Friday, August 10, 2012

Blaxland Flat's girl and the remarkable contribution of Isabel McBryde

Yesterday's main post Belshaw’s World – New England’s Blaxland’s Farchaeological survey, Mick Moore Jim Belshawlat girl dies just eight hundred years ago, appeared on the New England blog but with a Wednesday date. While I finished it Thursday, as a renewed Belshaw World post I wanted it on the right day and that's a Wednesday.

It's not a long post, but took some time to research. I also wanted to tell it as a short, simple, story that might bring an aspect of the Australian past alive to a remote audience.

As I wrote, I thought again as I have done so many times before just what a remarkable woman Isabel McBryde is.

This photo is not of the dig on the Blaxland's Flat burial, but of just one of the survey missions I went on. I am on the right.

One of the distinctive things that Isabel did was to involved local communities and their historical societies in her work. This was time consuming work, but just so important.

Time consuming because her growing network of informants across New England expected responses. Important not just because of what she learned, but because she was educating key individuals and indeed entire communities in the importance of recognising and preserving Australia's Aboriginal heritage.

I became involved as one of her students because it was fun; fun camping; fun driving round across the bush in land rovers; just fun. It was many years before I realised just how important Isabel was at a local and regional level and beyond in changing attitudes, in the real nuts and bolts stuff of Australian heritage.

After Isabel left Armidale she went on to something of a stellar career in Australian prehistory, making many contributions. Yet I think that it is her regional legacy, her early work, that marks her greatest advance.

No one before or since has provided such a coordinated focus on the exploration of Aboriginal life in a single area. Much more has been written on, say, the Sydney Basin because it has such a development focus and most Australian archaeology now is linked to studies in advance of development.  But the detailed regional studies of Australian prehistory, the studies that go to build a national picture, have vanished. In a way, Isabel was both the first and the last of her type.

I have written before about the sheer productivity of her Armidale period.

She arrived in Armidale in 1960. Four years after her arrival came the first thesis, Sharon Sullivan's 1964 honours study on the material culture of the Aborigines of the Richmond and Tweed Rivers. By 1978, UNE students had written at least 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD in 1967, laying the basis for a 1974 book, Aboriginal prehistory in New England. This was followed in 1978 by book of essays, Records of Time Past: ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes mainly written by her former students. This included an article of mine, Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in Northern NSW, drawn from my original work. The story does not end there, for there were also journal articles and monographs, including her pioneering study with R A Binns, A petrological analysis of ground-edge artefacts from northern New South Wales.

The citation for her award in 2003 of the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology justly summarised her work this way:

Her work in New England was remarkable for its extent and depth, and Isabel's examination of the interface of archaeology and ethnography in the region shaped not only the approach taken by many later researchers but also prepared the basis for the arguments about upland regions created by archaeologists such as Sandra Bowdler and Luke Godwin.

In our current academic world, there is little space for a woman such as Isabel. More precisely, there is little space for someone who wants to do the very detailed on-ground research, to promote such research, independent of the usual canons of current measurement. You have to go where the criteria for research funding takes you.

I was thinking just how I might explain this. Then I thought of Lismore's Leith Martin. Independent of any of the existing institutions, Leith did just so much of the basic survey work for Isabel on the Northern Rivers. I don't think that he was paid for this, I may be wrong. To my knowledge, he just did because he was involved. He enjoyed it and thought that it was important. In doing so, he benefited not just Australian prehistory, but many thousands of Aboriginal people.

It's late, and I must go to bed. But if you don't see what I mean, go back to Belshaw’s World – New England’s Blaxland’s Flat girl dies just eight hundred years ago. I never met her. I do not know who she was. But she is real to me. I can see her in that narrow valley with her family. I can imagine the sorrow of her death. I can imagine her family carefully wrapping her in bark, mourning a loss that that they don't really understand.

That's not a bad result.


Evan said...

Hi Jim, I think so much important work has relied on amateurs accumulating local data - European science and history wouldn't exist without this contribution.

Unfortunately our society doesn't encourage this kind of thing.

Do you think it is also some shame and guilt about our (white people's) behaviour to aboriginal people

Jim Belshaw said...

It's not that society discourages it per se, just look at family history, but that we are all so "professional" now.

I am sure that you are right about the non-Aboriginal guilt issue. Some care, others do not, but so much does get forced through an increasingly dated black/white prism. The Aborigines as people get lost. Indigenous studies at school has largely failed as a topic; who wants to study something if you have to have your nose rubbed in the past to do it?