Bora Station

Archaeological Investigations on Bora Station, northwest QLD

During 2003, the owners of Bora Station (a pastoral property situated approximately 100 km south of Richmond in northwest Queensland), made a report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the discovery of an Aboriginal burial that was eroding along a creek-line on the property. At that time Lynley Wallis and representatives from the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation (WVAC) were conducting excavations of Aboriginal hearths near Richmond. The EPA requested that the WVAC representatives visit the Bora Station site, in order to confirm the burial was Indigenous, and to provide advice as to what their preferred management option was. An initial inspection revealed an associated stone artefact scatter, but no recording or investigation of the area was entered into at this point.

Subsequently, as requested by the WVACrepresentatives and supported by the station owners, funding was sought from AIATSISin 2004 to broadly explore the nature of Aboriginal occupation in the Mitchell Grass Downs biogeographical region. As research conducted in this region previously had been minimal, the main aim of the project was to pursue a systematic program of targeted surveys to locate open sites, followed by recording and excavation to better give rise to an understanding of the region’s archaeological signature.

More specifically the aims of the Bora Station project were to:

1. Conduct systematic pedestrian surveys to identify archaeological sites on Bora Station;
2. Record and define the spatial relationships of any located sites with standard archaeological recording techniques including GPS and photography;
3. Undertake detailed analyses of surface stone artefact assemblages identified in the study area so as to better understand the nature of Aboriginal occupation within the study area; and,
4. Conduct excavations of suitable features such as hearths or middens in order to obtain materials amenable to radiocarbon dating so as to establish a minimum age for Aboriginal occupation in the study area.

During the research, there emerged the opportunity to incorporate a geophysical component, and hence an additional aim was included in the project’s objectives:

5. To explore the ability of geophysical techniques (gradiometer, magnetometer and electromagnetic induction) to distinguish hearths on open sites in Australia.

FIELD TEAM

At the outset of the project there were plans for one field season to be carried out during 2004, however owing to unforeseen events, the project eventually spanned three field seasons.

During 2004 the following individuals were involved:

• Dr Lynley Wallis, archaeologist (then ANU, now Flinders University),
• Dr Kate Domett, physical anthropologist (James Cook University),
• Mick Smith, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation),
• Darren Kynuna, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation),
• Kate Valentine, archaeology student (James Cook University), and
• Peter Cogan and Mark O’Callaghan, volunteers.

During 2005 the following individuals were involved:

• Dr Lynley Wallis, archaeologist (then ANU, now Flinders University),
• Dr Kate Domett, physical anthropologist (James Cook University),
• Darren Kynuna, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation),
• Allen Kynuna, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation),
• Josh Keyes, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation),
• Roshami Smith, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation), and,
• Susan Gilmore, solicitor (D & G Lawyers).

During 2006 the following individuals were involved:

• Dr Lynley Wallis, archaeologist (then ANU, now Flinders University),
• Ian Moffat, geophysicist (Ecophyte Technologies),
• Mick Smith, community representative (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation),
• Ant Timms, archaeology student (James Cook University), and
• Alice Beale, Toni Massey and Jane Simons, archaeology students (Flinders University).

FIELDWORK

The 2003 discovery of the burial afforded the focus for the subsequent field investigations. A preliminary walk over the area – within a few hundred metres of the burial – confirmed that there was extensive artefact scatter and a large number of heat retainer hearts associated with the site. Subsequently a systematic pedestrian survey was conducted along both sides of the major creek line and its tributaries, for approximately 3 km (to the east) and 7 km (to the west). Discussions with the station owners revealed one other location on the property with similar features. This was located approximately 15 km to the east of the burial site and became the focus of further sustained pedestrian survey and recording.

During the survey, hearths, freshwater mussel shell middens, stone arrangements and stone artefact scatters were identified and recorded. GPS readings and photographs were taken of the hearth locations. A detailed baseline-offset survey recorded the hearths and middens located within the immediate vicinity of the burial. Nine hearths were excavated during the project. Three mussel shell middens were subjected to test excavation to assess the sub-surface structure and to obtain shell for further radiocarbon testing. Artefact scatters were also recorded and Sophie Collins (ANU) carried out analysis of surface collections of stone artefacts from Bora Station.

RESULTS

Hearths

Previous radiocarbon dating of seven hearths at Richmond revealed age estimates between 240 and 870 years bp (uncalibrated; Wallis 2003; Wallis et al. 2004a). The Richmond hearth dates had been interpreted as indicating that ca. 1,000 BP could be considered a minimal age for Aboriginal occupation of the northeastern part of the MGD region, although as Wallis et al. (2004a:71) pointed out, this date gave “no indication of when the area might first have been used”. The hearths from Bora Station show a range of age estimates between 294 and 1789 years bp (uncalibrated), suggesting this area has been repeatedly visited since at least 2,000 BP. Nevertheless, a cache of tula adzes located near Boulia in the southwestern part of the MGD (Hiscock 1988) with a mid-Holocene date provide further evidence that Aboriginal use of the wider MGD plains is indeed older.

The human burial

The position of the in situ remains was difficult to determine pre-excavation though based on the exposed bones it was initially thought the skeleton of the entire upper body would be preserved; however, as the salvage excavation progressed it quickly became apparent that this was not the case. The hip joints were in the fully flexed position so that the thighs (femora) were in contact with the trunk (represented by the lumbar vertebrae and a few rib fragments). It was also apparent on further excavation that the knee joints would also have been in the fully flexed position with the tibiae and fibulae underlying the femora and the feet underlying the pelvis, as if the person was kneeling. The feet were also crossed under the pelvis so that the right foot was underlying the left foot, both to the left side of the pelvis (Fig. x). No grave goods were found with the burial with the exception of a protective covering of paperbark, although it is possible that artefacts may have been lost during erosion.

The time of year during which the death and burial took place can be estimated on environmental and ethnographic grounds to have occurred during the early dry season, possibly February-March. As described earlier, people traditionally moved seasonally in this region; wet months were spent in the surrounding high country to avoid the extensive flooding of the low lying plains, and, as water levels receded, people spread out into the MGD. The MGD is all but impassable during the wet, and during the height of the dry the clay-rich ground of the Downs has the consistency of set concrete that today can only be penetrated using heavy machinery. Therefore, it seems reasonable to infer that interment must have taken place after floodwaters had receded but while there was still sufficient moisture in the ground to allow a grave to be dug.

A sample of the surrounding paperbark was subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating and returned an uncalibrated date of 189±34 BP (Wk15560), with a calibrated age range at 1 sigma of 1660-1690, 1720-1820 and 1920-1950AD. Unfortunately, owing to the nature of the calibration curve a more securely bracketed date could not be determined, although the most recent range of the age estimate can be eliminated as no evidence for European contact (e.g. glass, ceramics or metal) was observed in the area (see below) and, as a result of killings and subsequent removal of people under the Aboriginal Protection Act 1897, traditional burial practices did not persist so recently.

Assessment of the pelvic morphology clearly indicated the individual was female. An estimation of age-at-death was difficult to accurately determine as the pubic symphyseal surfaces were not well preserved and could not be graded. Based on other aging methods, including changes of the pelvic auricular surface and sacral vertebral body fusion, it could be concluded the woman was not a young adult. However, there were almost no signs of severe joint degeneration in the few joints observable, although muscle attachment sites were quite marked. Overall this evidence suggests that at the time of death the woman was a ‘middle aged adult’, that is, not a young adult in her 20s, nor a very old person. Unfortunately, it was not possible to be more accurate than this given the preservation of the material.No enamel hypoplasias or carious lesions were observed in any of the fragmented teeth, although there was really very little evidence available upon which to discuss dental health. The absence of carious lesions in the few teeth present is important as it infers a low cariogenic, and in particular a low refined carbohydrate, diet, possibly pre-European, or the absence of appropriate bacteria that cause the cavities. The 5th metatarsal in the left foot had a well-healed fracture in the midshaft. This type of fracture is commonly the result of a direct force to the side of the foot such as from kicking an object with the lateral side of the foot or dropping a weight directly on the foot.

Both tibiae had marked anterior diaphyseal (shaft) bowing with rounded anterior crests. The right fibula was also bowed anteriorly but not to the same degree of severity as the tibiae. In addition to bowing of the tibiae and right fibula there were other bony lesions along the diaphyses of these bones. It is possible that the lesions and bowing have arisen separately and represent two conditions existing concurrently, however given the nature of the lesions it made sense to consider the tibial bowing in conjunction as a diagnosis of treponematosis fits well with both. Treponematosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the genus Treponema (Chulay 2000). There are four syndromes associated with treponematosis: yaws, treponarid (also known as bejel, endemic syphilis, irkintja), venereal syphilis and pinta. Of these conditions, based on the available evidence treponarid is the most likely diagnosis (see Domett et al. 2006). During the 2005 field season the Old Person’s remains were returned to Bora Station for reburial within the confines of the site at a location further removed from the creek-line where they would be unlikely to be subjected to further erosion. Prior to the reburial event, members of the WVAC visited Middle Park Station (approximately 200 km to the north) where they collected large sheets of paperbark (also known as ti-tree; Melaleuca spp.). These were used to line the reburial pit, thereby carrying on traditional burial practices as known from the ethnohistorical literature and as observed during the excavation.

Stone artefact analyses

Conclusions about the movement of hunter gatherers, raw materials and stone artefacts across the landscape at Bora have been difficult to determine. Neat explanations are simply not possible for any of these sites. The Bora Station stone artefact assemblages are the product of a number of years of activity in the area compressed into a single archaeological unit through active post-depositional processes. Extensive reuse and recycling of artefacts over hundreds of years makes interpretation of the scatters at any one time impossible and has resulted in over inflated frequencies of retouched artefacts. However, some consistent patterns are apparent:

• Low to moderate levels of reduction are evident within each scatter.
• Recycling and reuse of materials implies that the scatters were visited repeatedly, probably seasonally.
• Given the length of time over which these scatters are likely to have been frequented, artefact numbers are quite low, suggesting only very short term occupation of the area (based on the hearth and midden dates).
• The presence of a handful of formal tool types and intensively retouched artefacts and small unretouched flakes at the site suggests low level retooling did occur at times, discarding old artefacts and replacing them with new.
• Discrepancies between core scar numbers and flakes indicate not only that post-depositional processes have removed some flakes but that knappers may have consciously removed flakes from the site for retooling.
• The overall lack of intensively retouched items implies that for the most part, flakes were manufactured for expedient purposes only.
• Intensification of site use never reached desperate levels with suitable raw material always near enough not to necessitate dramatic conservation measures.

RESEARCH OUTPUTS

A number of reports and papers have been generated relating to this project and are listed below. Other papers from this project are currently in preparation and will be added to this page as they become available.

Collins, S. 2006. Bora Station Stone – Stone Artefacts Analysis. Unpublished report prepared for L.A. Wallis, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.

Domett, K. 2004. Late Holocene Human Skeletal Remains from Northwest Queensland. Unpublished report prepared for L.A. Wallis, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.

Domett, K.M., L.A. Wallis, D. Kynuna, A. Kynuna and H. Smith. 2006. Late Holocene human remains from northwest Queensland, Australia: Archaeology and palaeopathology. Archaeology in Oceania 41:25-36.

Domett, K., L.A. Wallis, D. Kynuna and H. Smith. 2004. Late Holocene human skeletal remains from northwest Queensland. Paper presented at the Australasian Society for Human Biology Conference held at The Australian National University, 10 December 2004.

Moffat, I. 2007. Report on geophysical investigations of Indigenous sites on Bora Station, northwest Queensland. Unpublished report prepared for L.A. Wallis, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.

Wallis, L.A. 2005. Ongoing Investigations into the Archaeology and Cultural Heritage of Wanamara Country, northwest Queensland. Paper presented in the Flinders University Department of Archaeology Seminar Series, 11 March 2005.

Wallis, L.A. 2007. Archaeological Investigations on Bora Station, Northwest Queensland. Unpublished report prepared for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation.

ETHICS

Ethics approval for this project was granted from the Human Research Ethics Committee of the Australian National University (ANU) – Protocol Number 2004/19.

FUNDING

This project was generously supported by a grant awarded collaboratively to Dr Lynley Wallis (then of ANU), and the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). The Australian National University, Flinders University and James Cook University have provided logistical support for different components of the research.

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