• Stones tools ceremonially reburied (Living Black)Source: Living Black
OPINION: Proof of our ancestors occupation can be found, scattered throughout the land. Many amateur collectors are now handing back ancient treasures, so the crafted tools of the Old People can now have a safe resting place.
Dr Robyn McKenzie

Living Black
5 Jul 2021 - 9:03 AM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2021 - 9:24 AM

Distributed throughout the landscape, the archaeology of First Nations Australia is everywhere. Stone artefacts are not rare, but ubiquitous, common, and yet each is unique; as individual as the hands that made and used them.

While the dictum of Terra Nullius was overturned by the High Court with the Mabo decision of 1992, the idea of the ‘emptiness’ of Australia largely retains its power in the imaginative consciousness of white Australia.

The livelihood of its original inhabitants has historically been seen as marginal and precarious, and the population thought of as thinly spread therefore — a narrative built on the damage wrought by European diseases and social displacement and violence in the early decades of colonisation.

Across the landscape the surface scatters of stone artefacts that still remain to mark the absence of this population, speak of an inhabited landscape, not an empty one.

They provide evidence not just of priority, but of the type of societies that existed and their systems of economic and cultural life.

What can this material tell us about Australian First Nations and the land they maintained and managed prior to and in the process of colonisation itself?

What agency does this material have in the political present?

How should this material be cared for into the future? 

Sovereigns and Sovereignty and the Gift of Stone

In the Parkside Cottage Museum in Narrandera is a rare object we do know the provenance of, a ground edge axe head labelled ‘Stone axe belonging to Marvellous.’ 

In 1927 ‘Marvellous’ (aka John Noble), then in his eighties if not older, in company with his Countryman, friend and fellow ‘cleverman’ Jimmy Clements, walked from Brungle mission near Tumut in the foothills of the Snowy mountains across the Brindabella Ranges to Canberra, for the opening of the new Provisional Parliamentary House (now Old Parliament House) – two days of ceremonial events presided over by the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George VI and his Queen.


The presence of the two men drew the attention of the press covering the event.

The Melbourne Argus (10 May 1927) wrote that Clements, also known as ‘King Billy’, ‘an ancient Aborigine’… ‘old and grey and ruggedly picturesque’, made claim to ‘sovereign rights to the Federal Capital Territory’.

The men’s presence at this event has been interpreted as a conscious act of protest by many.

In Noble’s family the understanding is that they went to make a point, ‘to make it clear sovereignty was never ceded to Britain…They were in Canberra protesting for their people’. A photo of Clements sitting on the ground with his three dogs the white façade of Old Parliament House in the background, can be seen as a precursor to the tent embassy.


Both men had made their living as ‘showmen’ travelling around regional NSW demonstrating boomerang throwing and other traditional Aboriginal skills at agricultural shows and football matches. They knew how to work a crowd. As reported in the press, they made their act an intrinsic part of the show. 

On the second day of the festivities, with the public filing past the dignitaries seated on the portico at the front of the building, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (11 May 1927) Noble broke ranks and ‘aroused the amused interest of the Duke and Duchess and the waiting crowd’, by making a play of mistaking the policeman at the bottom of the steps for the Duke with an elaborate display of greeting.

Moved back into line, he then addressed the Duke with ‘an approved military salute’ and ‘The Duke returned it with a special wave’.

Is it possible there was more to this exchange?

The documentation accompanying the axe in the Narrandera collection contains a curious note:

“(This axe was given to the present King when opening Parliament House at Canberram [sic] who handed it back to the abo[riginal].)”

Amidst the playing with and on royalty, dominion and diplomacy, more extraordinary than the story of Marvellous’ gift to the future King, is that it was apparently ‘handed back’.

Was this a misunderstanding of the gesture of the gift, or the rejection of a sovereign claim?

Listening to the Stones

Our research project began with the brief to survey the holdings of First Nations material culture in the small country town museums in the Riverina district of NSW. We found that most only had collections of stone artefacts, commonly donated by local farmers who found them while working the land, i.e. unearthed during ploughing.

Kept lined up on shelves more in storage than on display, they were accompanied by little or no information or interpretation.

It became apparent that there was more material like this distributed in the community: collections made by farmers that may have started out inadvertently, accumulations that often remained hidden away in the shed.


That surface scatters of Indigenous stone artefacts are commonly found on farmland is rarely acknowledged.

In a nation state still to fully recognise the dispossession of land that occurred during ‘settlement’, unease and uncertainty surrounds this powerful cultural material.

In some cases it has been purposefully ignored, destroyed or hidden, while most commonly, it is simply ‘not mentioned’.

However, there are instances of farmers who have been respectful custodians of this heritage. And as Indigenous archaeologist Dave Johnston maintains: ‘Our farms are our best museums. And farmers are some of our best curators.’

The story of this legacy is part of the truth-telling that is currently a national priority. As an aging generation of farmers prepares to leave the land, are we in danger of losing their knowledge of this heritage?

On country

Of the generation of farmers who have been involved in making collections, many have already left or are about to leave the land, and want to know what they could do with this material—or what they ‘should’ do.

While state legislation governing Aboriginal artefacts has precedence in this field, consultation between farmers and local Indigenous stakeholders on the future care of these collections presents an opportunity for new types of conversations to be had at the local level.

The value of these artefacts exceeds that of the archaeological fragment that takes its meaning from the past.

Their importance lies as much in their agency in the present: as tokens of symbolic exchange, touchstones for reconciliation?

The focus of Australian archaeology has been on the discovery of time depth in the human record, with stratigraphic excavation and carbon dating (since the late 1960s) as its preferred tools. The artefacts found distributed across space rather than through time and the compelling story they have to tell has been obscured by this privileging of time and depth.

The dominant story is characterised by unique discoveries made at generally isolated sites establishing earlier and even earlier dates. Surface scatters by contrast have been discounted as sources of archaeological evidence especially those found in disturbed landscapes such as farming and grazing lands.

Many farmers remember where on their properties artefacts were found.

We hope to continue our research using farmers’ recollections of the locations of finds to test the working hypothesis that this material when mapped onto the landscape will provide a source of readable, meaningful information about the historical Aboriginal population.


The aim of this project overall is to raise awareness and effect a change in the mindset of Australians to both expect and respect these objects in the landscape as part of a shared heritage.


To watch this Living Black episode "Silence of the Stones" tune into NITV at 8:30pm on Monday 5th July 2021. The program will be on SBS Tuesday 6th July at 3pm and streamed on SBS On Demand


Robyn McKenzie is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University.

Dave Johnston is Director of Aboriginal Archaeologists, Australia. 

Ed Note: Special thanks to Lois Peeler, Wendy Bunn and Brenda Croft for your important cultural and professional contributions. 

The Talking About Stones project discussed in this article is a collaboration between the ANU, the NMA and the Museum of the Riverina undertaken as part of a larger Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP150100423) ‘The Relational Museum and It’s Objects: Engaging Indigenous Communities with their Distributed Collections’ (2016–2021).





If you would like to contact either Dr McKenzie or Dave Johnston contact the Living Black production team with your request.



And if you’d like to find out what the heritage laws are in your state that may affect your own collection of cultural artefacts please go to one of the following links:



Check out: https://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/about-our-heritage/aboriginal-cultural-heritage/

And if you do find something you think should be recorded go to: https://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/protecting-our-heritage/record-aboriginal-sites/

Contact: Phone 02 9585 6345 Email: ahims@environment.nsw.gov.au Mail to: Heritage NSW, Locked Bag 5020, Parramatta NSW 2124. To report harm to Aboriginal items or sites Environment Line 131 555



Check out https://www.aboriginalvictoria.vic.gov.au/aboriginal-places-and-objects

Contact - Heritage Services Aboriginal Victoria, Department of Premier & Cabinet, 1 Treasury Place, Melbourne VIC, 3002, Telephone: 1800 762 003

E: Aboriginal.Heritage@dpc.vic.gov.au



Check out https://www.aboriginalheritage.tas.gov.au/learn/awareness/index.html.1.10.html

Under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1975 (section 10) every person has a duty to report a relic if they believe they have found one. This can be done by contacting Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania 1300 487 045 or email aboriginal@heritage.tas.gov.au



Check out Website: www.dpc.sa.gov.au/guidance

Contact: Department of the Premier and Cabinet Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation - GPO Box 2343, Adelaide SA 5001Telephone: (08) 8226 8900Email: DPC.AARHeritage@sa.gov.au



Check out: https://www.wa.gov.au/organisation/department-of-planning-lands-and-heritage/aboriginal-sites-objects-and-ancestral-remains

Contact: 140 William Street, PERTH WA 6000, Locked Bag 2506, Perth WA 6001

Telephone: 61 8 6551 8002 Email: info@dplh.wa.gov.au



Check out: https://nt.gov.au/leisure/arts-culture-heritage/visit-a-cultural-or-heritage-site/aboriginal-heritage-information

Contact: contact the Heritage Branch by emailing heritage.branch@nt.gov.au or calling 08 8999 5039.



Check out: https://www.qld.gov.au/firstnations/environment-land-use-native-title/cultural-heritage/cultural-heritage-database-and-register

Cultural Heritage Phone: 1300 378 401 Email: cultural.heritage@dsdsatsip.qld.gov.au



Check out: https://www.environment.act.gov.au/heritage/heritage-in-the-act

Contact: email heritage@act.gov.au. If you find what you think is an Aboriginal heritage object (or place): do not move it, do not do anything that will impact it. Note if it is under threat (e.g. machinery vandalism). Alert ACT Heritage by emailing heritage@act.gov.au. Under the Heritage Act 2004, all Aboriginal heritage discoveries must be reported within five working days.