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Oceania 46 (2011) 105117

Looking for the proverbial needle?

The archaeology of Australian colonial frontier massacres


Keywords: frontier conflict, massacre sites, History Wars, colonial Australia, site formation processes


Amongst other issues, the History Wars raise the question as to of absence, beyond our discipline this is not always the
whether or not sites of conflict on the Australian colonial frontier case. there is concern that some people interpret the
will be preserved in the archaeological record. We explore this surprisingly small number of massacre sites listed in state
question through a consideration of what the expected nature of and national heritage registers as further proof as to the
any such evidence might be, based on general and specific falsity of claims of extreme violence against Indigenous
historical accounts and an understanding of site formation people on the frontier. In this paper we provide an
processes. Although limited success has been achieved to date in explanation as to why so few massacre sites have been
locating definitive evidence for such sites in Australia, we identified archaeologically to date and, through a
conclude that there are some specific situations where archaeology consideration of their expected archaeological signatures,
could usefully be applied to give rise to a more multi-dimensional discuss how researchers might effectively engage in the
understanding of the past. investigation of such sites. We suggest that such
investigations do not necessarily run the risk of satisfying
In recent years the extent and nature of colonial frontier revisionist arguments (cf Barker 2007: 12), if discussions of
conflict has been at the fore of Australian public site formation processes are well incorporated in published
consciousness as a result of the widely publicised History accounts thereafter. Despite arguments by Barker (2007)
Wars a fierce academic debate that has garnered extensive that the nature of Australian frontier conflict was such that
media coverage (Attwood 2005; Attwood and foster 2003; there is little probability of massacre events being
Birch 1997; Blainey 1993; Clark 2002; Connor 2002; manifested in the archaeological record, anecdotal accounts
Keating 1992; Macintyre and Clark 2004; Manne 2003; from archaeologists and Indigenous people dispute this, and
Stanner 1968; Windschuttle 2000a, 2000b, 2002, 2009). the we argue below that evidence from particular types of
crux of the argument is historiographical and also founded frontier massacres are more likely to be preserved than
in issues associated with the nature and reliability of social others. While these might be comparatively rare, there is
memory, and the manner in which stories about the little doubt they will be of extreme cultural significance to
relationships between settlers and Indigenous peoples have Indigenous people. they will additionally be of high social,
been constructed. As various scholars have demonstrated, historical and scientific significance to non-Indigenous
archaeology has the potential to provide alternative views of people and are worthy of identification, investigation and
the past, and in particular of Indigenous-settler relationships protection.
(e.g. Harrison and Williamson 2004; Murray 2004; Paterson
et al. 2003; Silliman 2004; Stein 2005). Accordingly, some
historians have called for archaeologists to engage in The language of conflict
explorations of frontier conflict events through the
application of archaeological techniques (e.g. Attwood and Given the emotive and contentious nature of the topic of
foster 2003: 23). Such an approach affords the opportunity frontier conflict, and the perils of becoming enmeshed in
to inform the historiographical debate, through elucidating semantics, it is important to provide clear definitions for the
written and verbal renditions of frontier conflict events terminology we utilise in this paper. However, we wish to
and/or satisfying the lacunae evident in some historical and make clear that in doing so we, like others before us, do not
oral accounts. intend in any way to detract from the complex range of
While most archaeologists are aware of the adage that an suffering experienced by both Aborigines and colonists on
absence of evidence does not necessarily indicate evidence the frontier (rowland 2004: 2).


ML: Archaeology and natural History, College of Asia and the We follow the definition provided by Grguric (2008: 59) of
Pacific, the Australian national University, Canberra ACt the frontier being any area where colonial settlers were
0200. email: LAW: Dept. of using the land for agricultural, mining and/or livestock,
Archaeology, flinders University, Adelaide SA 5001. whilst Aboriginal people were still maintaining their

traditional life-ways in the area. As we discuss later, land- Before discussing the potential application of
uses varied across Australia and sometimes resulted in archaeological techniques to frontier massacre sites, we
specific patterns of conflict, and therefore have implications briefly review the historical context of such events on a state
for site formation processes. by state basis. this provides a framework for understanding
the nature and timing of conflict that occurred, in order to
Frontier conflict establish the scaffolding for the subsequent discussion of
how such events might be manifested archaeologically.
We define frontier conflict as that which occurred between While we are concerned with frontier conflict post-1788,
non-Indigenous settlers and Indigenous people in the this was by no means the first time that Indigenous
frontier areas. thus we are particularly concerned with Australians had contact with foreigners. frost (1987:371)
conflict following British settlement of Australia during the suggested that Portuguese explorers located the Australian
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, though we continent as early as 1530, though there is little written
recognise that there were isolated instances of conflict evidence to support this claim. However, it is clear that
between Indigenous people and others prior to this time. Aboriginal people along the northern shorelines and islands
had contact with Macassan trepangers from at least the mid-
Massacre 1600s (May et al. 2010), and more regularly through the
the etymology of the noun massacre reveals the term eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Clarke 2000; Crawford
derives from the Persian maslakh which was then adapted to 2001; MacKnight 1986; Morwood and Hobbs 1997). the
the ancient french maacre (meaning butchery or available historical and linguistic evidence is conflicting as
slaughterhouse) (Dauzat 1938: 462). this linguistic to the early nature of such relationships (russell 2004), and
history provides some understanding of what the term while the archaeological evidence can be interpreted to
means when in general usage; however, a comprehensive indicate there may well have been an initial phase of
definition of what constitutes a massacre in relation to hostility (Stone 1999), there is as yet no clear understanding
human deaths is more difficult to assign. Surprisingly, the of such events.
term is defined neither in international statute, nor in the first well-documented discovery of the Australian
mainland by europeans was at Cape York in the northeast in
modern Australian common law or criminal code (Muozos
1606 an event that also marked the first recorded instance
2000: 83-4), and the Un cautions against using such a
of Indigenous-european conflict when one of the crew from
phrase with a high emotional charge, but no agreed
the Dutch vessel Duyfken was fatally speared near the
definition (Hoyos 2002: 7). Within this paper we are
Wenlock river (Sutton 2008; see figure 1). It was following
concerned with considering the possible archaeological
the British 1788 establishment of the Sydney Cove colony
signatures of massacre sites rather than broader frontier
[later to become new South Wales (nSW)] that sustained
conflict sites (cf. Barker 2007; Grguric 2008, 2010), and
conflict commenced. Here there was an active phase of well
thus it is necessary to adopt a consistent, explicit definition.
documented killings and reprisal, a situation that was
As such, when using the term massacre herein we are
exacerbated when pastoralism and farming spread west of
referring to an event involving two parties: the Blue Mountains. relationships disintegrated into
Victims a group comprising more than one person, extreme violence and the Black War of 1824, during which
typically possessing inferior weaponry with which to
defend themselves; and,

Perpetrators another group, who distinguish

themselves from their victims by having the power to
kill without substantial risk of physically injuring
themselves, and who might generally be considered to
have instigated the event.
A massacre is also seen as having some temporality
meaning that victims were killed at approximately the same
time or as a part of the same action or event over a
constrained period, usually no more than a few days. And
while Indigenous people were also responsible for carrying
out killings, in this paper we are particularly concerned with
massacres of Indigenous people by settlers.

A brief overview of frontier conflict in Australia

I look on the blacks as a set of monkies, and the earlier
they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better.
A letter in the Australian, 18 December 1838 as cited in figure 1. Location of places and events mentioned in text.
elder 2003:83

many deaths on both sides were experienced (Pearson arrival (Jones 1974; Pardoe 1986; Stockton 1983), only ca
1984), followed a decade later by the Waterloo Creek 150 remained (Birmingham 1992; Plomley 1966, 1987).
massacre. Argued by some to be the largest mass killing in Indeed, Indigenous-settler conflict in tasmania was
Australian history, it involved the systematic killings in arguably so sustained, brutal and systematic that some
1838 of an estimated 300 Aboriginal men, women and historians have suggested it might represent a case of
children (Milliss 1992). the increasing incidence of conflict genocide (e.g. Armand 2003; elder 2003: 29-48).
and violent encounters in nSW ultimately led to the South Australia (SA) was settled as a free colony in 1836;
formation of a colonial cavalry troop (Pearson 1984: 75). however, despite initial attempts by the British Crown to
this was arguably the precursor to the first official corps of protect local inhabitants (rigney et al. 2008), here too
native Mounted Police (nMP) that formed in 1842, which colonisation was severely detrimental to the lives of
were given instructions to disperse Aboriginal people to Aboriginal people. As the interior became more settled,
ensure colonial advancement (reynolds 1991: 15). more clandestine episodes of violence occurred: for settlers
Of further note in the history of colonial frontier violence who were a long way from Adelaide and often well beyond
in nSW (and to which we refer later) was the Myall Creek the range of police and other government officials,
massacre, also in 1838. this massacre involved a group of utilitarian concerns prevailed (foster et al. 2001: 5). A
stockmen who rode into a pastoral station and killed most of demonstration of the extent of violence in this free
the Aboriginal inhabitants (Barber 1993; Connor 2002; settlement where convicts and military personnel did not
elder 2003; rowley 1972). Word of the killings soon form the basis of the population is clear when examining
became common knowledge and the action eventuated in a the effects of settlement on the ngarrindjeri, the traditional
trial in which seven of the eleven stockmen involved were Owners of the lower reaches of the Murray river and
found guilty of murder and hanged on 18 December 1838 Coorong region. In 1836 it was estimated there were 3000
(reece 1974:140, R v Douglass, R v Kilmeister). this repre- ngarrindjeri (Jenkin 1979); by 1875 only ca 100 remained
sented the first killing of Aboriginal people whereupon the (taplin 1879). And while some of the deaths were
perpetrators were punished, ultimately resulting in the attributable to the effects of disease (Campbell 2002), at
emergence of more clandestine rather than overt acts of least a portion were the result of deliberate violence by
frontier violence against Aboriginal people. settlers (foster et al. 2001).
Settlement in the southeast soon encroached beyond Owing to slower rates of settlement and increased
nSW towards the new colonies of Victoria in the south remoteness from the southeastern hub, Western Australia
(with an initial settlement in 1803 being abandoned before (WA; with an initial settlement at King George Sound in
successful official resettlement in 1834) and Queensland 1826 followed by a settlement at the Swan river later to
(QLD) to the north (where settlement commenced from become the capital Perth in 1829) and the northern
1825 with official separation from nSW in 1859). While the territory (nt; settled initially in 1825 as part of nSW but
former witnessed conflict associated with pastoralism administered by SA from 18631911) saw conflict continue
similar to that experienced in nSW (Critchett 1990: 28-9), later in time than in the other Australian colonies and states.
the latter experienced pressure from the expansion of Collisions in the nt and northern WA related largely to the
additional industries including mining and fisheries (Loos expanding pastoral industry (roberts 2005: 1-23). In the
1993: 11). As had been the case in nSW, the nMP were also south, clearance and farming of substantive tracts of
adopted in QLD, an event which rowley (1972: 39) Aboriginal land were the main sources of conflict where, for
considered to be the final bankruptcy of frontier policy. example, the 1834 Battle of Pinjarra saw the killing of
the actions of the QLD-based nMP are sufficiently between 15 and 80 nyungar people, though Aboriginal
recorded in newspapers and archives (even excluding accounts suggest the victim count was in the hundreds
instances of clerical errors or exaggeration) to confirm them (Connor 2002: 76-83; reynolds 1987). In WA and the nt
as one of the major causes of violent Indigenous deaths in the more recent occurrence of conflict has sometimes
colonial Queensland (richards 2008: 207). resulted in relatively better historical records of such events,
tasmania was settled as a penal colony in 1804 and the as well as increasingly convincing oral testimony. for
frontier conflict that ensued in this state is amongst the most instance, the forrest river massacre of 1926 (fitzgerald
widely acknowledged by historians (e.g. ryan 1981; cf 1984; Green 1995) and the Coniston Station massacre of
Windschuttle 2002). A notable occurrence here was the 1928 (Cribbin 1984) were both punitive expeditions that
1804 massacre at the risdon Cove settlement, involving the were later subjects of legal inquiry and as a result generated
death of between probably two and 50 members of an large bodies of related archival material. Like the massacre
Aboriginal hunting party at the hands of settlers and at Wounded Knee in north America, the Coniston Station
soldiers. this event arguably set the scene for how massacre is generally regarded as marking the closing of
participants of that state subsequently viewed each other the Australian frontier.
(see tardiff 2003). By 1835, after George Augustus As illustrated, the nature and timing of frontier violence
robinson had travelled tasmania trying to locate surviving varied across Australia, though certain general patterns to
Aboriginal people to remove them to settlements on the interaction can be discerned, following elkin (1951). He
offshore islands, it was estimated that of at least 4000 considered that initial encounters, typically with explorers,
(probably many more) inhabitants at the time of British were part of a transition phase marked by observation and

careful contact, with the underlying assumption on the part Locations of massacres
of Indigenous parties that the newcomers are temporary
the locations where massacres were perpetrated will have
sojourners only (elkin 1951: 166-7). Yet there were
an important impact not only on what physically survives,
exceptions. for example, frederick Walkers exploration
but also whether such sites are able to be relocated.
party of 1861 (in search of the ill-fated Burke and Wills
Massacres were generally staged on the more isolated
expedition) encountered a group of approximately 30
boundaries of the frontier rather than in the immediate
Aboriginal men in the vicinity of the Stawell river who
vicinity of settlements where there were larger congrega-
were fired on, the result being that twelve were killed, and
tions of settlers (though there are some exceptions, such
few if any escaped unwounded the gins [sic] and
as at risdon Cove). the reasons for this patterning are
children had been left camped on the river and as there was
multiple, though not difficult to understand. As settlements
no water there our possession of the spring was no doubt the
grew in size and Aboriginal populations in their immediate
cause of the war (Walker, 31 October 1861). Likewise, the
vicinity declined (through deliberate killing, death by
establishment of the Canning Stock route saw violent
disease or through the tactical retreat of Aboriginal people to
clashes causing deaths on both sides, resulting in a royal
safer country beyond the frontier), the possibility of
Commission being held to scrutinize the treatment of
hostilities occurring in close proximity to townships became
Aboriginal people by exploration party members (Bianchi et
slimmer. furthermore, after the Myall Creek massacre, the
al. 2010). When it became clear to Indigenous people that
increased risks of violence against Aboriginal people being
the visitors and those following in their wake intended to
witnessed and reported (either in verbal or written form)
remain, clashes over resources became commonplace, with
served to minimise the possibility that indiscriminate
Indigenous people beginning to offer overt and determined
resistance (elkin 1951: 167; see also Loos 1982: 35). killings would occur in locations with high non-Indigenous
Settlers, the police and sometimes even the military were populations. In several settlements local authorities
responsible for killing Indigenous people, who would then prominently displayed pictographs illustrating that such
sometimes engage in retributive actions, though in some violence would not be tolerated, and while it is doubtful
cases the killings were initiated by the latter in response to such measures prevented violence per se, they did have the
some misunderstood transgression by the intruders. effect of pushing it beyond the official administrative,
policing and judicial system of the settlements to the less
regulated frontiers (Broome 2003).
The archaeological signatures of frontier massacres the remote location of many massacres not only reduced
the likelihood of eye-witnesses, but also increased
A review of the literature makes it apparent that substantially the time that might elapse between the event
archaeologists have only recently become engaged in itself and the possible discovery of the crime scene, either
debates about Australian frontier conflict (eg Anderson by contemporaries or modern archaeologists. It is still the
2005; free and Markwell 2005; Harkins 2009; Litster 2006; case that much of northern Australia, whose main industry
McKewin 2006; rowland 2004). As shown in figure 1, continues to be pastoralism, remains isolated and remote
there have been investigations at the massacre sites of even today. Such landscapes are typically not well named,
Panton river (Smith et al. 2005), the Woolgar river (Wallis traversed or even known by more than a handful of non-
et al. 2005) and Irvinebank (Genever 1996)1, the latter being Indigenous people, and thus relocating specific locations
the only published case thus far to definitively suggest the within them, at which massacres occurred decades ago, is
location of a massacre based on the survival of physical challenging, a point made by Barker (2007: 9). However,
archaeological evidence. In addition to these accounts, there exceptions are likely to exist in specific cases where there
are speculated to exist considerable materials in the form of was either (a) some form of documented investigation of the
unpublished documents and oral histories which are not event soon after its occurrence, or (b) where strong oral
easily accessed, though are often referred to in heritage testimony by people (usually but not always Indigenous)
register listings of massacre events, as is the case with the with an intricate awareness of the landscape has survived.
Myall Creek massacre (DeWHA 2010). In the remainder of Support for the existence of such exceptions is offered by
this paper we explore why massacre sites are not more the Irvinebank massacre. In October 1884 a detachment of
common given the ubiquitous violence on the Australian nMP officers allegedly killed several Aboriginal people
frontier (Clarke 1995: ix), considering various factors that near the mining town of Irvinebank. Local residents visited
will affect their likely archaeological preservation the crime scene within a day or two of the killing, and
including: the location of such events; the relative number subsequently reported the event to Police Magistrate
of victims and the spatial nature of the events; who the Mowbray who investigated (Genever 1996). Mowbray and
perpetrators were and the mode of killing they adopted; and the Government Medical Officer visited the site where they
finally the treatment of victims after death. found burned bones, though they were so badly burned that
the doctor was unable to state categorically whether or not
1. Informal communication of the location of other massacre they were human (Genever 1996: 9). the survival of a map
site investigations by archaeologists has also been made, but drawn in 1884 showing the location of the killing, along
at the request of the investigating researchers details cannot with the detailed inquest documentation, enabled the site to
be included in this paper. be relocated in 1996, at which time ash and charcoal still

remained on the ground surface, along with several Snyder We can consider this with specific reference to the
cartridges, pieces of lead bullets, buttons, tins, billy cans and general nature of massacres in Australia, as summarised in
other items (see also sections below on Specific Mode of table 1. We stress that even though we refer to numbers of
Killing Adopted and treatment of Victims after Death). victims in table 1, as rowland (2004) discussed, we are not
the rufus river massacre (nettelbeck 1999) is another attempting to invalidate the emotional weight of the
event where the comparatively substantial documentation individual killings themselves. Our use of numbers of
(see Perpetrators of Massacres and Specific Modes of victims is only in order to illustrate the nature of such sites
Killing Adopted below) affords the strong opportunity for in Australia and the potential difficulty in archaeologically
archaeological detection. While we are not suggesting that locating such sites when the numbers of victims are low. As
archaeological evidence will exist in all or even most cases, illustrated, massacre events with high victim counts and a
the Irvinebank case study does demonstrate that in some high density of skeletal and ordnance evidence (see the
situations it will be possible for archaeological evidence of following section) will have the most potential for
killings to be relocated, even when more than a century has archaeological discovery and investigation. this is perhaps
passed. Indeed, the isolation and remoteness that served to one reason why archaeologists have had success in north
make massacres on the frontier less likely to be detected America in investigating the massacres of American
after they occurred, may also have served to protect such Indians, where massacres often occurred as large military
locations from destruction by modern development. skirmishes with victims numbering in excess of 200 (see
nPS 2000a and 2000b for examples). In the Australian
Relative number of victims and the spatial distribution context, although there are some well-known incidences
of events where large numbers of Indigenous people were killed, such
as the Battle of Pinjarra (see Cribbin 1984; Green 1995),
related to the general location of massacres, another
many massacre events were staged as punitive expeditions,
concern related to the potential archaeological evidence of
which involved killing small numbers of individuals,
these events is the relative number of victims and the spatial
sometimes over large distances [in what Barker (2007: 10)
distribution of events. In response to criticism from Wind-
called opportunistic hit-and-run attacks]; hence their
schuttle (2000a, 2000b, 2002), Broome (2003) attempted to
chance of incorporation into the archaeological record is
reconcile the differing statistics relating to the numbers of
low. further, the archaeology of such small-scale, short-
victims of frontier conflict, noting that historians before him
lived events is also strongly affected by the treatment of
had offered estimates ranging from 1500 european deaths to
victims after death (see below).
ca 20,000 Aboriginal deaths Australia wide (Broome 2003:
96). While he acknowledged these figures as guesstimates
Perpetrators of massacres and specific modes of killing
only and that any frontier violence statistics are certain to
be inaccurate, on the balance of available evidence they
(and other such figures for specific regions) are certainly not Massacres were perpetrated by a variety of people including
the fabrications alleged by Windschuttle; archaeology may pastoralists, farmers, miners and other civilians; in short, by
offer one independent means of verifying the disputed people (generally men) whose livelihoods required them to
numbers of victims in some instances. And though we will reside at the frontier and who therefore were most likely to
never know how many people were killed on the frontier, a come into contact with Indigenous people. And the
very important consideration associated with the environment of fear in which they lived cannot be under-
archaeological investigation of massacres will be the estimated: the frontier was the stage on which settlers
relative number of victims and the spatial nature of killings. regularly faced what would have largely been an extremely
As with most archaeological site types, where evidence is foreign and threatening environment. this truth is clear
clustered in a discrete location, as opposed to thinly spread in historical sources (see, for example, Allingham 1988:
over a greater expanse, and the greater the abundance of that 130-1; eden 1872; fysh 1933; Hill 1907: 30-1), to such an
evidence, the greater the likelihood for preservation, extent that at times entire townships may have been
survival, detectability and recovery. abandoned through fear of Aboriginal attack (eg Gilberton

Relative number Spatial distribution Frequency of Example Relative likelihood of

of victims of the event such events of archaeological recovery
Medium to High Dispersed (i.e. over a large area) Uncommon Coniston Station Massacre, Moderate
forrest river Massacre
Medium to High Contained (i.e. over a small area) Uncommon Battle of Pinjarra, High
Waterloo Creek Massacre
Low to Medium Contained (i.e. over a small area) Common Moderate
Low to Medium Dispersed (i.e. over a large area) Common Low

table 1. Likelihood of relocating certain types of massacre events, based upon two variables: the victim count
and the spatial distribution of the event.

in north QLD; see reynolds 1993: 52). further evidence men a few years earlier) was a fortified stone building ill-
that points to the apprehension of settlers can be seen in the suited to the tropical climate, but a necessary defensive
archaeological record in the form of civilian architecture. response to repeated attacks from local Aboriginal people
for example, Grguric (2008, 2010) documented the (Wallis unpublished data). Likewise, rainworth fort is
presence of defensive, fortified structures in colonial SA and another example of mud and basalt blocks with rifle
the nt, arguing such structures were testimony to the fear embrasures cut into the walls, built shortly after the Cullin
and need felt by settlers for defence on the frontier (see also la ringo massacre (with 19 victims making it the largest
Burns 2009). killing of settlers by Aboriginals in Australian history and
With specific regard to north QLD, where frontier which was followed by massive retribution; for further
violence is widely acknowledged to have been especially details see elder 2003). Visual depictions of violent
brutal, Breslin (1992: 6) pointed out that settlers brought confrontations between settlers and Indigenous people by
with them the same ideas and attitudes which had given colonial artists fed the anxiety settlers felt about the frontier
birth to violence and dispossession in the southern (e.g. figure 2), contributing to the general sense that
colonies. Charles eden (1872: 40-1) illustrated this point settlement at the colonial boundaries quite literally meant
when he recounted his familys journey to a remote station putting ones life on the line. Hence, it is clear that many
in 1864: perpetrators were psychologically vulnerable.
We slept as only tired men do, and at daylight Arthur Other than civilians, in many parts of Australia there
started for Mount McDonnell, to get fresh horses, his last were also military or paramilitary groups who perpetrated
words being Look out for blacks, and dont leave Lucy. killings of Aboriginal people. these included the Mounted
I had not yet had any experience about the blacks and did
not know or think much about them, so asked him, What Police force responsible for the massacre at Waterloo
shall I do if they do come?. Shoot them, of course. Creek (Cunneen 2001: 54) and more infamously the nMP
Good-bye, old fellow! and away he rode. I then began to of nSW and later QLD (Anon. 1880; Haydon 1911: 304,
think of my position, which was far from an enviable one, 370-1; Kennedy 1902; Loos 1982; reynolds 1982, 1991;
with my wife and child; and ... I unable to move twenty richards 2008; Skinner 1975; Whittington 1964-65). While
yards away for fear of blacks attacking them.
there has been debate about the level of government
One of the earliest homesteads along the Stawell river knowledge of, and therefore accountability for, such events,
(near where Walkers party had killed numerous Aboriginal both recent and older accounts make clear that dispersals

figure 2. Conflict between settlers and Indigenous people in tasmania. [Attack on a settlers hut. Possibly by James
Bonwick. rex nan Kivell Collection: nK1300. Published with permission of the national Library of Australia.]

(a euphemism for killing) were part of the core business of specific ordnance supplies will not have been used, thereby
the nMP in particular (richards 2008: 15), though making it difficult to unequivocally remark about a site
documentary evidence of such actions were typically based on the discovery of a particular type of bullet casing.
minimal. In contrast, in north America massacres were a It is expected that this will frequently be the case as many
routine and open part of government military campaigns. As perpetrators are unlikely to be linked to specific ordnance,
a consequence they were often officially and extensively although it does not rule out locating or identifying sites
documented, thereby providing archaeologists with an based on alternative lines of evidence. further, as much of
improved chance of relocating their locations through the ordnance issued to the nMP was also available to the
linking information presented in archival sources with field- civilian population, evidence for its presence in a particular
based research. location may do little more than merely indicate that guns
Who the perpetrators were has clear implications for the were involved. However, richards (2008: 54-56)
methods they used to carry out killings, and therefore for the considered the question: Did the frontier, as some
type of evidence we could expect to find preserved historians contend [e.g. reynolds 1993: 52], bristle with
archaeologically. reviewing what is known of violence on guns?, concluding that most frontier residents were armed,
the Australian frontier, the main categories of killing but rifles, revolvers and other firearms were infrequently
methods include firearm injury, poisoning, and to a lesser mentioned in the historical material until the 1870s. It is
degree stabbing or bayoneting, and blunt force trauma. also important to point out that in pastoral areas in particular
Potential evidence resulting from these types of killings it is not uncommon to regularly locate bullet casings ejected
likely to remain at the attack scene are either consumable onto the ground surface from pastoral, sport and hunting
components of the instruments utilised (e.g. bullets or bullet activities. In such instances, the contextual association of
casings), as weapons themselves are unlikely to have been bullet casings with other lines of evidence, such as skeletal
discarded, or skeletal remains from the victims. remains, is critical if they are to be confidently linked to
massacre events.
Ordnance and weaponry
the presence of particular types of ordnance supplied to Skeletal remains
militant-type groups such as the nMP gives rise to the Despite popular television programs suggesting otherwise,
potential for definitive artefacts to be located. By the cause of death can be difficult to determine from the
definitive artefact we mean one that is tied historically to a analysis of skeletal remains alone, since death typically
situation, and is quite specific to that particular engagement involves trauma to soft rather than hard tissues (Byers 2002:
an excellent example can be derived from the relocation of 257; roberts 1996: 129). thus, if a victim suffered shooting,
the Sand Creek Massacre site in Colorado. Here the location stabbing or blunt force trauma, the impact needs to have
was pinpointed archaeologically primarily through the intercepted bone to be apparent in their skeletal remains.
recovery of a specific type of howitzer shell fragment (nPS Harkins (2009: 10-17) makes clear how uncommon it is for
2000a, 2000b); the Sand Creek battle was the only evidence of violent death to occur in the Australian
engagement in Colorado history to utilise such weaponry, Indigenous archaeological record in the pre-contact period
thus its presence in the archaeological record indicated a (though see McDonald et al. 2007: 877 and Knuckey 1991),
definitive location for the event. While the Australian thus suggesting the presence of such evidence in the
context does not lend itself so easily to such interpretations, historical period might reasonably be attributed to non-
there may still be instances where the knowledge of Indigenous perpetrators (or Indigenous nMP acting as
weaponry may prove valuable. for example, until 1861 the agents of non-Indigenous parties).
QLD nMP were issued with muzzle loading carbines, after even if bones with impact trauma are recovered, tying
which they used terry breech-loading rifles, until 1874 the death to a specific perpetrator can be challenging. As
when they were issued with highly lethal Snyder rifles richard Wright noted during his work on the Polyukhovich
capable of killing many people quickly at great distances; v Commonwealth War Crimes trial, where the archae-
the latter remained the primary weapon for the following ological evidence was extensive, while it was possible to
decades (richards 2008: 55-6). In 1884 Martini-Henry rifles determine cause of death it was not possible to legally
were issued to the ordinary police, and richards (2008: 56) determine who was responsible based on that archaeological
noted that many of these deadly weapons also found their evidence (Wright 1995). the answer as to whether or not
way into nMP corps. While weapons on the frontier, skeletal remains with evidence for violence definitively
amongst the civilian population in particular, may have had relate to a massacre event will almost certainly require the
a long use life, being able to identify the type of weaponry presence of supporting historical accounts or other
used by the nMP at a specific time may help to build a case corroborating lines of evidence.
for their involvement in an incident. An archaeological case However, the presence of skeletal remains showing
in point involves the aforementioned Irvinebank massacre evidence of gunshot trauma in Australian Indigenous
investigation, whereby Snyder cartridge cases, which can be skeletal remains would point strongly to either non-
aligned to the nMP at that time, were key to convincingly Indigenous perpetrators or Indigenous members of the
confirming the original site location. nMP, primarily since few Indigenous people had access to
nonetheless, there will be many instances whereby such weaponry. rev. JB Gribble was told that a settler at

roebourne had been shown by local Aboriginal people 15 that settlers might be punished through the court system,
skulls of people shot dead during the 1868 flying foam there was greater impetus especially for civilians though
massacre, including two of children with bullet holes in less so for the nMP to destroy any evidence of killings
them (Gribble 1905; see also Gara 1983, 1993). Likewise, having occurred. Burial of victims was one obvious option
rowland (2004) convincingly described a case related to the for disposing of the evidence, sometimes in mass graves:
alleged massacre of between seven and eight Woppaburra I found a grave into which about 20 [Indigenous
men from the Keppel Islands in which one skull had entry people] must have been thrown. A settler taking up a new
and exit wounds from a low-velocity bullet (see also Pardoe country is obliged to act towards them in this manner or
and Donlon 1991). this information, when combined with abandon it. (Black as cited in Kiddle 1962:121)
that from available historic accounts, illustrates how a
the larger the grave, the greater the possibility of it being
compelling case for a massacre must rely on escalating lines
detected using such techniques as remote sensing,
of evidence that in combination form a plausible case,
geophysical prospection or geochemistry. While the latter
though it might not be legally acceptable.
method is technologically possible, the fact that many
Another reputedly common form of killing on the
massacres were perpetrated on the pastoral and agricultural
frontier, particularly after the Myall Creek massacre, was
frontiers may cause difficulties when trying to use raised
poisoning. Pastoralists on the frontier routinely faced the
phosphate levels as an indicator of mass burial or corpse
prospect of their provisions being stolen when they were
decomposition (Holliday and Gartner 2007). this is because
absent from homesteads. One response was to lace flour
any geochemical signature may be affected by the presence
with arsenic or strychnine in the hope that the death of the
of fertilizers (to improve soil productivity), which could
thieves would not only prevent them from re-offending, but
mimic or mask increased phosphorous levels due to the
that others would learn a lesson (foster et al. 2001: 82).
presence of burials (Cavanagh et al. 1988: 67).
the likelihood of any evidence for death by poisoning
If graves are located one needs to then ascertain whether
appearing in the archaeological record is minimal, as the
they were of victims of a massacre since, as discussed
soft tissue remains of the victims generally have to be well
above, the mode of killing might not be immediately
preserved for the evidence to survive. further, arsenic
apparent. However, even without necessarily locating
requires long term exposure to be incorporated into hair and
ordnance or other evidence of violent trauma as the cause of
nail tissue (Mays 1988). In the Australian context, human
death, the discovery of mass graves of Aboriginal people
remains from frontier conflict events will almost exclusively
itself in remote locations would be highly suspicious. there
be skeletonised and sometimes preserved owing to the ever-
are some accounts of disease causing the deaths of large
fluctuating environmental conditions. evidence for
numbers of Aboriginal people however they may not always
poisoning as the particular cause of death of victims is
have been subject to burial. In Sydney for example, dozens
therefore unlikely to be witnessed in any remains located
of bodies of Aboriginal people were observed laying
through archaeological investigation.
around following smallpox and other epidemics (Campbell
2002), presumably because of either a lack of kin to claim
Treatment of victims after death
and care for the bodies, or fear that anyone handling the
A further factor affecting the archaeological record of bodies would also meet their death. the number and
massacres is the manner in which victims remains were patterning of the skeletal remains within any multiple graves
treated: in essence, the natural and cultural site formation could also be informative as to their origin. Victims of
processes (Schiffer 1987). If victims were not buried soon violence might be expectedly to be interred in a haphazard
after death, natural processes including scavenging would fashion (as implied by the term thrown in the earlier quote)
cause their bodies to be quickly disarticulated and scattered with little care taken.
across the landscape. While such processes are an important Another element of the treatment of victims after death is
consideration in any archaeological investigation, rather whether Indigenous people interred victims traditionally.
than exploring them further here, in this section we instead richards (1999), Green (1995: 135) and roberts (2005:
focus on cultural transformation processes more specific to 200) all recount instances where the bodies of victims were
frontier massacres, including burial, in mass or singular recovered and subjected to culturally appropriate burial rites
graves, attempts at destruction of evidence (such as by their kin, suggesting this may have been common (see
burning), and traditional ceremonial funerary practices. also Oxenham et al. 2008). If this is the case, not only will
these processes can alter the predicted evidence and any the evidence of any massacre be limited, because it will no
subsequent interpretation of recovered skeletal material, but longer be in situ at the location of the murder, but the bodies
also will require changes in approach to the investigation of will appear to be traditionally interred; unless evidence for
such events. non-Indigenous trauma can be found on the bones or strong
As noted earlier, the Myall Creek massacre represented a oral testimony exists, identifying them as massacre victims
major turning point in frontier conflict, and particularly the will be near impossible. nevertheless, like with all the cases
treatment of victims after death. the subsequent punishment studies presented in this discussion, how complicated this
of the perpetrators resulted in a more covert form of makes the record will be very case-specific. furthermore, it
violence being adopted on the frontier, with greater attempts is strongly likely that survivors, after witnessing such
to dispose of incriminating evidence. Since it was now clear violence, may not have had the opportunity to recover the

bodies of victims through fear of encountering a similar fate. attempt as they could ultimately fail, because even if
And in some places there simply may not have been evidence is found, it is unlikely to be of the kind that will be
sufficient numbers of survivors to provide the appropriate unequivocal, we argue it is important to make explicit the
death rites. complexities of such approaches to avoid their subsequent
the issue of post-mortem treatment of victims is further misuse by deniers. By critically examining available
complicated by the possibility that skeletal remains might be historical accounts in combination with a consideration of
handled decades after death. for instance, Colin Pardoe taphonomic process, we can better understand what physical
(pers. comm. 24 March 2006) described a situation where evidence is likely to be incorporated into the archaeological
young non-Indigenous men used old Aboriginal skulls for record and therefore minimise the risk that revisionists will
target practice. On first examination such skulls might be make uninformed use of such studies.
interpreted as clear evidence for death by shooting, though those massacres with the greatest chance of being
a specialist should easily discern the difference between a preserved and/or detected archaeologically will be those
peri- or post-mortem injury. which:
While burial was one option available to perpetrators so involved more rather than fewer victims, killed in a
as to minimise their risk of exposure, they may have been relatively spatially constrained area, owing to the
disinclined to exert the necessary physical labour required consequentially larger concentration of associated
for such an undertaking and, in very remote locations where material culture and skeletal remains;
outsiders were unlikely to stumble across the evidence,
used death by shooting, stabbing or blunt force trauma as
burial still might not have occurred. furthermore, the racist
the mode of killing as these are more likely to have
views of some settlers with regard to the non-humanity of
caused physical impact to skeletal remains;
their victims meant they may have not felt it was
appropriate or necessary to afford Aboriginal people the included attempts by the perpetrators to cover up the
same treatment in death as they would their Christian crime scene such as through burial or burning, thereby
counterparts. In preference to burial, the burning of reducing the possibility of victims remains being
Aboriginal bodies, a less labour intensive though more disarticulated and widely scattered over the ground
callous practice as it was not being practiced as a surface and increasing the chances of their being
culturally acceptable ritual by kin, but by perpetrators who preserved;
were simply cleaning up with no regard for cultural norms involved military or other government personnel because
appears from various historical accounts to have been of the increased level of documentation associated with
common (e.g. Bohemia and McGregor 1992; elder 2003; their activities (even if it does not specifically detail
Genever 1996; roberts 2005; Smith 2007). Such an killings themselves);
approach to destroying the evidence has several
were subject to some form of inquiry soon after their
archaeological implications. Human bones are typically not
occurrence, on account of this providing the
fully destroyed by heating and, ironically, cremated bone
contemporary researcher with a greater level of primary
survives better in sedimentary contexts than does unburnt
source material about the events and landscape in which
bone (Hunter and Martin 1996: 96; Mays 1998: 207-8).
they occurred;
Hence, while burning reduces the quantity of skeletal
evidence, it also increases the possibility of any remaining occurred either (a) prior to 1838 when perpetrators were
bone surviving archaeologically. for example, concen- unlikely to have been punished for their crimes and
trations of burnt bone are known to occur at the alleged therefore knowledge of killings were more widely known
locations of the Panton (Smith 2007) and forrest river and documented, or (b) in the twentieth century (and
(elder 2003; fitzgerald 1984; Green 1995) massacres and therefore by inference most likely in northern Australia)
were also found at Irvinebank (Genever 1996). However, owing to the greater chance of massacre survivors or their
despite its potential for survival archaeologically, the ability direct descendants still being alive and able to provide
to determine the origin (human or non-human) of the bone oral testimony to the location and nature of events, as
that has been calcified is very difficult (Mays 1998: 209-16; well as the shorter period of time that has elapsed since
Whyte 2001: 437). their occurrence; and,
are in remote areas lacking extensive modern
development, of which local people (either Indigenous or
Conclusion non-Indigenous) have a excellent knowledge of the local
physical landscape.
As the above material illustrates, building a case for the
identification of a massacre site will be challenging and It should be remembered that because of the factors we
require multiple lines of evidence so as to be convincing. have outlined in this paper, massacre events are unlikely to
the general paucity of published information hinders be found through random chance, and archaeological
attempts to systematically review archaeological investi- evidence alone is unlikely to provide a line of evidence
gations of massacre sites to date. And although Barker sufficiently robust to silence critics who doubt the
(2007: 12) has suggested that such studies are too risky to ubiquitous nature of such violence. We underline the

importance in presenting a case adopting multiple lines of incorporated into the record and acknowledging their
evidentiary support a hierarchy of documentary sources, potentially restricted archaeological signature in Australia,
oral histories, material cultural evidence and skeletal in contrast with the situation in north America. Moreover,
remains themselves that may allow for a massacre location the number of variables contributing to the incorporation of
to be determined at a possible, probable or highly likely these events into the archaeological record is large, and
level. Providing a detailed understanding of why evidence clearly does not afford a clear, singular model of approach
of a forensically acceptable level is unlikely to be preserved for archaeological investigations. nonetheless, with an
archaeologically may persuade some critics to accept a acknowledgment of this, such investigations do not run the
lower threshold for evidence of a massacre than would be risk of potentially refuting that frontier massacres occurred,
required in a contemporary legal setting. Of course there and in fact, are increasingly being pursued at the request of
will be many instances where the archaeological evidence Aboriginal organisations. When handled systematically,
may be lacking entirely, though given an understanding of ethically and sensitively, with the approval and involvement
site formation processes as we have outlined in this paper, of the local Aboriginal community, they have the potential
any such absences of evidence cannot be taken as support to provide a valuable light on this disputed and controversial
for proving a massacre did not occur. aspect of Australias colonial history.
Interestingly, some archaeologists have more recently
entered into a discussion over whether or not genocidal
moments are marked by archaeological silences in Acknowledgements
Australia. Harkins (2009) has argued that an absence of
evidence of post-contact materials in fact might be this paper emerged from research partially completed for
indicative of the near-total decimation of Aboriginal groups the Honours thesis The Potential Contribution of
in some regions. this concept of a lack of evidence in Archaeology to Australian Frontier Conflict (Litster 2006)
studies of Australian frontier conflict was pre-empted and at flinders University, and also through informal
supported linguistically by Harris (2003: 92) who remarked discussions with numerous colleagues about the topic.
that languages decline for a variety of reasons but sudden Wallis would like to gratefully acknowledge the financial
and catastrophic loss of languages as seen throughout support offered to her and the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal
Australia is typically related to aggression. He described Corporation in their studies of the Woolgar massacre of
the marked extinction and sudden decline in several 1881 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and torres
Indigenous languages including those of tasmania, as well Strait Islander Studies. We would like to thank the
as Kwaimbal (nSW), Kurnai (Vic) and Yeeman (QLD) archaeologists and anthropologists who offered their expert
suggesting that these languages died as suddenly as did their advise and guidance on the honours topic including: Shane
speakers. furthermore, he proposed that when Indigenous Baker, Shaun Canning, Denise Donlon, neale Draper, Mark
people took part in extended guerrilla warfare a gradual Dugay-Grist, Stephen free, Steve Hemming, Colin Pardoe,
rather than sudden loss of language would occur, such as Douglas Scott, Claire Smith, Pamela Smith and Larry
was witnessed in the slower disappearance of the Wakay Zimmerman. thanks also to Luke Godwin, Alice Gorman
(nt) language (Harris 2003: 92). the relevance of an and Peter Veth for commenting on an early version of this
absence of evidence, with an understanding of how difficult paper, as well as to an anonymous reviewer and Peter White.
it will be to both distinguish and to relocate archaeological
evidence, cannot be ignored and in fact adds an extra
dimension to studies of frontier violence in Australia. References
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