Review of ‘Material Culture of the North Wellesley Islands’ by Paul Memmott

01st June 2011

Material Culture of the North Wellesley Islands by Paul Memmott. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, 2010, vi+136 pp., ISBN 9781864999624 (pbk).

Reviewed by Åsa Ferrier

Archaeology Program, School of Historical and European Studies, La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic. 3086, Australia

In this monograph, Paul Memmott presents his extensive research on the material culture of the Lardil people, the Aboriginal people of the North Wellesley Islands. The islands are located in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria with Mornington Island the largest in the group. The monograph begins with a description of the North Wellesley Islands environments and its climate. A well-illustrated map (p.4) demonstrates the socio-geographic organisation of the islands, and is very useful to refer back to all the way through the monograph. This is followed with a discussion on the ethnographic data sources consulted in the material culture analyses in addition to research material collected by the author over some 30 years. The first known European visitor was Walter E. Roth who in his role as Northern Protector of Aborigines visited the islands on a number of occasions around the turn of the twentieth century. Roth’s visits took place some 13 years before the first missionary arrived in the area in 1914, hence his published documents depict aspects of pre- European Aboriginal culture and society on the islands. During research on the relatively unknown Mjöberg collection, I found documents that relate to the establishment of the Mornington Island Mission. Analysis of Eric Mjöberg’s 1913 diary from north Queensland shows that he consulted Roth’s work during a visit to Yarrabah Mission near Cairns. Mjöberg’s diary reveals that he felt a strong aversion to the missionaries and their work at Yarrabah Mission (1913:Diary 2). Through Roth’s work he became aware of the Mornington Island Aboriginal people and their culture and wrote to the Royal Society of Sciences in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, appealing to them to lobby the Queensland Government to suspend setting up a mission station on the island. Mjöberg wished to protect the Aboriginal people living on Mornington Island from the missionaries whom he despised. On the other hand, he also thought it an excellent opportunity for scientific research to be carried out on the material culture and society of ‘Australia’s last stone age people’ (Mjöberg 1918:370). The result was a heated debate in the Australian and Swedish press, mostly against Mjöberg; a short time later the first Presbyterian missionary was sent to Mornington Island.

The main part of the book presents the material culture analysis. Material culture items are grouped into categories that are organised on a human activity basis, including: subsistence activities; settlement and shelter; manufacture and use of fire; food preparation; travel, transport and communication; fighting and duelling; public dancing; ritual; clothing, ornamentation and body decoration; toys, games and training; and, manufacturing tools and material products. In presenting the material culture analyses, Memmott weaves together stories and information from Lardil people throughout the text. To the reader, this presents a textured account of the material culture as we gain insights into the ways artefacts were used by the people who made them. Furthermore, Memmott draws on the writings by early island missionaries to illustrate the manufacturing and use of material culture items. Some early illustrations by Roth are reproduced to show the use of traditional artefacts, which works well for this purpose. Such first-hand observations are invaluable to our understanding of traditional material culture and to enable comparisons between pre- and post-contact material culture. Later collections include photographs and material culture items collected by various people beginning in the 1930s, through to the 1970s and 1980s by the author. These collections are equally as significant as the early ones, as they depict stylistic and functional changes taking place in post-contact material culture. The material culture items discussed in each of the categories in the text are presented in well-organised appendices. These are numbered from 1 to 11; however, these numbers are not used in the main text, which sometimes makes it a little difficult to find the right location for a specific category. Thus, numbering the different sections discussed in the text would have been useful. However, the table of contents and list of figures can be used to locate the different categories. The appendices also document scientific data on plants and animals discussed in the text, as well as the common and Lardil names for them. This is a significant component of the book, as it documents information that will be useful to future North Wellesley Island people as well as to the research community.

The material culture analysis is followed by an interesting discussion on trade with other groups, including mainland groups, in the nineteenth century. In this context, Memmott discusses the early occurrence of bottle glass and metal items documented by Roth on the North Wellesley Islands and their impact on the traditional material culture. The process of cultural change reflected in material culture demonstrates that a high degree of interaction probably existed between the Aboriginal groups of the southern Gulf area.

The process of material culture change during the mission years, 1914–1978, is discussed next. During these years, Memmott’s analysis demonstrates that new European items continued to be introduced and various behavioural rules were imposed on Lardil people, which included the exchange of European items for labour. Later, traditional artefacts were manufactured and sold as art objects. However, Memmott clearly demonstrates that despite the many changes that have taken place in traditional Lardil material culture and society since European arrival, a lot of knowledge resides with the Lardil Elders which is incorporated into the island’s school curricula today.

Summing up, Memmott brings together a number of sources and presents a coherent account of the material culture of the North Wellesley Islands. The result from combining diverse data sources such as oral history; museum collections; material culture items specially made and used by the informants as well as photographic archives, is an integrated account that provides a rich and detailed understanding of pre- and post-contact material culture of the North Wellesley Islands. An Indigenous cultural landscape of the islands is also interwoven into the analyses of the material culture, bringing a deeper context to the material culture items themselves. Researchers interested in ethnographic research and Aboriginal material culture studies will find this monograph of great value. It fills another gap in the literature on Aboriginal material culture and continues to demonstrate the vast amount of variability that existed and continues to exist in Aboriginal material culture across Australia.


Mjöberg, E. 1913 Diary 2 – The Far North Queensland Expedition, English translation by Å. Ferrier, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.

Mjöberg, E. 1918 Bland Stenåldersmänniskor i Queenslands Vildmarker [Amongst Stone Age People in the Queensland Wildnerness]. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag.

Åsa Ferrier
Review of ‘Material Culture of the North Wellesley Islands’ by Paul Memmott
June 2011
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