Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Review/The Dendroglyphs or "Carved Trees" of New South Wales

Folk-Lore, Volume XXXI (1920)
Review of The Dendroglyphs or “Carved Trees” of New South Wales by Edwin Sidney Hartland
734554Folk-Lore, Volume XXXI (1920) — Review of The Dendroglyphs or “Carved Trees” of New South WalesEdwin Sidney Hartland

The Dendroglyphs or “Carved Trees” of New South Wales. By R. Etheridge, Junr. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales. Ethnological Series, No. 3. Sydney: W. A. Gullick, Govt. Printer.

The custom of the Australian natives of carving or blazing trees as a memorial has been well known, and has excited much interest among anthropologists. But, until the present work, no systematic account of the practice had been attempted. This work by the curator of the Australian Museum at Sydney, and issued by the Government, aims at supplying the deficiency.

The practice appears to be almost entirely confined to New South Wales, as a map with the sites indicated and numbered, which is appended to the book, will show. Mr. Etheridge, who has devoted much research to the facts and is particularly well qualified for it, divides the dendroglyphs into taphoglyphs, which surround and record graves, and teleteglyphs, which surround the site of a Bora, or initiation ceremony. From their very nature these memorials are liable to disappear by the accidental occurrence of a fire, by wilful destruction, such as no doubt many of them have suffered at the hands of settlers, or lastly by their own perishable nature in the long run. Consequently none of those now extant can be described as ancient: the great majority of them in fact have been made since the coming of the white man, as is conclusively proved by the evidence they bear of being executed with iron tools, though some were done with stone adzes. The taphoglyphs consist of more or less geometrical figures carved either in the bark or, after removal of the bark, on a portion of the surface of the tree, in the exposed sapwood. Rhomboids, chevrons, herring-bones, spirals, serpentine and other shapes are illustrated. The teleteglyphs tend to be more elaborate, even where only such figures are executed; but they often include outlines of animals, and sometimes even very rough outlines of the human form.

Mr. Etheridge has been at much pains to make his work complete by enumerating and where possible describing as well as illustrating every known example. And he has sought the meaning of the figures and the exact intention of the carvers, unfortunately with very little result. Scarcely any information could be obtained from the natives. They specified freely enough, when they knew it, the name of the person buried beside the taphoglyphs; but the meaning of the carved figures they either could not or would not tell. Little could be gleaned from a comparison of the dendroglyphs either with one another, or with the designs on wooden implements or weapons or on the skins used for clothing. The symbolism therefore remains unknown.

The teleteglyphs are slightly, and only slightly, more explicable. The author comes to the conclusion about them that “the zoomorphous designs are in all probability totemic; but amongst the quasi-geometrical figures it is not easy to distinguish between totemic and non-totemic glyphs. If the former are admitted to be of a totemic nature, then it follows that certain specific animals were totems in more than one, and possibly in several tribes, or sub-tribes, of a nation.” This is of course probable. It seems moreover that some of the designs were specially intended to represent the food forbidden to young men after initiation. Some of the anthropomorphic designs were stated to represent Daramulun or Baiame, both supernatural beings who interest themselves in the initiation ceremonies.

The distribution of the teleteglyphs generally coincides with that of the taphoglyphs; but judging by the map it extends much nearer to the coast. Whether this is because of the disappearance from various causes of the taphoglyphs Mr. Etheridge does not say. He is of opinion that the custom of making teleteglyphs was centred within the boundaries of the group of tribes of which the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi were the centre, that it was "apparently filtering through to contiguous districts more or less open to the influence of those nations," and that nearly half of the sites are within the area ascribed by Howitt to the four-matrimonial-sub-class organization. What may be the meaning of this combination of elements of culture is another question; but it may turn out to be important in further investigation.

The attention of students interested not merely in the problems of Australian anthropology, but in early culture generally, should be directed to this work, the product of much careful research and illustrated with so many splendid illustrations. In years to come it will remain as the only record of these efforts of native art, beyond the few specimens preserved in museums, of which the best collection is happily in the Australian Museum under Mr. Etheridge’s own care.