How to identify a message stick

This page contains general information to help Indigenous communities, scholars, curators and auction houses identify message sticks.

I have set it up for the purposes of correcting misinformation and avoiding unnecessary distress caused by errors. I will add more detail from time to time.

Because message sticks are so diverse, they cannot easily be identified on the basis of visual characteristics alone. They can be very short, very long, flat, convex, cylindrical, notched, painted, feathered or burned. They can also be subtly repurposed from other objects such as spearthrowers or digging sticks.

Words for ‘message stick’ survive, in record form or living usage, in at least 87 Australian languages. This Indigenous lexical evidence is critical when it comes to distinguishing message sticks from other objects that are classified differently.

Message sticks go by various names in English and Aboriginal English. ‘Message stick’ is the most common but in the Top End ‘letterstick’ is preferred. An archaic English term is ‘yabber stick’, not to be confused with ‘paper yabber’, a term that some Aboriginal messengers applied to pen-on-paper letters. In German commentaries it is a Zeichenstab (literally ‘sign stick’) or a Botenstab (‘message stick’). In Italian sources it is bastone messagio (‘message stick’) and in French bâton parlant (‘talking stick’).

Two foundational criteria for identification

  1. Context: The primary criteria for identifying any object is through knowledge of its specific context: who made it, where, and for what purpose. This contextual knowledge might exist in the form of memory or oral narrative in the site that it was created. More commonly, it may be retrieved from archival documentation in the form of notes, diaries, letters, books, or detailed museum records. In summary, an object is a message stick if there is reasonable evidence that it was used in a known communicative interaction, or that it was manufactured with the intention of replicating such an object. Tiny details can be very important. For example, if a record contains any notes in an Indigenous language, this language could be identified and the object associated with a traditional country. If a record contains a date as well as a location, it may be possible to find other objects from the same time and place in order to compare it.
  2. Formal characteristics: In the absence of direct knowledge from Traditional Owners, or solid archival evidence, an object may be provisionally identified as a message stick from its formal and material characteristics. Even though there is wide diversity of shapes and modes of marking, not all forms are equally likely. Prototypical message sticks are made of wood, are about 15 to 30cm long, have smooth edges, and are usually convex or cylindrical with tapering at one or both ends. The most common form of marking on a convex message stick is notches along the long edges, or repeated vertical grooves on its flat surface. Other common markings on all message sticks are diagonal crosses, isolated vertical lines and stippling (more common on cylindrical sticks). Message sticks marked only with paint are known in Arnhem Land. Elsewhere, a message stick may sometimes be finished with white or red ochre. In the absence of contextual knowledge, these common characteristics will not necessarily be enough to positively identify an object as a message stick but they will help constrain the interpretation.

How to tell the difference between a message stick and a tjurunga (churinga)

Tjurungas (sometimes spelled ‘churingas’) are sacred objects from Central Australia that are the exclusive property of initiated men. Traditionally, they should not be seen by women or uninitiated boys. In some communities of Central Australia, tjurungas became de-sacralised in the early twentieth century meaning that they became fully public and unrestricted. In other communities they remained sacred. There are also places where they have been de-sacralised and later re-sacralised. In the 20th-century, the tjurunga tradition spread west across the Western Desert and northwest into the Kimberley. To this day, tjurungas remain sacred and highly restricted in the Pilbara and the Kimberley.

Tjurungas are sometimes quite similar in appearance to message sticks, but while message sticks are highly public and secular, tjurungas are not. This means that special care must be taken to distinguish the two objects. Tjurungas should never be displayed or sold without careful and thorough consultation with Traditional Owners. Even if tjurungas from a specific community are not considered sacred, they may be evaluated differently in other contexts.

Certain settler ethnographers in Western Australia, including Daisy Bates, Roland and Catherine Berndt, knew the difference between tjurungas and message sticks but they had an unfortunate tendency to use the ‘message stick’ (or ‘letter-stick’) to refer to both kinds of objects. This has led to a certain amount of confusion in the settler public. On the whole, museums have been very good at labelling message sticks and tjurungas correctly, and making sure that secret items are not displayed to the public and that public objects are not relegated to an oubliette.

Auction houses on the other hand are notoriously irregular, often advertising tjurungas for sale as ‘message sticks’. Occasionally this is a simple mistake but sometimes it is clear from the description that an auction house knows that the the object in question is sacred, yet insists on labelling it a ‘message stick’. Many if not most of the tjurungas that circulate on the market are replicas of traditional tjurungas, made by Aboriginal people to serve the collector market. This does not make them ‘inauthentic’ nor does it absolve auction houses from their responsibilities to label objects appropriately and prevent the public display of sacred designs.

The differences

To avoid violating cultural proscriptions, no restricted images will ever be displayed on this site. My written descriptions of the differences will be as generic as possible, but if you are sensitive about learning these distinctions please read no further. This information is intended to inform good practice and prevent distress. I have become a reluctant expert on identifying tjurungas simply because I have read enough unedited ethnographic literature, and been exposed to so many badly labelled items that I feel like I can make a confident judgement. I am not the arbiter of what the objects mean nor of how they should be conserved or circulated – this is the exclusive right of Traditional Owners.

(Whoops! Editors need to consult researchers before publishing googled images)

On the whole tjurungas tend to be larger than message sticks, and they are always flattened or slightly convex. They are almost always basically symmetrical, and well polished with long tapering at each end. Some are wider and more ovoid, like a shield. They are never notched but have very carefully executed and regular designs on their flat surfaces. A typical Central Australian design involves a series of evenly spaced and evenly sized concentric circles linked by sets of parallel vertical lines or divided by horizontal vertical lines. Other common motifs include parallel meandering lines or semi-circles. A typical design from the northwest of Western Australia involves a pattern of concentric diamonds or concentric squares taking up most of the surface of the object.

A good resource for understanding the history and context of tjurungas is:

Anderson, Christopher, ed. 1995. Politics of the secret. Sydney: Oceania Monographs. It does not contain or reveal any restricted knowledge.

If you have cultural rights to access this material, you will find descriptions and images of tjurungas in the following historical texts. Please note that these are publicly available online but they have not been edited for cultural sensitivities. Extreme care should be taken in reading or circulating the materials. I point to these resources only that others with the right authority can be guided towards making better decisions about access, handling and conservation. I do not personally endorse the details of these texts nor approve of their publication and sale. I nonetheless respect the decisions of archives to maintain them and to manage access according to their own protocols.

Campbell, W.D. 1910. “The need for an ethnological survey of Western Australia.” Journal of the Natural History and Science Society of Western Australia 3 (1):102-109.

Clement, Emile. 1904. “Ethnographical notes on the Western-Australian Aborigines: With a descriptive catalogue of a collection of ethnographical objects from Western Australia by J.D.E Schmeltz.” Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie 16 (1/2):1-29.

Jagor, Fedor. 1879. “Ein Steinmesser und sieben Zauberhölzer aus Süd-Australien.” Verhandlungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte 11:105-106.

Ratzel, Friedrich. 1894. Völkerkunde. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Leipzig und Wien: Bibliographisches Institut., p349

Spencer, Baldwin, and F.J. Gillen. 1899. The native tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan & Co.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F.J. Gillen. 1927. The Arunta: A study of a Stone Age people. London: Macmillan & Co.

A note for private collectors and auction houses

Although my priority is to work with museums I am nonetheless happy to examine images of objects in your collection to help you make better labelling decisions and to narrow down provenance. I cannot, however, provide ‘expert’ guidance with the aim of increasing an item’s commercial value, per principle 3 of the SAA code of ethics.