Barunga: The adventures of a field school

The Ethnoarchaeology/Community Field School was held from the 22-28 June 2014. It was run at Barunga, an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, and aimed to teach students the values of working with a community to do archaeology.

What follows is a series of blog entries written before and during the field school that document the daily activities of those involved and reflect upon what was learned. In other words, you might want to grab a snack—this is going to be a long one!

Wednesday 18 June: Ready, Set, GO!!
By Stephanie Bartusevics

The Ethnoarchaeology/Community Field School participants met at Flinders University on Wednesday the 18th of June, 2014 for the long drive ahead to Barunga, NT. Claire Smith, the coordinator of the topic, brought her husband, Gary Jackson, as well as Adam, Samuel, and Mossman who they are looking after. In addition, two volunteers, five students, three staff members, and two children were set to make the journey.

Getting ready to leave

Getting ready to leave

As a group, we left for the first stop at Port Augusta, and then to Glendambo where we had dinner at the pub. The group left here around 8pm to finish the last leg of the first day to Coober Pedy, also known as the opal capital of the world. This is because of the quantity of precious opal that is mined here.

While here, the group had the opportunity to stay in underground houses, which Coober Pedy is commonly known for. These houses are called ‘dugouts’ because they are built underground. This acts as a natural insulation, keeping the houses cooler during the summer and warmer during the winter.

Student accommodation at Coober Pedy

Student accommodation at Coober Pedy.

Coober Pedy is a real eye-opener in terms of the different ways Australians have adapted to the country’s various environmental conditions.

Thursday 19 June: The Long Drive
By Stephanie Bartusevics

Today the group had the opportunity to visit the Old Timers Mine (Opal Mine) to discover how opals are mined and view some of the movie props displayed here. It was amazing to see how big some of the movie props are and to discover what movies they are in. Most notably, some of the props can be seen in movies such as Fire in the Stone, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Ground Zero, Pitch Black, and Val Kilmer’s Red Planet—how many have you seen?

Group photo time!

Group photo time.

From here, we travelled 756kms to Uluru, which took roughly nine hours. We met at the last South Australian town, Marla, before heading to the South Australia/Northern Territory border for a photo opportunity. It was great to see everyone excited to finally enter the Northern Territory after travelling such a long way. It also marked the halfway point of our journey to Barunga.

At the border!

At the border!

After this, Erldunda was the next stop at which we had a well-deserved lunchbreak after travelling roughly 488kms, taking about five hours. We spent a good hour here to recharge the batteries and prepare for the rest of the day’s journey.

The group arrived at Uluru just after sunset and had dinner at the takeaway shop in the resort complex. Everyone was ready for an exciting day ahead at Uluru. Today was also Matthew Ebbs’ birthday that will be celebrated tomorrow.

Friday 20 June: Wait, What?
By Stephanie Bartusevics

Today we had the opportunity to spend the day at Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. While some of the group went off and did the Liru walk, others went to the Muțitjulu Waterhole at the base of Uluru. The waterhole was such an amazing and peaceful place—you could hear the water running down Uluru and into the pool at the bottom!

After this, the group went over to Kata-Tjuta, about 32kms west of Uluru, to view the first two lookouts. However, due to the weather and time constraints, no one in the group made it all the way to the second lookout. Regardless, it was amazing to see the contours of the rocky landscape and the breathtaking views while walking through the Valley of the Winds.

Ebbsy’s birthday celebration was at the Gecko’s Café where the group gave him a present that consisted of a hat and a book about Uluru. It was also discovered that we did not have an extra day to travel to Barunga and that we had to travel 1,625kms in 1.5 days to pick up some students who were meeting us at Katherine on Sunday. To counter this, it worked out that Claire and Jacko would leave Uluru early the following day and get as far as they could, which turned out to be Elliott at about 1,229kms away. They would then repeat the early wake up the next day and make it to Katherine by noon on Sunday.

The group meal was a lovely way to spend time together and get to know each other better before the field school starts.

Saturday 21 June: Long Drive 2
By Stephanie Bartusevics

It was an early rise at 5am to be ready to leave Uluru at 6am for the trip to Tennant Creek. The group first stopped at Erldunda for breakfast before heading up to Alice Springs for lunch. Some of the group saw a protest at Alice Springs about Closing the Gap, while others continued on their way to Tennant Creek.

Just before Tennant Creek, two cars stopped at Devils Marbles to take some pictures. It was amazing to see these large rock formations in such a small area, something that served as a great photo opportunity due to the size comparison.

Julie at the Devils Marbles

Julie at the Devils Marbles.

The first group arrived at Tennant Creek around 5pm, while the others got there around 7pm. We had a BBQ dinner shortly after as we talked about the day and our plans for tomorrow.

Sunday 22 June: Another Early Rise
By Stephanie Bartusevics

Once again, it was another early rise. Some people rose at 5am to leave at 6am, while others woke at 6am to leave Tennant Creek at 7am. We packed up the tents as well as the car in the dark. We made our way to Mataranka for lunch. After lunch, we convoyed to Barunga where we arrived around 4pm. We went around the community to say hello and let them know that we were there. Once at the campsite, we put up our tents and cleaned the toilets and showers ready for the week ahead. Claire and Jacko arrived with the students from Katherine at about 11pm and set up their tents in the dark. We all went to bed ready for the excitement ahead.

Monday 23 June: Introductions
By Kathleen Gorey

Our first full day at Barunga was one of introductions: we were introduced to the community, to important aspects of their culture, and to the nature of the field school. This began with a series of introductory lectures given by the staff that reflected both their research interests and what it is we should expect during our time at Barunga.

More significantly, however, today we were given our skin names. But let us start the discussion off with this: the kinship system practiced by Barunga people is incredibly sophisticated and complex. Though we are on Jawoyn lands, the skin system that is most commonly used is that of Ngalkpon people whose land is in Central Arnhem Land. This system divides people according to a moiety, Dhuwa or Yirritja, and then into one of sixteen groups that are known as skin names. These groups are all related to each other, directly or indirectly, and the practice of the system promotes correct marriage and prevents incestuous relationships. For those who are not born into the community, skin names are assigned based on physical attributes, behaviours, and relationships to others who already have ‘skin’. Furthermore, the attribution of a skin name determines a relationship between you and the community; after this, you are referred to mostly by your skin name or your relationship to others according to the kinship system.

Understandably, then, the system is a difficult one to grasp. Luckily for us, we are tasked with memorising it before the field test later this week…

Getting a skin name.

Students receiving their skin name.

To further our introduction into the community, we were taken on a tour of Barunga by Jasmine and Kayla Willika, two community members. We were shown most publicly accessible areas, such as the school and library, and introduced to some bush tucker along the way.

It can’t be easy when a group of 21 people, mostly strangers, set up camp in a central part of your community and impact your lives accordingly. But the people of Barunga handled this with a sense of inclusivity and helpfulness. By showing us around their community, and effectively including us within their culture, today can be characterised as welcome.

Tuesday 24 June: Gendered Behaviours and Beswick Falls
By Kathleen Gorey

The presence of gendered behaviours has been consistently observed throughout our time at Barunga. This can be seen in the lives, knowledge, and landscapes of the people, something that can be clearly contrasted against Western understandings and practices.

Our first practical experience of this division occurred when the group was divided by gender in order to visit different sites. While the males went to explore the Marranboy Mine, the females were off to visit a Women’s Dreaming Site as per Claire’s recommendation.

As suggested by the name, information about this site is culturally sensitive and access is restricted to females. As such, we needed to obtain permission in order to visit the site, a process that is complex, continuous, and multi-tiered. Although some elders at Barunga had already granted permission, the process was not complete and so we headed off to Beswick for a confirmatory visit.

After this, the plan was to meet the males of the group at Beswick Falls. This journey, however, was not easy. As the gears shifted into 4WD, it was necessary to navigate the rough terrain while following the right path. I was in the car driven by Claire who managed to do this with a tiny white dog on her lap.

Upon arriving at Beswick Falls, it seemed as though we were in the middle of nowhere. The falls are framed by vast cliff faces, and the pool houses both fish and freshwater crocodiles. Those who chose to swim were confronted with cool water and a rapidly sloping floor. Those lucky enough to climb the cliffs were confronted with an enviable view of the area and an experience unlike any other.

What can be taken from this journey is the relationship that Aboriginal people have with their land. They envision the landscape as living, and understand it according to the creation of the world. In this sense, it is both practical and spiritual. Before now, my understanding of land was essentially ‘the stuff that we live on’. Clearly, there is much to learn. 

Wednesday 25 June: Different Businesses
By Stephanie Bartusevics

Today the women went off to collect pandanus leaves for basket making and paper bark for a goanna that will be made using bush string. To collect the necessary items for the making process, some of the girls drove to a location about 5 minutes away from Barunga. This is where the pandanus leaves were collected, as was the paper bark for the outside of the goanna.

Collecting pandanus leaves.

Collecting pandanus leaves.

Firstly, the leaves had to be hand processed using a traditional technique before the weaving could begin. This took roughly four hours; the weaving itself took about two. The weaving technique can be applied to make different types of baskets that can be used for different purposes. For the goanna, it took roughly 30 minutes to make the shape and another hour to add the paper bark, paint and let it dry.

Preparing the pandanus leaves.

Preparing the pandanus leaves for basket weaving.

In the meantime, some of the men went out to the police station to view the graffiti. This outing was cut short, however, because the policeman was not there and they had to return to camp.

Later in the afternoon, when Glen and Leanne went home, Ebbsy asked some of the Elders for permission to visit a rock art site nearby tomorrow, which was granted. When we came back to camp the ice cream truck came around and just about everyone had an ice cream.

Later in the night, the field school group, as well some of the community members, were given a presentation by Claire and Jacko titled ‘Ethnoarchaeology and Community Archaeology with Aboriginal Peoples’. This presentation was similar to that shown in the third year archaeology topic run at Flinders University called Archaeological Theory and Method. Unlike the lecture at Flinders, however, this presentation was interrupted by a water buffalo. Thankfully, this isn’t a common occurrence.

At the end of the presentation, Ebbsy showed a video about Barunga in the 1960s with the missions around the area. Some of the people still living in the region, like Glen, can be seen in this video.

Thursday 26 June: Rock Art
By Stephanie Bartusevics

Today began with a workshop led by Antoinette that aimed to further our understanding of the skin system. We became aware that brothers and sisters must avoid each other as much as possible to avoid incest. This also applies to males with their mother-in-law and females with their son-in-law. This system also teaches the children of the community to respect their elders.

After the workshop, the group visited the Drupny rock art site with Freddy, a Junggayi (custodian of the land). Claire Smith did a report on the site a while ago that dated some charcoal to ~1500 years old. While this date doesn’t necessarily apply to the rock art, it gives an indication as to how long the site has been used and, by extension, its continued significance.

To this day, Indigenous people visit the site to tell traditional stories and sing songs while cooking around a campfire. It is also common to find stone artefacts here, particularly broken spearheads. However, like most rock art sites, there are notable risks associated with its preservation. These include potential environmental, faunal, and human impacts. The Junggayi look after the site so that these factors have a limited impact on the rock art. They check the site every month as well as every time there is a fire breakout or when they visit it for storytelling.

After the rock art visit, the women returned to camp to do the basket weaving while the men went off to get firewood for the next few nights.

Later in the night the group was told spiritual stories by Jacko, Glen, and Rachael. These stories were very insightful in terms of understanding the range of ancestral power that still exists today.

Friday 27 June: Women’s Business and Mataranka Springs
By Kathleen Gorey

As the last full day of the field school, today was characterised by assignment-related stress and attempts by the staff to relieve this stress. Whether or not this was successful is debatable.

The day’s preliminary activities were again divided by gender, with the females going to visit the Dreaming site that you probably remember from Tuesday’s blog entry. With the guidance of the appropriate persons, we were granted closer access to the site and told the story of its significance; the sophisticated way in which Jawoyn people understand their land is admirable.

Following this, we ventured a fair distance from the community to visit a cave-enclosed burial site that holds lorkorn poles. When coupled with the presence of fading rock art and evidence of lithic production, it can be understood that there are a series of complicated ceremonies associated with death in Jawoyn culture.

After the trek back to the cars it was time for lunch and a ‘break’ from our assignments. This involved going to Mataranka Springs, a thermal pool located within the Elsey National Park. While initially resisted by some, the experience turned out to be worthwhile. The water in the thermal pool is estimated to reach 34 degrees Celsius, and the pool itself is enclosed by a series of tall trees.

We returned back to camp in the early evening and were treated to a BBQ dinner shortly after arrival. It was at this time, however, that the students collectively realised how soon the field school would be over and how little time we had left to complete our major assignment (some form of product for the community; see Tegan’s blog post for an example). While the general consensus seemed to be that people wanted the assessment to be over, they didn’t want the same for their time in Barunga. Endings are complicated, aren’t they?

Saturday 28 June: The Departure
By Kathleen Gorey

With our assignments submitted and our tests completed, today marks the end of our time at Barunga. It can be characterised by goodbyes.

In general, the field school reflected the practicality of community and ethnoarchaeology: the archaeology was done for the community, and the agenda was set according to their requirements. It’s all too often that archaeology seems to be done for the archaeologist rather than making it accessible to all interested parties. But what we saw at Barunga, and what archaeologists in this field consistently practice, is the effort to engage with the social, cultural, and political contexts of those with whom they work. This idea is reflected in the nature of our student projects and their focus on giving something back to the community.

In the end, however, none of this would have been possible without the permission of the community and their willingness to help and be inclusive. This is largely due to longstanding relationship that Claire and Jacko hold with the people of Barunga, and it is to them that we owe this opportunity. Thank you also to the other staff members and volunteers; the field school would not have been such a success without your help. Finally, thank you to the students who attended. We were a pretty good bunch if I do say so myself.

An opportunity like this does not come along often; but when it does, it’s not something that you want to miss. Although I have yet to complete my undergraduate degree, I have a feeling that this will constitute its best component.

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