Thesis abstract

22nd November 2013

Di Smith

BArch(Hons), Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide, 1995

Three research projects were completed in 1995 to fulfil the thesis requirement for Archaeology Honours at Flinders University. Unified by a discourse on women missionaries, the thesis topics were developed through a study of artefact assemblages and mission sites inspired by the personal diaries and artefact collections of an Australian lay missionary, Edith Safstrom (b. 1889–d.1973). Her record of the quotidian aspects of mission life provides a new perspective for the many existing historical accounts provided by male missionaries. From 1921 to 1942 Edith Safstrom served with the Melanesian Mission in the Solomon Islands, returning to Australia after evacuation from Guadalcanal.

‘Taking up the Collection’: A Missionary Assemblage from the Solomon Islands, 1921–1942

An assemblage of artefacts donated to the Museum of Victoria in 1949 by Edith Safstrom formed the basis for research conducted in this project. The missionary collection became a focal point for an analysis of indicators of cultural exchange. Such indicators were signified both overtly and subtly by material culture produced in the Solomon Islands during the first half of this century.

Over 118 artefacts were examined at the Museum of Victoria. The majority of artefacts in the Safstrom collection were identified as being of a personal or domestic nature such as necklaces and brooms. Edith’s diary entries revealed the range of objects made at the Bunana mission school.

Modes of reading the evidence presented by artefacts became a strong focus for analysis of the collection both as a whole and on an individual specimen basis. It is argued that artefacts that reflect or represent non-indigenous religious elements are primary examples of synergetic production. Conversely, Professor Nick Stanley (1989:116, 1994:36) used the term ‘syncretic compromise’ when referring to a chalice in the Sunderland collection as a ‘compromise between western Christian form and Melanesian decorative interpretation’. This would seem to imply a domination of cultural principles over the yielding principles of the other.

Two objects in the Safstrom collection, a church collection plate and a kneeler, may concur with Stanley’s definition to an extent, yet these appeared to represent a cooperated unification of form. A Pandanus umbrella in the collection also signified a merger of the two principles, i.e. where one does not dominate and override, but rather compliments the other principle in a reciprocal fashion. The resultant synergetic relationship mirrors the relationship the women missionaries enjoyed with their students at Bunana and the mission schools elsewhere. The mutual and continual exchange of gifts between the women infers a level of egalitarian principles rather than a culture engulfed by non-indigenous domination. By using the Safstrom collection to model the phenomena of alternative modes of reading, the significance of the dynamic levels of historical realities of material culture can be recognised.

Gendered Spaces–Mission Places: The Mission as Community

The mission site, whether abandoned or operational, represents the blending of appositional or different cultures. The significance of mission sites as points of cultural exchange and human interaction within culturally defined spaces, and hence, the physical manifestation of that activity as community was explored. Location and use of space on different mission sites was investigated in an attempt to deconstruct the image of the mission as a place dominated exclusively by white male European missionaries.

A case study focused on two mission sites developed by the Anglican church through the Melanesian Mission in the Solomon Islands and the Australian Board of Missions. Bunana, as it existed during the period from 1910 to 1959, is examined as a conceptually built environment reconstructed through the perspective of the Safstrom diaries, journals and comparative literature. The other mission site of Selwyn College at Maravovo, Guadalcanal, was built in 1992 and represents the modern day mission. Selwyn College allowed for a comparative analysis of spatial organisation and community over time.

At the ground level, the manifestation of cultural differentiation can be read from the physical design of the mission site. The semiology of the mission was then analysed by considering how the layout and function of the buildings and satellite features (areas that service the mission) converge to form the site as a whole.

The nascent development of missions in the realm of cultural heritage suggests that the study area provides a rich source of information about how the culture of others is colonised at a material and behavioural level. Throughout this process a contemporaneous imposition and assimilation of gendered spaces occurs within the community. Some gender differentiated areas were dictated by the mission, for example, seating arrangements in classrooms, others existed in traditional indigenous cultural lifeways, such as segregated sleeping houses, whilst emergent circumstances may have been responsible for the creation of newly defined areas. These processes were suggested by the conscious and the more subtle underlying policies and actions of mission administration, individual missionaries and people brought together at the mission.

‘Show him your Cross! Writing about Gender in Archaeology’

An interpretative literature review of approaches to writing about gender in archaeology was conducted in this thesis using a collection of ornamental crosses as the basis for a case study. Recent trends in literature tend to confront some traditionally ponderous archaeological texts as suggested by di Zerega Wall (1994). Presentations of archaeological practice and theory delivered in dull and clinical reports seem far removed from representing the people whose lives are supposedly captured in some way by the process of writing. It is suggested that the study of gender in archaeology has provided a means for revitalising the literary function of archaeology whilst also generating a forum for critical analysis and debate.

The title of the project evokes the gendered religiosity and socially constructed aspects of material culture produced on mission sites. A case study is developed around crosses identified as a singularly religious artefact type. Religious artefacts are set within the sacred and secular life experienced on Anglican missions in the Solomon Islands during the period from 1921 to 1942. The place of the cross in mission contexts is explored through an examination of of symbolic representation, archaeological significance, and the contemporary vantage point of Edith Safstrom. The relationship of the cross with archaeological and documented evidence for crosses in the repertoire of Melanesian material culture is closely linked. Finally, the cross is found to be a vital element in the symbolic construction of community in the context of an all female mission site.

It is argued that the proliferation of crosses from the study area characterise the cross as a structuring symbol of relationships between people on mission sites. The significance of writing about gender in archaeology lies in the way material culture is created and how artefacts are used to negotiate and delineate meaning. A theme of synergetic acculturation is argued as a vehicle for the development of a distinct social existence, manifested in material culture elements unique to missions. The distinction may be ascribed to the presence of non-Indigenous women and Melanesian women on mission sites in the Solomon Islands.


di Zerega Wall, D. 1994 The Archaeology of Gender: Separating the Spheres in Urban America. New York: Plenum Press.

Safstrom, E. Unpublished diaries and journals, 1921–1942, in possession of D. Smith.

Stanley, N. 1989 The unstable object: Reviewing the status of ethnographic artefacts. Journal of Design History 2:108–121.

Stanley, N. 1994 Recording island Melanesia: The significance of the Melanesian Mission in museum records. Pacific Arts : July:25–41.

Smith, D.
Thesis abstract
December 2000
Thesis Abstracts
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