A Special Vote of Thanks to the South Australian Museum
By Steven & Evan Strong
We arranged with Ramindjeri spokesperson Karno Walker to meet on the lawn just outside the South Australian Museum. It was his idea, as he wanted to show us some artefacts on display inside and something else again. As always, the whole venture was clouded in vague notions as to what was about to occur and the knowledge that we would leave much the wiser, but not fully aware of why or what. Of what we were shown one object is still etched into my head, not only the replica but the table above, Original artefacts showcased, shape of the room and the casual comment made by the museum assistant have not been forgotten. During our entire time with this copy none of us could fully absorb how things had got to this tragic state of affairs. The utter disrespect on display beggared belief. That reaction overwhelmed all of us during our ten minute faux encounter with this ancient salt water crocodile, but was lessened by the reality that it has to be this way.
That was our initial response, the whole event seemed so outrageous. But as we have often found first impressions are often misleading. Was this the flagrant insult to Original Lore as we immediately assumed, or upon further reflection, could it be what lay on the floor was a clever compromise inspired by a long-term plan?
What lay under a large wooden table with a glass top containing quite a few ancient Original artefacts was a resin cast of a magnificent engraving on rock of a crocodile which was originally found near Panaramitee in the 1920’s. So unexpected and sophisticated was the detail and manner of presentation when sighted, the entire engraving was removed as one piece without permission and then stored somewhere within the confines of the South Australian Museum.
An Inconvenient Crocodile
That such an incredibly detailed and artistic rendition of a salt-water crocodile was found so far from the coast, in what many would see as an unforgiving arid country with long periods of drought, presents an immediate problem. The area where the engraving was stolen has been for some considerable time one of the drier parts of Australia and least conducive the existence of any type of crocodile. That engraving just should not be here and this truth led eminent Australian archaeologist Josephine Flood to openly concede that the presence of any crocodile in this particular place was nothing less than an “enigma.” To Flood’s credit this riddle was perplexing to many authorities, but not impossible for her to solve. In fact it really wasn’t that difficult and always came down to one possible choice, but it does require a brave leap into unknown territories, which Flood was prepared to take.
“In view of the thick desert varnish on the petroglyph, I am going to be so bold as to suggest that it may derive from a time when terrestrial crocodiles and humans actually co-existed in South Australia, although the youngest crocodiles so far date to more than 75,000 at Cuddie Springs.” 1.
Or, and this is the only plausible alternative as the date of 75,000 years remains unchallenged if restricted to this general area, an Original person from way up north came down and carved this image with the motivation of sharing knowledge, or perhaps one of their tribe went up north and came back down and provided this as part of the narrative of his journey off-country. Flood could have mentioned such far-fetched alternatives, but knew enough about the culture to not even bother to canvas such insults to culture. To permanently carve, paint or depict anything on tribal country that directly belongs to that same country, well that just does not happen. And if by some infinitesimally remote chance an Original person did transgress so many taboos, as soon as it was found the carving would have been completely destroyed and culprit speared to death for insulting the spirits and protocol.
No, Flood is right, the engraving has to be no less than 75,000 years old and most likely much older. What also needs to be appreciated is that figure is merely a bare minimum base from which to scale backwards from, the desert varnish leaves no other starting point in this journey so far down the white-fella time-line.
Where Resin Meets Synthetic Carpet
Taken without permission or respect in the 1920’s and then stored out of the public gaze somewhere within the South Australian Museum, an epoxy-resin cast has acted as a deputy and rests on some old carpet shielded by a huge wooden table displaying all manner of Original artefacts that immediately attracts the eye. As they should, in each museum every exhibit is designed and assembled in a way that stirs interest or curiosity. Consideration is given to eye-level, positioning, framing, signposts, background and electronic supplements, all of these ‘tricks of the trade’ are intended to ramp up the interest.
It was patently obvious the crocodile toy has been set on a far more unobtrusive path masked in anonymity. Camouflaged by a colour not that too dissimilar to carpet, I had to crawl under the table carefully levering and readjusting before sliding the plastic reptile out between two table legs. I still remember while under the table the voice of the nearby sales assistant encouraging me to keep pushing it out into the light of the neon, clear air and four walls.
How Hard is This Rock?
Once quelling the initial surge of indignation laced with a healthy serving of dismay, what was so apparent and quite spectacular was the high degree of artistic skill accentuated by the delicate cut and clean interconnection of lines. In what adds to the complexity, this engraved package was complimented by what maybe a set of First Language symbols adjacent to the crocodile. Above and around this reptile and complex array of symbols was the input of some very advanced technology. The tools needed and level of technology required to create this ancient master-piece is dramatically at odds with the popular notion of an Original stick, stone and bone tool-kit.
If the original engraving was cut into this compound of chemicals (with no colour photograph available, the only black and white single photo over 90 years old and not one word supplied as a commentary, for the sake of balance and dearth of other choices this is an alternative), or perhaps a softer rock like sandstone, there is no problem. A hard rock sharpened for some time, an obsidian blade or even a kangaroo thigh bone will be sufficient to complete the task at hand. However, if the rock is granite, igneous, basalt, or a harder rock, sticks and stones may break bones but will not cut any of these stones, nothing less than a metal blade could be considered.
This vexed question of the unexpected sophistication of technology used in engraving all comes down to the hardness of rock, and in that endeavour this cheap replica cannot assist. It is only through a public viewing of the authentic item will this issue be resolved.
The problem is that this is only one question that deserves to be answered by the South Australian Museum, there are a eleven other areas of concern that come to mind and the presence of refined technology is but one. And in what complicates proceedings the other eleven questions all end up with the same number as an answer. Therein sits a real mathematical and logical contradiction, because these eleven numbers just don’t add up, no matter which way the answers are rearranged it all comes out to nought.
Eleven Times Nothing Equals Nothing
Irrespective of the order these answers are assembled, it always amounts to nothing.
- How many other Original artefacts on public display have no explanation or printed information related to the artefact?
- How many other artefacts on public display have no showcase or stand?
- How many other artefacts on public display are hidden under a table laying on the carpeted floor?
- How many other Original artefacts does the museum have that have been dated by a highly regarded archaeologist to be over 75,000 years old?
- How many other artefacts in this museum show only the replica when they have the original in residence?
- How many other artefacts did Karno take us to that were, untitled, unprotected, neglected and lacking in one word as an explanation?
In the last week how many other people have crawled under the table and carefully pulled out this chemical copy?
- How many people on Museum escorted tours have been told of this chemical cast and its controversial history?
- When providing a general summary for the entire exhibit, what importance was placed on this ancient date and the many associated implications when compiling this overview?
- How many other Original artefacts that deserve to be the centre-piece of any display were stored, hidden replicated then placed under a table without a word written or clue left as to the engraving’s origin, date of creation or purpose?
- How many other museums in Australia present their collection of Original artefacts older than 40,000 years untiltled, unshowcased and cast upon the floor with no indication of what this means?
So in combination the sum total to every question is nothing, there has been no action or attempt to bring this magnificent piece of archaeology to the notice of the public or anyone else. Stolen without any Original agreement to remove this wonderful national treasure from where it should have never been taken, it has been deliberately hidden and kept away from any prying eyes or further speculation. The ploy was as simple as it is effective, out of sight out of mind. The plan was perfect, but somewhere during the execution somebody thankfully slipped up.
The Fly in the Ointment
Stolen over 90 years ago then hidden somewhere within the Museum, presumably the hope was the crocodile would be forgotten. And there this inconvenient archaeological truth should have remained hidden and we have no doubt that was the intention as relayed from above. Then with everything stowed away some broke ranks and threw this ‘bread crumb’ under the table? We have no doubt that close to 100,000 people have read Josephine Flood’s excellent reference book, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, and in this book she devotes some time and comments on this site, and was unequivocal with the date she proposed. This date of no less than 75,000 years is not a state secret and certainly is an unwelcome inconvenience, but no living soul today (excluding a few employees of the Museum) has actually seen or touched the artefact. Until present and accounted for today, this precious engraving floats in an academic ether without a home or advocate.
We believe that the reality is that the officials of this museum are bound by directives from up high and that which was thrown under the table is a very clever compromise. The genuine object must never be publically displayed and no information about this pesky reptile will be disseminated through any official channel. And that is exactly what happened, the instructions have been carried out in the most literal sense and between the cracks an untitled mysterious resin copy was tossed on the floor under the table without prior warning, word or title. Although not prominently displayed, it can be seen and no doubt has been noticed and examined by others. We are of the opinion that the academics of this institution were hamstrung by the denials and attempts to conceal from above and this was overcome through the actions of some dedicated academics who felt aggrieved at being forced to fabricate and hide, and found a loop-hole.
An Engraving of a big Lizard
This artefact is so much more than an engraved crocodile, it single-handedly rewrites so much of not only Australian but global world history. According to all the accepted experts and syllabus, Australia was unpopulated until some adventurous African adventurers sailed to this continent at sometime between 50-60,000 years ago. Not only supplying a date, the same authorities assure us landfall first took place up north, possibly Arnhem Land or the Kimberleys. From this initial ‘discovery’ these mariners from afar slowly inched around the shore-line of this continent and once established some made their way inland via the larger inland river systems.
When it comes to South Australia a date of 40,000 years is begrudgingly attributed to the coast of South Australia, and another 10,000 years passes by before the inland sections of this state are walked upon. Great story, you can read about it everywhere, the problem is that there is no room for an occupation date of 75,000 years in this fictional account. This number is no less than 35,000 years before any human is supposed to have set foot within one hundred kilometres of where the Panaramitee engraving was found, which is well away from the coast. Once again the numbers don’t add up and one equation has to be wrong.
It is not just that the numbers that don’t gel, this incredibly elaborate labour intensive creation demands skills and equipment that theoretically do not exist at that time. If the rock is hard then then contradictions multiply, and of course, that does include the strong possibility that the accompanying engraved script may well be part of the First Language. It is no wonder this engraving was whisked away and cloaked in secrecy, nothing about this ancient human product fits into any accepted historical narrative.
Right or Wrong
The caves in Lascaux bear witness to an artistic tradition of high refinement beginning nearly fourty thousand years ago. This location is lauded as the stepping stone in humanities’ ascension, if so, what can be said about the engraved crocodile at Panaramitee which is no less than twice as old.
Apparently, nothing. No information is to be shared in any public domain, no recent photograph shall be supplied and nor shall serious academic analysis of any type is to be undertaken. The crocodile is the ‘elephant in the room,’ but if no-one talks about it, sees the original or acknowledges its existence this inconvenient truth might just go away.
There are so many associated avenues of potential research that have been prohibited entry. Is this the oldest evidence of a formal religious activity in the world? What Dreaming stories, close or nearby make mention of crocodiles? What tools were used if the rock is soft like sandstone? Past 50,000 years, is there a more intricate or time consuming piece of engraved art of superior quality to this crocodile? What is the standard of rock engravings at a similar time period in other locations outside Australia? What do the local Original people know about their lost treasure?
And so the questions grow, but tragically in combination they fade into the background, and will remain so until an elemental insult to Original everything is righted. When will the authorities right this appalling wrong and return this large slab of rock with an amazing engraving to its rightful place in country? That is the only right approach and until that happens, everything is wrong.
This mob have had their chance for the last 90 years and failed miserably. To the best of our knowledge the genuine artefact has never been shown, analysed, publically discussed or photographed in colour. No-one knows of what type the rock is, and there is no official document to consult. Obviously the crocodile rock is of more use to Elton John than it is to this institution, and we can only assume that since they will not release the original creation in preference to the cover version, there seems no point in keeping something that is obviously regarded to be merely clutter. Let them continue in their cryptic display of an anonymous chemical copy hidden under the table for as long as they wish, and simply because is utterly right, they must return the original engraving to the proper Original keepers.
We strongly suspect that it was for these reasons a detour was manufactured through the cast of a plastic crocodile head which was tossed under the table in the hope that this seed would germinate when the timing was right. To whoever was responsible they should be commended for their integrity and ingenuity in obeying their conscience and deserve a special vote of thanks.
With so much deemed unsuitable for public consumption, there is much about this engraving that is unknown. And it will remain hidden in the shadows, with so much undone and so many mistakes made until this precious piece of our global heritage is returned on site to the exact location from which it was stolen, there is nothing more to be said, we can only be silent. Once it is secured in its rightful place then the conversation can resume and finally begin a meaningful dialogue. However, this time around new conditions apply, let the local Original Elders and Custodians of the Old Ways lead the discussion in consultation with the Spirits. The rest of us should learn to hold our restless tongue and listen to the land and those who speak for the mother.
Things are Fine as They are
Or leave it where it is, wherever that is, and continue showing no authentic crocodile head or ounce of respect and suffer the consequences. It is that stark, this is very much a right or wrong situation, to not return this sacred piece of rock to its resting place is so, so shamefully wrong. It was very wrong to take it, it is even more wrong to keep it in these supposedly enlightened days, and it is for that reason two wrongs can never make a right. The next step is to clean up this mess, beginning with officials from the South Australia Museum doing the right …
1. Josephine Flood, 2004, “Archaeology of the Dreamtime: the story of prehistoric Australia and its people”, (J.B. Publishing, Marleston, South Australia), 180.