Should Indigenous Artefacts Be Sent Home?

The repatriation of Aboriginal material culture matter is always going to be a sensitive issue in Australia and overseas, and rightly so.  Tempered with goodwill and sound knowledge it should not however prove to be disastrous.

The argument for the repatriation of duplicate items of material culture (storage draws full of 100s of boomerang, shield, club, lime spatula examples, arrows etc.) from major Museums both here and overseas to local Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups is overwhelming.  It needs to be a straightforward process of de accession with some safe guards in place e.g. items gifted cannot be sold on or displayed inappropriately. New local Aboriginal Culture Centres & Museums such as the Cape York Museum at Kowanyama and East Arnhem Land & Halls Creek Kimberley would be worthy recipients of such repatriations.

Likewise, the return of human remains is an act of decency which should only require simple protocols to be implemented and agreed upon.  Repatriation of Sensitive Aboriginal ritual ceremonial material of a Traditional dangerous/sacred/secret nature is entirely another matter of some serious gravity.  It is a process which demands and needs to be conducted after much consultation.  Otherwise well meaning, well intentioned but not well informed or helpful repatriation can lead to disastrous consequences.  Recent history shows us that poorly conducted hand over of such sensitive material is usually catastrophic in Traditional Communities.

The first questions asked when the officials leave is; who amongst them, which local traditional Custodians and Stewards, or their relatives, are responsible for allowing this material get into uninitiated hands.  The period of loss while these artifacts were removed from the Community is often linked by powerful interest groups and individuals to negative events experienced during this time.  Then begin the serious sanctions and unforgiving repercussions which lead to deaths & violent unrest over protracted periods in the recipient Remote Communities.

By contrast, in 1978 as the young Head of Land Claims Northern Land Council NT, I was a participant in the hand back to the Senior traditional men of Peppimenarti Daly River Aboriginal Reserve, of extremely sensitive important secret/sacred/dangerous ritual ceremonial paraphernalia held by Prof.WEH Stanner since the 1930s.  Some of the older Aboriginal men had been present at the original ceremony held before the War during which Bill Stanner had been entrusted with the safe keeping of these sacred objects.

Arthur Beau Palmer & Prof. WEH (Bill) Stanner at close of major ceremonies Peppimenarti NT after repatriation of secret  sacred traditional Aboriginal ritual paraphernalia 1978.

The entire process was one of trust, respect and fulfillment of obligation; and from an Aboriginal perspective a reverence for Stanner’s senior ritual status as a man of High degree who had represented Aboriginal interests for his entire life at the highest level of Government.  The hand over was conducted in full traditional ceremonial context and the result acted, as was intended, to strengthen and support the current ritual renaissance for Communities in the entire Daly River – Victoria River East Kimberley region for both men and women.

I had learnt much of how an institution can engineer meaningful repatriation while assistant to the Senior Curator of Anthropology & Archaeology Queensland Museum, Michael Quinnell, as he skilfully put together post 1975 Papua New Guinea independence, the return of significant  large sections from the important Sir William MacGregor Melanesian collection.  A cautious process of consultation, ownership of the procedure as well as the objects, by both parties is key here. Few young ethnographers could be so fortunate as to have a mentor who virtually single handed dragged an Edwardian Queensland Public Museum into the late twenty century for the good of all.

Institutional repatriation of Aboriginal material culture needs to be a carefully handled return of strength, pride and goodwill not a Trojan horse of guilt, shame and blame.

Queensland Museum MacGregor Melanesian Collection Massim lime spatulas, betel nut mortars & axes part of repatriation to Papua New Guinea National Museum 1977.


Arthur Beau Palmer
Expanded paper originally published Sydney Morning Herald September 2011.



Arthur Beau Palmer

Ethno Essay 15.

"On comprend enfin que les especes naturelles ne sont pas choisies parce que "bonnes a manger" mais parce que "bonnes a penser."

(We understand in the end that natural species are chosen (for totemic association) not because they're "good to eat" but because they are good to think with, good to ponder on).

In the Mutuaga corpus of master carvings, discovered to date, there are some 25 lime spatulas and four staff finials identified as having handles decorated with a pig figure. Few of these zoomorphic figures appear to display critical specific features associated with pig anatomy nor any general overall resemblance to pigs. This review proposes a revision of both the current generic pig design classification and the Mutuaga naturalism style intent. A number of local Massim fauna are closely matched to features in the Mutuaga carvings to identify those native animals more likely represented in these carvings. For a detailed analysis of the congenital deformities present in Mutuaga human figure corpus see previous Ethno Essay No.14. Full biography of Mutuaga the 19th. Century Massim Master Carver see Beran 1996. Mutuaga was active as a carver from the late 1870s to approximately 1920, with a known corpus of some 130 + works, although the actual number may be many times greater. Sir Cecil Able states in his introduction to Beran that Mutuaga must have sold a great many carvings to visitors passing through the Suau passage. His carving style became increasingly naturalistic over this period. All photos of Mutuaga pieces used in this essay courtesy of Harry Beran.

If we are accepting of Beran’s self evident classification of Mutuaga’s formal style of carving (sculpture) as naturalism (Realist) then fig. 1.96 Plate 130 below is readily interpreted as a pig.
The carving looks like a pig and has a number of pig anatomical features i.e. cloven hooves, pig snout, oval piggy eyes (not round nocturnal marsupial eyes), thick pig body conformation with minimal neck head link and a pig’s tail.
If it is possible to identify a Mutuaga naturalistic carving as a specific animal, in this case a pig, and also recognise the highly stylised ubiquitous Massim (frigate?) bird motif when added as a decorative component to these spatula handles, then ipso facto, the other carved fauna which do not possess pig like features must be other species specific portrayals of native mammals or purely imaginary freaks.
If there is a rule anywhere then the rule is everywhere .CLS.

PNG pig possibly reluctantly involved in feast preparation.


As in the Mutuaga pig sculpture (Plate 103) PNG Village pigs overtly display those physical traits which are faithfully and realistically portrayed in the carvings. Body shape bulk and conformation, legs, hooves, tail straight or kinked, eye and ear position all accord. Long tapering muzzle behind the snout


Pigs were first domesticated in Papua New Guinea some 10,000 BP., several thousand years before Europe or elsewhere in the World. Pigs play a significant role in Papuan village daily life, economy, social, ceremonial & ritual. (See References for full link to PNG Pig prehistory paper - domestication in Papua & spread to rest of World).
However the pig motif is not well represented in Melanesian art forms with the exception of pig tusks as both body adornment & nose pieces in Sepik masks. Pig-snouted pottery on the Sepik and Iatmul over modelled pigs’ heads. Basketry masks from the Maprik , Malagan mask from New Ireland are infrequently in pig head form. Also large full pig body basketry works are made in the Sepik. Pig tusk symbols appear in Asmat art. Pig motifs are generally unusual in New Guinea decoration for drums, masks, shields, canoe splashboards , flute-stoppers, bag hooks etc. Birds, fish, crocodiles, snakes - yes and often. Pigs hardly ever. It is possible that because the pig is a significant capital item, which plays a vital ceremonial and economic role in serious matters such as dispute settlement and marriage arrangements, the avoidance of realistic images is deliberate. This prohibition would avoid any possible supernatural sanctions and the pay back repercussions for the carvers’ clan should the village pig population suffer future loss or pestilence. It is unknown if pigs are totemic on the same level of relationship as local native fauna. If not this may be a further reinforcement of the capital trade economic status of Papuan domestic village pigs which would effectively prohibit such totemic monopolisation.


And whether pigs have wings. Lewis Carroll
Following plates & titles are from Beran 1996.
In Beran (113) it is noted that other writers on this subject have identified the animals carved on these lime spatula handles as Cuscus (possum) in Haddon 1894,p.210, & Douglas Newton 1975, 111. 15.
Crocodile by Chauvet 1930, Dog by Frith in 1936 & Bandicoot by Sir Cecil Ables to Beran in 1988. Only Black catalogued pig for an unknown reason. Ables identified Bandicoot for the obvious reason that the animal looked more like a bandicoot than any other. He later changed this interpretation, not on a revised taxonomy but on the basis that on reflection he considered the pig to be more important for Suau culture. So for 90 years Sir Cecil thought of these carvings as representing a bandicoot. There appears to be no record of Mutuaga identifying the animals he was carving in the new realist style – perhaps he considered, that naturalism as an art form dictates that the object was meant to look like the subject, it required no great explanation? What you see is what you get.

Revised taxonomy & associated discussion are in red

Plate 72
. Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Cerebral palsy ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in stance on tip toe, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face.
Plate 73. Quoll (or pet possum, bandicoot) . Over sized hands unusual for Mutuaga. Pearched on top of owner head normal traditional Papuan position for carrying climbing pet. Dogs & pigs carried across back or draped over neck. Plate 74. Quoll (or pet possum, bandicoot).Plate 75. Dog/Quoll (or pet possum,bandicoot).

Plate 44
. Banieva bowl. Pig realistically carved – snout, head, ears, eyes.
Rolled hind legs reverse of Mutuaga figures?

Plate 104-110
. All of the above (carved mammals appear to display zero pig like features. These creatures possess a distinct neck ( pigs have thick neck) (the architectural decoration bridging the shoulder to back of head is discussed later),cuscus/quoll type ears, long thin bandicoot type nose & limbs, clawed /rolled paws not cloven hooves, a long prehensile tail roll as opposed to a pig kink or straight tail. Round nocturnal marsupial eyes


Most notable is that pigs do not lie or crouch in this position with feet/legs tucked up. Pigs normally stretch out on their side either in a wallow depression or on flat ground. The crouch as portrayed in these carvings is more typical of a quoll, bandicoot or dog crouch. Kim Akerman notes that Pigs on Japanese netsuke often shown sleeping with legs tucked beneath them.

The snout/nose decoration of a frigate bird (or pigeon, osprey – Beran p 118)(plate 104, 105, 106, 109 & 110.) is a possible indication that the main animal portrayed is a carnivore or scavenger (eg quoll). Possums also make a bird like tree nest so this may be representative of a traditional Massim taxonomical similarity between bird & mammal not existent in European science or cognition. From a design perspective this decorative feature appears to directly extend from the upper lip or tongue & in two cases (106, 110) from the lower lip as a double motif. All have a decorative design element which appears as a laid back crest which bridges from the back of the head to the shoulder top. This may be a structural element to strengthen the architecture of the thin neck or may have Massim local cultural significance. As a form following function dictate none of these decorative elements particularly lend themselves to a smooth comfortable ergo dynamic easily manipulated spatula handle form. This alone is indicative of a cultural imperative for this decoration rather than a functional dictate perhaps. It has been suggested that the more decorative exaggerated rolling scroll frieze on the snout top and bottom of some examples may represent the large prominent whiskers of nocturnal quoll and bandicoot species. (See examples 31, 43.)

Plate 115. Banieva (Flying Fox Totem). A crouching creature perched on a branch structure appears to display zero pig like features. This mammal has large nocturnal bandicoot ears, long thin bandicoot type nose & limbs, clawed paws not cloven hooves, a long prehensile tail. Male? Scrotum under tail.
A marsupial with curled tongue licking a frigate bird. Rolled prehensile tail. Rolled paws. Prominent back bone ridge.

Pate 117
, Dicephalus marsupial monster. Possible foetal deformed monster. Second small head is joined to shoulder/ spine by lower & upper extended jaw. Main head has long folded tongue protruding from mouth back along full length of nose. Reverse head undershot lower jaw. Small under developed legs & paws. Prominent back bone ridge. The role and significance of human and animal physical & intellectual deformity as direct links to the supernatural (spirits and ancestors) in traditional Papuan society may be a factor of artistic intent.

Plate 101
. Male quoll like body, long tail & head. Defined neck & large scrotum.

Plate 102. Ring tail possum type animal. Defined neck sans bridge decoration.
Plate 103. Rolled feet & tail. Nose decoration upper & lower jaw. Bandicoot type. Foetal abnormality? Small underdeveloped limbs. Frigate bird decorative nose freize.


The New
Guinean Quoll (Dasyurus albopunctatus), also known as the New Guinea Quoll or New Guinea Native Cat, is a carnivorous marsupial mammal native to New Guinea. It is the second largest surviving marsupial carnivore of New Guinea Quolls feed on a large range of prey including birds, rats and other marsupials, small reptiles and insects. They are reported to feed on prey larger than themselves. They are good climbers but also spend time on the forest floor. Although nocturnal, they spend the daylight hours basking in the sun. They nest in rocky banks, hollow logs or small caves. Because they are known to scavenge, persecution by humans may be putting pressure on the population. They also face predation and competition from introduced species such as dogs, cats and foxes.

The New Guinean long-nosed bandicoots (genus Peroryctes) are members of the Peramelemorphia order. They are small to medium sized marsupial omnivores native to New Guinea.

Ccuscus genus Phalanger , centred in New Guinea and extending south to the rainforest of Cape York, east to the Solomon Islands and west to Sulawesi (Celebes). It has a flat face, short ears and dense woolly fur on the body and limbs; its long prehensile tail is naked and scaly for most of its length. Most
cuscuses are large animals, about 60 cm (24 in) long, not counting the tail. They nest in hollow trees. The best known cuscus is P. maculatus , the spotted cuscus, which is chiefly creamy white in colour, with spots of chestnut and black on the back and with grey or reddish legs.

Plate 126. Head unpiglike. Nocturnal eyes. Rolled tail. Foetal abnormality?
Plate 127. Possum or Quoll head, paws & tail. Nocturnal eyes.
Plate 128. Head unpiglike. Paw or hoof? Rolled tail. Nocturnal eyes.
Plate 129. Quoll crouching. Nocturnal eyes. Grasping paws. Quoll tail and scrotum


Plate 151. Young clinging to belly typical of possum family.
late152. Praying Mantis. (Totemic Association).
Plate 153. Tree Kangaroo in defensive posture? European Pussy Cat?
Goodfellow's Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi goodfellowi)


Mutuaga carved one perfect pig, however to extend this pig clade to any of the other known Mutuaga mammal carvings of his Realist corpus requires an unsafe leap of faith and misplaced imagination which cannot be justified . On the physical evidence o the carved animal figures anatomical features the irresistible conclusion is that all display many of those key elements which naturalistic sculpture of local native mammals would portray. Equally clear is that the decorative elements are not full explained and that we are yet to know the whole story and traditional meaning of Mutuaga’s intent. Totemic association of the traditional carvers to local native fauna, particularly mammals, is a possible explanation for the subject animals represented in the realistic sculpture from the Suau region during Mutuaga’s time.

Beran, Harry. 1996. Mutuaga .A Nineteen- Century Master Carver. Wollongong. Wollongong University Press.
Brodsky, Isadore. 1943. Congenital Abnormalities, Teratology and Embryology: Some evidence of Primitive Mans’ Knowledge as Expressed in Art & Lore in Oceania. The Medical Journal of Australia. May 8 ,1943. P.417-429. Sydney NSW.
Lewis Carroll The Walrus and The Carpenter ( Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
Pig Pre History PNG link:

THANKS Kim A Akerman, Dr Ross Ainsworth, David Said, Dr Brenda Presson Bush.

Striped Possum: Dactylopsila trivirgata.

PACIFIC ARTEFACTS Banks Bounty Bligh & Cook

Oceanic Material Culture Changing the Course of History Examples of What Was and Might Have Been
- By - Arthur B. Palmer
- Discussion Paper 1 of 3


Two outstanding events in the early European exploration and rediscovery of the Pacific irrevocably altered the future outcomes for Polynesian and Western culture. An examination of the crucial role Oceanic artifacts played in Cook’s combat death in Hawaii and Bligh’s Bounty mutiny after Tahiti.

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