Tracing history via the Kimberley’s “upside down” trees

Archaeologists from four Australian universities have launched a project to find and document the stories carved into boab trees in the Kimberley.

These water storing trees with their distinctive bottle-like shape are an icon of the region and can live for many hundreds of years. Some more than 1500 years old. Carvings on their swollen trunks record stories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

The project funded by the Australian Research Council is a collaboration between The Australian National University (ANU), The University of Western Australia (UWA), the University of Canberra (UC) and University of Notre Dame Australia (UNDA).

Research leaders Professor Sue O’Connor (ANU), Professor Jane Balme (UWA), Dr Ursula Frederick (UC) and Dr Melissa Marshall (UNDA) will work with Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley to document and contextualise the tree carvings.

Professor O’Connor said the project would provide the first systematic archive of carved boab trees, using advanced technology to capture accurate 3D records of the markings.

“We know a lot about rock art in caves and shelters, but almost nothing about the carvings done on trees,” Professor O’Connor, from the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, said.

Aboriginal people have used boab trees in many ways, including as food, medicine, fibre shelter, and even for creating intricate artwork on the boab nuts and the trunk of the tree.

“Boabs are still immensely important to Kimberley Aboriginal people as they act as markers of landscape and place, and they are popular camping spots,” Dr Marshall said.

The archaeologists will survey an early mission, a pastoral property and an Aboriginal settlement. To assist with context, they will also examine unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters, mission records, newspapers and published historical and anthropological literature for the Kimberley.

Dr Frederick said: “The team will bring together a wealth of expertise, including local knowledge and state-of-the-art photogrammetry and scanning techniques, to ensure that this significant living archive will have a digital presence for future generations to see.”