Review of ‘Catalogue of the Roth Collection and Aboriginal Artefacts from North Queensland’ by Kate Khan

09th January 2014

‘Catalogue of the Roth Collection and Aboriginal Artefacts from North Queensland’ by Kate Khan, 1993, Sydney: Technical Reports of the Australian Museum No 10. 205 pp. ISBN 0-7310-1170-1 (pbk)

Review by Paul Gorecki

For those of us working on early ethnographies or on the prehistory of north Queensland, the published material of Dr W.E. Roth has always been a prime source of reference. Between 1894 and 1897 Roth was a medical officer based in the remote townships of Boulia, Cloncurry and Normanton. This experience exposed him to the plight of Aboriginal people in the face of white settlement. Roth became fascinated by, and concerned with, the Aboriginal cultures he had the privilege to observe daily. This keen interest led him to be appointed ‘Protector of Aboriginals for the Northern District’ by the Queensland Government between 1898 and 1906. This position allowed Roth to travel more extensively, since his region of responsibility was vast, including the Rockhampton area, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the whole of Cape York.

Roth published a large number of papers, booklets and a book on his detailed observations of Aboriginal cultures. During all these years, Roth was a keen artefact collector as well. In 1905, he sold most of his collection to the Australian Museum. While his published work is well known to those interested in north Queensland, his artefact collection remained somewhat of a mystery to many. Kate Khan’s book is the first step towards making the collection available to the general public. It is ‘Volume I’ and we are told that ‘this is the first in a series of catalogues’ (p.2).

Khan’s book is an important contribution to our knowledge of the material culture of north Queensland some 100 years ago. In its introductory pages (pp.12-18), it clearly demonstrates that one of its major targets is the wider public, with an emphasis on Aboriginal communities who are interested in their heritage. It clearly explains what the Australian Museum is, what is its position towards Aboriginal people and objects, and how collections are handled. It also tell us what to do if one would like to know more about Roth, the Aboriginal cultures concerned, and the collection itself. The Australian Museum must be applauded for its position towards ownership and accessibility of Australian Aboriginal material culture. Kate Khan’s contribution in presenting the Roth collection in such fine detail is another evidence of what the Australian Museum can achieve.

Unfortunately what is unclear in this book is the format it follows and what will be the content of subsequent volumes (and how many of these will be produced). I guess Volume I follows the alphabetical order of localities where Roth collected artefacts and it includes the Archer River, Atherton, Bathurst Head (in Princess Charlotte Bay), the Bloomfield River and Butcher’s Hill near Cooktown. That is, it covers only 5 of the 43 localities listed (p.19). This may indicate that there are another 9 high quality volumes in the pipeline. Some of the artefacts collected in these areas are described in minute detail, sometimes backed by superb black and white photography. We know and see what we are reading about. The book certainly gives the reader a clear understanding of the material being discussed, and the information provided is cross-checked with Roth’s published data. While the Table of Content does not provide much information, the Index is, in contrast, of great value in handling the book’s content.

The book is certainly of interest to archaeologists working in tropical Australia, from coastal island zones to the semi-arid regions. It presents durable (e.g. stone axes and shell tools) and highly perishable (e.g. bone and plant derived implements) items which are, from time to time, recovered from excavated deposits or which are recorded in stencil forms on rockshelter walls. The lists of items presented in the catalogue is too long to repeat here, but it is important to note that it ranges from the mundane such as the ‘Pandanus Palm Armbands’ (p.112; although the Pandanus is not a palm) to the highly ceremonial such as the ‘Feather Head-dresses’ (p. 174).

I find it hard to provide a more substantive review since this is only the first volume of a larger collection. I await with interest the publication of the full collection for this. Nevertheless, it already emerges that this volume (and probably those that will follow) is a must to those interested in the material culture of north Australia. The Australian Museum and Kate Khan must be congratulated for this production.

Gorecki, P.
Review of 'Catalogue of the Roth Collection and Aboriginal Artefacts from North Queensland’ by Kate Khan
June 1995
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