Obituary: Margaret Felstead Nobbs (1925-2014).

23rd December 2015

By David Mott and Chris Nobbs

Margaret Felstead Nobbs (nee Marshman) was born in Adelaide on 10 November 1925.

Margaret went to school at the Methodist Ladies College (now Annesley College) in Wayville, opposite the Adelaide Parklands. She matriculated in 1942. The same year brought tragedy to the Marshman family, when her brother John was killed in the Battle of Britain.

Margaret was an active teenager, playing many sports and notably playing hockey at State level. Margaret began studying physiotherapy in the mid-1940s and then studied medicine for two years at Adelaide University.

Margaret met Jack Nobbs (deceased) and on 3 February 1951 they were married. They lived in Woodford Wells, north London, UK, for the first two years of marriage, where they had two sons: John and Tony. Margaret and Jack enjoyed London and this is where she developed a love for archaeology. Indeed, Margaret and Jack both shared a passion for natural history and the environment that was to set the scene for a long life together exploring and enjoying the great outdoors.

In the early 1950s Margaret, Jack and the boys returned to Adelaide. They built a home in Hazelwood Park, where they had two daughters: Jackie and Sally. For ten years Margaret worked as a physiotherapist and in the early 1970s she became heavily involved in the Field Naturalists Society of South Australia (SA) and the Anthropological Society of SA.

Margaret’s continuing interest in the natural world, and particularly archaeology, led her to undertake a Master’s Degree at Flinders University examining Aboriginal rock art of the Olary Province. Professor Vincent Megaw remembers her fondly, saying, “Margaret was my first MA student at Flinders and before that, in their Sydney days, Jack carried out analytical work for me on a number of British Bronze Age artefacts in Australian collections”. Since her passing, other ex-students and lecturers have also reflected on her passion, dedication and enthusiasm that was so heartening to all those interested in Aboriginal rock art. She inspired many in the field of archaeology.

Her early days in the Olary Province, SA, were spent with the mineralogist J.E. Johnson, who was also interested in Aboriginal culture, but it was his drawings of rock art sites in which the art was no longer clearly discernible that impressed her. Margaret’s analysis and records of the petroglyphs engraved in the outcrops of dolomitic siltstones by Aboriginal people in the region confirmed their long habitation and the antiquity of their art. This was of particular interest to Margaret and she determined that the petroglyphs were made by Aboriginal people in the distant past. Margaret’s records and her analysis of the engravings located on dolomitic siltstone pavements and outcrops of rocks at Karolta were significant. These engravings were extensive and included tracks, lines, circles and complex linear motifs, but it was the existence of desert varnish which formed on the skin of the rocks and in the engravings that captured her interest. Margaret surmised that the desert varnish which formed in layers could be used to determine the age of the petroglyphs. A technique known as cation ratio (CR) dating was used by Ron Dorn in collaboration with Margaret and T.A. Cahill at Karolta, in an attempt to date the distinctive coating of desert varnish in the petroglyphs. Alan Watchman, from the School of Anthropology and Archaeology, James Cook University, Townsville, cast a shadow of doubt over the fundamental assumptions of the method. He cited the unreliable dating of the formation of varnishes using cation-ratios as a problem, which was demonstrated by examples of environmental and textural observations reflecting localised leaching, and by chemical analyses that contradicted the fundamental assumptions of the method.1 Needless to say this was disappointing for all involved. Despite this conclusion, Margaret continued her research and documentation of the Olary rock art.

Margaret embarked on numerous field excursions in the Olary region in order to record rock art located primarily on private pastoral leases—quite often with family in tow who provided excellent free labour! Over the years she developed strong relationships with traditional owners, pastoralists and station managers, as well as university staff and students, amongst many others.

In 2004 Margaret’s beloved husband Jack passed away. Typically stoic, she immersed herself in her work, cataloguing and archiving her many decades of research. It was also time to move out of the family home and into smaller and more manageable accommodation in the adjoining suburb of Leabrook.

On 10 November 2014, in her 90th year, Margaret passed away peacefully at the Royal Adelaide Hospital with her family by her side. She remained happy to the end, showing her typical sense of humour, great warmth, kindness and dignity that she displayed throughout her life.

Margaret was a much loved mother to her children, a cherished wife to Jack and an adored grandmother to her grandsons. She was also simply an inspirational figure as an archaeologist and a great friend to many.

1 Watchman, A. 1999 A review of the history of dating rock varnishes. Earth-Science Reviews 49:261–277.

Mott, D. and C. Nobbs
Obituary: Margaret Felstead Nobbs (1925-2014).
December 2015
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