carved Trees

Different to scarred trees, carved trees are a form of artwork. They mark important sites to Aboriginal people such as initiation or burial sites. For burial sites, the trees usually marked the grave of an important man. Tree carvings can be found throughout Australia, but mainly in NSW—specifically the work of Gamilaroi and Wiradjuri artists.

More than 7500 Aboriginal-modified tree sites have been recorded in NSW, but fewer than 100 carved trees remain standing in their original location. The rest have been removed for farming and forestry.

Bora Rings

Bora rings were used for initiation ceremonies where young boys were introduced to the traditional knowledge of the men of the tribe. They are circles of foot-hardened earth surrounded by raised embankments. They were usually constructed in pairs (although some sites have three); with a bigger circle about 22 metres in diameter and a smaller one of about 14 metres. The rings are joined by a sacred walkway.

Rock Art

Rock art includes paintings on rock surfaces and illustrations carved into rock surfaces. Most paintings occur in rock overhangs and caves, whereas engravings are most commonly found on the top of ridges of headlands, at water level around the bays and coves of the harbour or near a waterhole or campsite, they are generally horizontal rather than vertical. 

People

Rhodes’ work also mentions famous Aboriginal people from history. One of these images is of Bennelong. He was a Wangal man, from around modern day Manly. The Wangal were among the first Aboriginal people to meet the First Fleet settlers in 1788. Bennelong learned English and lived with Governor Arthur Phillip in Government House. Later he travelled to England. The Sydney Opera House was later built on land where Bennelong’s house once stood.