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Part of a collection
A large hand scraper (Sokoloff 1977: 20a).

by David Andrew Roberts

In the early years of the twentieth century, two men seeking evidence of Aboriginal "workshops" in coastal NSW, visited Newcastle "with little result" (Etheridge and Whitelegge 1907). In fact, the physical evidence of an ancient Aboriginal presence in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie region is abundant, though much has been destroyed by erosion, and by agricultural, mining, urban and industrial activity. Surface evidence documented to date includes a wide variety of scraping and cutting implements, quarried from sites at the foot of cliffs at Nobbies, Merewether and Glenrock, and ochres acquired locally from sites at Murdering Gully and Merewether Beach. The region has a high proliferation of axe-grinding grooves and trees scared by the removal of bark for canoes, and there are numerous galleries of stencils and paintings in the Wattagans and in sandstone rock-shelters along Yango and Narone Creeks near Wollembi.

Archaeological examination of the Newcastle region has been limited, with the primary work to date undertaken in 1971 by Professor Len Dyall of the University of Newcastle, who excavated an occupation and burial site near Swansea Heads in 1971, yielding remains that were radio-carbon dated at just under 8000 years old. Dyall also documented around 100 Aboriginal "campsites" along the coast between Catherine Hill Bay and Birubi Point (Dyall 1971), many marked by "middens" of accumulated shell, bone, implements and waste flakes. More recently, in 1998, National Parks and Wildlife excavated a large midden site at Moonee Beach near Lake Macquarie, which evidenced the significant size" of the populations sustained in this region over thousands of years.

By the early twentieth century many locals possessed small artefact collections, as did a number of organisations such as the Newcastle Technical College and the Australasian Society of Newcastle (Cooksey 1926). The first major collection of Aboriginal occupational evidence was undertaken by Daniel F. Cooksey of Mayfield, who in the 1910s and 1920s could be seen "filling his pockets with stones, or crawling in ungainly attitudes over the sand looking for stone knives not much bigger than pins" (Cooksey 1925). Cooksey collected over 5000 "excellent specimens" from the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie area, "evidence of a very high degree of skill and monuments of their industry and patience" (Voice of the North, 10 June 1926: 18). Much of this material was donated to the Australian Museum in Sydney, and apparently some to the British Museum in London. In the 1920s, Cooksey led community lobbying to establish a museum in Newcastle, supported by others such as Mr. C.C. Humphreys of Waratah, who donated a stone axe (NMH, 7 April 1926).

Cooksey's approaches to the Australian Museum, the Museum sent its ethnologist, William Walford Thorpe, to undertake field research in the Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and Port Stephens districts in 1926. Thorpe retrieved an enormous collection of flaked stone implements to supplement the Cooksey collection. He also found skeletal remains, including a skull at Morna Point (NMH, 25 March 1926, 15 June 1926, and 6 August 1926). The material was described an illustrated as "Ethnological Notes" in the Records of the Australian Museum in 1928 (Thorpe 1928). Thorpe's work was supplemented by collections at Morna Point by Lesley D. Hall from the Department of Geography, the findings also published in Records of the Australian Museum in 1928 (Hall 1928), and by Roy H. Goddard (Goddard 1934).

In more recent times, the chief collector of local Aboriginal artefacts was Percy Haslam, who procured a great range of wooden implements, made of gum, myrtle and wattle, mostly from the west side of Lake Macquarie. The Haslam collection, including a hand shield, a woomera, a woman's digging stick, hunting and fighting clubs, boomerangs and spears, was donated to the Auchmuty Library during Haslam's tenure as the University's Convocation Research Fellow from 1977. The collection is now housed in the Newcastle Regional Museum, forming the backbone of the Mixed Mobs exhibition that was opened in March 2001. The University also housed the Laut Family Collection of artefacts, including flints, ochre and graved stone from Burwood Beach and Swansea beaches, now displayed in the University's new Umulliko Centre.


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Citation: D.A. Roberts, H.M. Carey and V. Grieves, Awaba: A Database of Historical Materials Relating to the Aborigines of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie Region, University of Newcastle, 2002
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Last Updated: 23 January, 2003
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