The Australian Message Sticks Database is a repository-in-progress of all known message sticks located in museums around the world. The database also stores digitally reproduced sketches and photographs of message sticks that are no longer extant. Museum staff with log-in credentials can visit the database here (you will get a warning message “Your connection is not private”. Proceed anyway!).
The purpose of the database is to:
- build a meaningful archive of digital cultural heritage subject to the control and approval of community representatives
- provide a reliable source of comparative data for recovering the history, function and significance of Australian message sticks
- revisit artefacts of unknown origin in order to identify their traditional country of origin and probable communicative intent; and to correct contradictions, ambiguities or deficiencies in the labelling of existing artefacts
- situate Australian Indigenous symbolic culture within a global understanding of graphic communication systems
No secret, sacred or restricted cultural materials of any kind are recorded in the database. A public online version of the database will be limited to displaying images of artefacts for which permission has been granted by the relevant cultural institutions. Some objects in institutional collections are ambiguously labelled and these too have not been included in the database.
The project is managed by Piers Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany). The archiving technology was developed by Junran Lei at The Australian National University (Canberra), and the database itself is administered by Julia Bespamyatnykh at Universität Erfurt, and Hans-Jörg Bibiko, (MPI, Jena). Language coordinates are provided by Claire Bowern at Yale (see Chirila; and Bowern, Claire. 2016. “Chirila: Contemporary and Historical Resources for the Indigenous Languages of Australia.” Language Documentation & Conservation 10:1-44). When the public version is complete, a link will be made available from this page, the Mint, and pamanyungan.net.
Today, there are an estimated 876 Australian message sticks in public museums all around the world, most of which were collected in a brief period between the 1880s and 1910s. A further 144 exist as sketches or photographs. As the project progresses, more message sticks are coming to light in museums, private collections and manuscripts.
We would love to hear from private custodians of message sticks. We may be able to help you understand more about your collection. Make contact here.
The National Museum of Australia (Canberra) was the first cultural institution to collaborate with the project, contributing over 50 high-resolution images with associated metadata.
What are message sticks?
The invention of graphic codes for the purposes of communication is a rare event in human history. Full language-dependant writing as we know it today was likely to have been created only a few times. Its first appearance was in the Middle East: in Mesopotamia in ca. 3200 BCE and in Egypt at roughly the same time. Later, writing was independently invented in China in 1200 BCE–1050 BCE and finally in Mesoamerica in ca. 500 BCE.
In these places, specialists hit upon the idea of representing whole words or syllables with graphic symbols and the practice spread from these few locations to the rest of the globe, diversifying and adapting as it went. In order to be effective, the writing systems needed to be attached to a specific language shared by both the writer and reader, and literacy transmission required a coordinated effort.
Writing has now become so successful across the world that it’s easy to forget that other very different practices of graphic communication have both pre-dated writing and coexisted with it. Various communities across Asia, the Pacific, North America and Africa have created non-linguistic graphic codes that are designed to help express a defined range of ideas, to facilitate a ritual recitation, or to aid a speaker in recalling an oral message.
Australian message sticks are one such unique Indigenous system in this last category. Circulated over a large part of the continent these small and finely engraved tools were carried long distances by messengers of special status charged with the responsibility of conveying information across territorial boundaries.
Although Indigenous messengers began encountering British and other settlers from the late eighteenth century onwards, it took some time for the newcomers to notice and remark upon their system of long-distance communication. The earliest settler record of a message stick dates from 1840 in the vicinity of Queanbeyan but it was not until the 1880s that message sticks became an object of wider curiosity for settlers.
Most nineteenth-century accounts of the practice concur that the message sticks and their markings had at least three functions. The first was to identify the messenger as having the right to cross into a neighbouring country without fear of violence or rejection (much like a passport); the second was to lend authority to an oral message that he delivered (like a signature or royal seal); and the third was to help the messenger recall the details of an oral message by means of a visual prompt (like a knot in a handkerchief). In some instances, only the first two functions needed to be activated as a vouchsafe for a memorised verbal statement. However, with the help of the database we are now beginning to understand that certain message sticks were not merely communicative props but could be successfully interpreted without an oral intermediary.
Tragically, the drive for collecting message sticks in the late nineteenth century was hampered by ignorance. While some settlers eagerly misinterpreted the inscriptions as a kind of language-dependent alphabetic writing, most would drastically underestimate their symbolic value assuming them to be mere tokens of authority or childish devices for encoding ‘nonsense’.
Whether or not this misrecognition accounts for the poverty of the documentation, most of the message sticks known today are missing vital contextual data including the details of the intended message, and the ethnolinguistic affiliation of messengers and recipients.
Nonetheless, a subset of these artefacts is scrupulously documented and it is hoped that these will help to reconstruct core elements of the graphic systems in use, with assistance elicited from Indigenous consultants. By compiling a tentative lexicon of graphemes and their glosses we expect to be able to apply probabilistic methods to ‘interpret’ message sticks in some contexts. Even for very poorly documented artefacts the place-of-origin has been preserved and this information, in aggregate, will help identify regional stylistic differences and plot the diffusion of the practice over the continent at the time of contact.
Message sticks today
Message sticks in a similar style to those collected in the late nineteenth century are still manufactured in eastern Arnhem Land although their range of uses remains undocumented. Two undated videos captured by Dha:wu’mirr Dharpa show Gumatj elder Andrew Galitju making traditional message sticks with an iron file.
Elsewhere on the continent, the practice of communication by message sticks has undergone creative transformations. Perhaps the most significant of these was a shift – beginning in the early 1950s – towards using message sticks for their political symbolism. The earliest recorded instance of this is a message stick sent from Bathurst and Melville islanders to the Australian prime minister in 1951.
Later, message sticks were used as an accompaniment to formal transactions such as mining agreements, or as symbol of pan-Aboriginal unity and crosscultural understanding. The regular ABC TV program ‘Message Stick’ is an example of this more recent metaphorical use. Participants in the 2011 Freedom Ride, commemorating the 1965 Freedom Ride for civil rights, carried a message stick inscribed with the names of the towns along the historic route.
More research and consultation is needed to get a better picture of how the meaning of message stick has changed over time.
Progress of the database and the latest findings
To date, 1020 records of message sticks have been entered into the database, reproduced from text sources and museum catalogues. Of these, 120 records include an explanation of the intended message.
Common meanings attached to the message sticks recorded thus far include invitations to attend ceremony (especially male initiation, or ‘law’), requests for goods, news of deaths in a community, accounts of journeys and the routes taken, declarations of war and warnings of danger. The earliest surviving sketch of message stick purportedly outlines a plot to free a prisoner from jail!
You can view slides from a recent talk on message sticks here.
Important information for museums and private collectors
The aim of our database is to be as comprehensive as possible so we are very grateful for any contributions of images and metadata. Provenance and copyright is always displayed in the database entry and we will never ask for copyright to be waived. Wherever possible, the entries include a URL to the online catalogue or webpage of that cultural institution that holds the artefact or image. We respect the rights of Indigenous people in having access to their own digital cultural heritage and to decide how such material is to be handled or distributed.
At a later date we aim to make parts of the database public and we hope that you will agree to participate. However, if you would prefer the images or information you have provided to be suppressed – or used only for private research purposes – we will not include them in the public version.
What we can provide in return: Due to the circumstances of their collection, few message sticks held in museums are adequately described and as a result, their true cultural and historical value is not immediately appreciated. By aggregating information about Australian message sticks in a single location we are sometimes able to trace the provenance of individual artefacts and to estimate their intended meanings. For example, a loose artefact at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin is noted as a possible message stick from Australia. Thanks to the Australian Message Sticks Database this has been positively identified as a message stick that was collected and described by A. W. Howitt in 1889, and later presumed lost. The documented origin and meaning of this message stick can now be reunited with the original object.
We would like to thank the following institutions and individuals who have granted access to their archives or field research, provided photographs and metadata, or consulted non-public catalogues on our behalf.
- The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
- The British Museum
- Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
- The Grassi Museum, Leipzig
- Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main
- The National Library of Australia
- The National Museum of Australia
- South Australian Museum
- Universitäts Bibliothek, Universität Wien
- Alice Beale (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
- Prof. John Carty (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
- Dr. Dorothea Deterts (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
- Matthias Hofman (Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main)
- Dr. Philip Jones (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
- Rita Metzenrath (AIATSIS)
- David Moore (University of Western Australia)
- Prof. Howard Morphy (The Australian National University)
- Dr. Eva Raabe (Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main)
- Dr. Birgit Scheps (Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig)
- Dr. Hilke Thoda-Arora (Übersee Museum, Bremen)
- Paula Waring (Department of the Senate, Australia)
- Dr. Renate Wolf (Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig)
This page is a placeholder for the project before it migrates to a more official location. Please feel free to contact Piers Kelly with any comments, suggestions or requests.