I have chosen this short piece written in 2012 to introduce my section on Aboriginal New England because it is an attempt to bring alive, to personalise, an element In the history of Aboriginal New England.
For much of the 32,000 or so years since Aboriginal peoples first settled in New England we have only the archaeological record. It is easy to forget that those material remains represent people. That stone tool is not just an artefact used to do things, not just an example of a type, but something that someone made and left behind. That charcoal is not just fire remains that may be dated, but a place at which real people gathered around. Those food remains were actually eaten by someone.
There is debate about the extent to which we can or should go beyond the material remains to infer, to imagine, the individuals themselves since we cannot know. Such imaginings may start from facts but then become fiction and may actually mislead, becoming embedded in cultural memory as facts, thus acquiring an evolving life of their own. I accept that this is a danger, but would argue as a story teller as well as historian that the best history comes from the effective application of imagination. It is then up to others and later work to challenge.
Some of my Aboriginal friends may challenge my title, the application of a geographical name created by European occupation. Surely, they might argue, she should be called Gumbaynggirr Girl after the Aboriginal language group that occupied territory from the southern edge of the Clarence River south to the start of the McLeay Valley?
To them I would say, simply, that there are no perfect answers here. my objective is to create a character that will bring an element of Aboriginal history alive. To call her Gumbaynggirr Girl is to give her a name that sounds like a song title, that submerges her into a broader whole, that reduces her unique character. At this point, I think that Blaxland’s Flat Girl works.
Some eight hundred years ago a girl died in the area that would be later called New England.
Her family was camping in a place now known as Blaxland’s Flat some 15 miles south west of modern Grafton. This is hilly country with long deep narrow valleys running north-south between sandstone ridges down which rush creeks often turbulent after heavy rain ending in the Orara River. It was also country with a high sacred value to the people of that time.
Six miles to the north are a series of stone arrangements on the western side of Skinner’s Swamp. Nearby are artworks including a three foot long fish like figure and a large goanna. A mile to the north east, we enter rougher country. Here in the many rock shelters we find one of the largest concentrations of Aboriginal art in the Northern Rivers.
While the evidence is still uncertain, all these sites appear to belong to the same period, the centuries surrounding the death of Blaxland’s Flat girl.
We do not know why she died, although there is no evidence of foul play. We do know that she was loved. On her death, her family cut a shroud from the bark of a bloodwood tree and wrapped her in it. They then carried her to what could well have been the family deposition site.
Aboriginal people interred their dead at different ways at different times over the millennia. Sometimes, bodies were placed in trees to allow the flesh to rot for later burial. Sometimes, bodies were cremated and the bones then broken and deposited. At other times, the dead were tied up in sitting positions with their legs bent so that they could leap to the future chase. They were then buried in shallow graves, covered by brush.
In Blaxland’s Flat girl’s case, they carried her from the camp to a low hung rock shelter set back in a cliff a bit under eight feet from the ground. This height was probably intended to protect the site from predators. There they deposited her body, protected at some point by a sandstone wall.
I say that we know that this was probably a family site, for at least fifteen people were deposited there.
Blaxland’s Flat Girl rested for the next eight hundred years, although family hopes about disturbance proved illusory. It is clear that that the site was visited, probably by one of the large tree goannas found in the area. These tear the flesh with long claws, feeding on the remains. They could certainly have entered the site.
Late in 1963, dingo hunters found the site. This was reported to Isabel McBryde at the University of New England who mounted a carefully planned rescue dig. After eight hundred years, Blaxland’s Flat girl returned to the public gaze. Now after meticulous scientific research, we have a human being to fit into the often dry record revealed by archaeological remains.
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am bringing up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter is the start of a bigger section on Aboriginal New England.