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Archaeology in 5 pictures, no. 3: Baler shell from a surface artefact scatter in Nyiyaparli country, Western Australia

To celebrate National Archaeology Week (17-23 May), this week we're sharing five images, and the stories behind them, from our archaeology books. For more on Archaeology Week, including an impressive line-up of online events, head to and follow #2020NAW on Twitter. You can see all of our archaeology titles here.

Archaeology in 5 pictures, no. 3: Baler shell from a surface artefact scatter in Nyiyaparli country, Western Australia

A fragment of a spiral-shaped, cream-coloured shell rests on dark brown rocky ground, with a photo scale referencing card indicating that the shell is about 9cm wide.

From Crafting Country: Aboriginal Archaeology in the Eastern Chichester Ranges, Northwest Australia, by Caroline Bird and James W. Rhoads

Nyiyaparli country extends into the Hamersley Range through Weeli Wolli Creek, and eastwards to Jigalong and beyond into the desert. Songlines link the Christmas Creek area to Lake Disappointment.

Archae­ologically, finds of baler shell link Nyiyaparli country to the coast. It is likely that people took stone from the study area with them, as they moved to stone-poor areas. There is almost no evidence for blade manufacture in the study area; the occasional finds of blades thus attest to movement of stone into the Christmas Creek area.

Consultation with Nyiyaparli elders highlights the cultural significance of this extensive artefact scatter and others like it. In this case, there was no objection to disturbance of the site by FMG’s min­ing activities, with the proviso that the artefacts should be salvaged. The elders distinguish between different types of stone artefact scatters, char­acterising some as linked to the Dreaming through the use of tools by the ‘Old People’ for particular purposes, such as making boomerangs. In other situations, an artefact ‘doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a thing that we use. It’s a daily thing [that’s] just been left as people been travelling through, you know?’ (Coldrick and McDonald 2009, 11, emphasis added). Neverthe­less, the elders emphasise that it is important to consult senior Nyiyaparli people about the specific significance of archaeological sites and that such sites should be salvaged. This particular consultation further linked archaeological material found at sites to songlines linking the permanent water sources, extending eastward into the desert as far as Lake Disappointment and west to the coast, as evidenced by finds of baler shells.

This interpretation is consistent with McDonald and Coldrick’s account of the distinction made by Pilbara peoples generally between main sites or main camps, which can be characterised as persistent places, and small scatters comprising the by-products of tool making when the Old People were passing through. Main camps are considered culturally signif­icant, while the small scatters are generally ‘nothing to worry about’. Either of these categories, however, may contain individual artefacts (e.g. blades, grindstones) which themselves have intrinsic value. Veth (1993, 76–77) reports that the Martu of the Western Desert to the east of the study area make a similar emic distinction between main places and passing-through places and that these distinctions relate to permanency of water. For the Martu, main places are associated with permanent waters, which provide opportunities for aggregation, particularly at the end of the dry season.  Semi-permanent waters might be used for meetings at other times, but are usually characterised as passing-through places. Ephemeral waters are passing-through places, used only by small groups.

From an archaeological perspective, then, the surface archaeological record of the Christmas Creek study area reflects the distinction between main camps and passing-through places made by both Pilbara and West­ern Desert Aboriginal peoples. Many of the small scatters are essentially ‘noise’. They represent individual events, some of which clearly relate to the embedded procurement of raw material as people move through the land­scape. Patterning only emerges at a landscape scale, or when the palimpsest becomes dense and forms patches at persistent places. At this resolution, the differences between ranges and plains come into focus. The mulga woodlands of the plains primarily carry main camps, and the relative density of the archaeological record and the evidence from the analysis of cortex ratio at the landscape scale indicate relatively long visits and low residential mobility, focused particularly along the main watercourses. This concentra­tion of archaeological evidence along watercourses reflects the role of these landscape features as preferred travelling routes (Walsh 2008, 65, 256–58). Much of the ranges, by contrast, is passing-through country, where residen­tial mobility is higher. Here, activity is also focused on key watercourses, which serve as travel routes, with specific rockshelters and their associated site complexes acting as markers of persistent places and places of memory …

Landscape usefully connects archaeology with geography and anthropology, providing a long-term history of place and space and opening up a range of analytical possibilities (Gosden and Head 1994). Archaeo­logical understandings of landscape range from ecological and economic perspectives, which view the environment as a stage for human activity or as a driver for human adaptation, to the idea of place and landscape as socially experienced and culturally constructed (David and Thomas 2008). The term ‘cultural landscape’ highlights the ‘role of individuals who conceptualised these spaces and actively created and modified them in culturally specific ways’ (Torrence 2002, 776).

Landscapes, then, are not passive backdrops to Aboriginal activity. On the contrary, they are shaped by ongoing social processes that produce ‘taskscapes’. This heuristic device focuses our attention on how landscapes are perceived and experienced, not as scenery, but in terms of the collec­tion of activities that occur there (Ingold 1993). Hunter-gatherer societies do not simply occupy space and use natural resources; rather, they actively transform the natural environment into an encultured territory. They accomplish this through interweaving the activities focused on meeting a range of economic, social and spiritual needs with the physical distribution of resources and landforms across their country. This perspective on the transformation of the natural world into a cultural landscape highlights the role of ongoing, active and creative engagement of people with the world around them (McDonald and Veth 2013b; Oetelaar and Meyer 2006).

In this way, space is transformed into place through human action.