Australian Message Stick Database

The Australian Message Stick Database is a meta-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.

1897-Artefact_B-Bucknell-Message_sticks_and_their_meaning

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
  • correct contradictions, ambiguities or deficiencies in the labelling of existing artefacts
  • situate Australian Indigenous symbolic culture within a global understanding of graphic communication systems

Many of the message sticks known today are missing vital contextual data including the details of the intended message, and the ethnolinguistic affiliation of senders, messengers and recipients. By aggregating as much information as possible from multiple sources, the AMSD hopes to fill in some of these blanks.

Very minimal catalogue data for a message stick once held in a German museum but presumed to have been destroyed in WWII.

Very basic catalogue data for a message stick once held in a German museum but presumed to have been destroyed in WWII.

Nonetheless, about ten percent of the artefacts are 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.  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.

Please be aware that the AMSD is not an archive so much as a meta-repository, and thus the public availability of the information is subject to the approval of Indigenous advisory boards at the institutions that supplied it. (The relevant Indigenous advisory boards are listed below.) Accordingly, no secret, sacred or restricted cultural materials of any kind are recorded in the database. Some objects in institutional collections are ambiguously labelled and these too have not been included in the database. If you need guidance on distinguishing between a message stick and a sacred object of similar appearance, please see this information here.

In accordance with the values of Indigenous data sovereignty, the project team has relinquished all copyright, even for images and analysis produced by team members. Wherever the likely Traditional Owners can be established, these are indicated in each entry in the ‘Linguistic area’ fields. Note that there may be more than one community with Traditional rights. Certain images have legal copyright owners, and these are also listed where possible. Textual metadata, however, is not subject to copyright but should nonetheless be attributed correctly.

The database is structured on the principles of country-centred design (Harle et al 2018). In practice, this means that the entries can be filtered according to the degree to which Indigenous knowledge-holders themselves provided information about a given object. The most ‘country-centric’ are those tagged as ‘glossed artefacts’. For these entries, the Traditional country is known and an Indigenous cultural authority has provided information about the meaning of the message stick and the relationship between the meaning and the inscribed signs. For those tagged as ‘interpreted artefacts’, the meaning is preserved, but not the relationship between signs and meanings. All remaining entries may have contextual information but no direct insights from Traditional Owners.

The database is managed by Piers Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of New England, and affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany).  The data-entry interfact was developed by Junran Lei at The Australian National University (Canberra), while the public-facing interface the database itself is maintained by 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).

Today, the AMSD has 1152 entries. These include 876 Australian message sticks that are physically conserved in public museums all around the world, most of which were collected in a brief period between the 1880s and 1910s. A further 276 exist as sketches or photographs and their physical whereabouts cannot yet be traced. 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.

Ion Idriess

1936 ‘Strange things I have seen’, Tweed Daily, 21 December, p. 4.

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 but we also defer to the interests of Traditional Owners over collecting institutions. 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.

Acknowledgments

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.

Institutions

  • The Armidale Folklore Museum
  • The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra
  • 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
  • The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
  • South Australian Museum
  • Universitäts Bibliothek, Universität Wien
  • The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard

Scholars, curators, advisors

  • Alice Beale (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
  • Prof. John Carty (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
  • Dr. Dorothea Deterts (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
  • Anneke Hamann (decipherer of historical handwriting)
  • Matthias Hofman (Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main)
  • Dr. Philip Jones (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
  • Cynthia Mackey (Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology)
  • 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. Philipp Schorch (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)

Individuals who provided access to private collections

  • Jane Buchan
  • Richard Davies
  • Guan Lim

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.