Etched in Bone: Screening of a work in progress by Martin Thomas and Béatrice Bijon, with a response by Luciana Martins


Photography: Huw Rowlands

This special session of Landscape Surgery on 9th May, supported by the Centre for the GeoHumanities, was an extraordinary opportunity to witness and respond to a ‘work-in-progress’ film by Martin Thomas and Béatrice Bijon, from Australian National University. The session was chaired by Felix Driver, Luciana Martins from Birkbeck, University of London responded, and the assembly generated keen discussion, which in its turn rippled out into the London streets and buildings and beyond.

My response will be less descriptive and summative than I am in the habit of offering, both because of the scope and complexity of our shared experience as well as the dynamics of its generation; its ‘coming into being’. I will instead attempt a reflection focused on three themes that struck me most forcefully, and acknowledge my omissions as well as my debt to all of you who created the experience with your responses. The first will be the historic events that the film bears witness to. I will move on to the recent repatriation events that the film witnessed. My aim will then be to consider the witnessing itself; the relationships between the film, audiences and events.

With that said, I would like to start with the customary warning to readers that I will be referring to deceased Indigenous Australians and others.

Etched in Bone bears witness to the 1948 theft of human remains from Arnhem Land, their repatriation in 2010, and burial in 2011. American physical anthropologist Frank Setzler, who Martin describes elsewhere1 as ‘the bone taker’, says in his diary that he stole the remains on 28th October 1948. These events took place on the ‘American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’, which was led by Australian photographer and ethnologist Charles P. Mountford, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution, and supported by the Australian government.

The expedition’s motives and contexts include governmental ones – American-Australian relations; institutional ones – National Geographical Society and the Smithsonian Institution; cultural ones – Western, scientific, artistic, and Indigenous; and personal ones – Mountford himself, his supportive government minister Arthur Calwell, and particularly Frank Setzler.

The film and other archive material suggest that the Expedition benefitted from essentially friendly relations with the people of Arnhem Land, while perpetuating the image of a ‘primitive’ land and people waiting to be ‘discovered’. Much ecological work was undertaken, identifying flora and fauna, and collecting substantial quantities of material to be shipped to the US and other parts of Australia. Within these contexts, Frank Setzler planned and carried out the theft of human remains from Injalak Hill, a place he called Gallery Hill. He spent some time excavating flints with the help of two Aboriginal teenagers (Jimmy Bungaroo and Mickey). He stole the bones while these boys were asleep, knowing that they would otherwise impede his actions.

While there are other surviving witnesses, particularly the Expedition’s official records and Setzler’s diaries and private papers, those that have been described as most shocking are the celluloid frames of colour film exposed by National Geographic Magazine photographer Howell Walker, who Setzler invited to witness the theft. The sleeping boys were photographed in black and white. Walker’s film was later recruited to testify to American audiences as part of Setzler’s performance of his role as explorer; a role that Martin showed he seems to have embraced, despite Setzler’s own comments that might suggest otherwise. Indeed, he may well have seen the Expedition as an opportunity to construct such a role, as his Institution may also have seen it as an opportunity to build their physical anthropological collection of artefacts.

The film then witnesses the repatriation in 2010, which was supported by communities from Arnhem Land, the Australian government, and Australian ambassador to the US Kim Beazley. Negotiations with a reluctant Smithsonian Institution led to the arrival in Washington D.C. of three Arnhem Land men: Victor Gumurdul, Thomas Amagula, and Joe Gumbula. In the footage we saw, Martin asks them how they are planning the events of the next day. It becomes clear that they are under some pressure to come to an ‘agreement between us’ to ‘find a shared capital’, as well as to ‘be heard’.

Film of the following day’s ceremony was shown back in Arnhem Land to Jacob Nayinggul. This is one point where the film enters into dialogue with Jacob and others, and the ceremonies of repatriation and burial that follow, a dynamic that I will come back to later. One of the elements and purposes of the ceremonies is the singing of the bones out of the other country and the singing of the bones back home onto country. As the discussion later observed, it seems unbalanced or even unjust for Indigenous people to make the journey, especially at their own expense, to recover stolen ancestral human remains from institutions. However, one can also consider the possibility that the responsibilities of those alive today to their ancestors for the whole of their journey home, including taking leave of the place of their temporary incarceration, transcends such considerations.

The following year, following discussions about how to complete the return onto country, it was agreed by the community that the bones would be buried at Gunbalanya. The film witnesses the improvisation of ceremony leading to and around the burial; indeed as viewers, witnesses in our turn, we see it become part of that improvisation. As Martin and Béatrice later pointed out, improvisation in ceremony is normal because of the diversity of Indigenous communities whose lives overlapped socially and geographically; ‘within Aboriginal society, community is inter-cultural already. It is utterly habitual and normal.’ We learn how Jacob’s responsibilities as elder, and his motives in accord with them, seem to have embraced the film and its opportunities. We see traditional music and dance, ancestral languages, respect for social differences, and the ochre dressing and wrapping in bark cloth of the ancestral bones. We see Jacob and the film engage with and bring ceremony into being with Gunbalanya’s diverse population of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, of residents and visitors, of Christianised and non-Christianised celebrants. We see the evidence of wider public sharing in the presence of film and still cameras and the press. And we witness Jacob’s reflections on the events: that the bones should be dressed in public, so that everyone sees that ‘they go before us, and then we follow’; his ‘thanks to all, everyone, black and white’; his embracing of place, ‘this place means home; home for everyone’; and his anger ‘I’m sorry they were stolen. Stealing is no bloody good, for no-one, black or white’. The ceremony concluded with the protection from the spirits of ‘smoking’, which included all the main participants.

My third point is a brief exploration of the dynamics of the relationship between film and events, and what that might lead us to in broader terms of woven improvised relationships of witnessing, and, if I manage it, to touch on the comments about presences and absences that were raised in the discussion. In Luciana’s response, which Martin welcomed as a meditation, she talked about film as a container of memory, and about this film as a portrait of people and events, ever-flowing, of life and death, presence and absence. In the discussion, it was Sasha who first commented on witnessing. Bones, she told us, are sometimes called in courts as ‘material witnesses’ to the crimes from which they have suffered. In this case, she noted, the witnesses were buried. This theme, as I see it, was elaborated by Katie, Emma, Bergit and Veronica. Layers of witnessing were introduced: Walker’s film, Setzler’s private papers, numbers inscribed on the bones, institutional catalogue records, public audiences, ‘scientific’ anthropologists, the community at Gunbalanya, and not least ourselves. It struck me that each witnessing is part of an ongoing improvisation of ceremony, ritual and bringing into being of events, both forming and being formed. This is reflected in the film; with Martin’s audible and visual presence within the events, not detached from them. Martin and Béatrice also recognised it in our discussions, where they recognised the ‘constant dialogue’ between the film, the people, and the events it first intended to represent.

Luciana also invited us to reflect on the choices that are made about what to include and omit in representations, whether films like this or expedition journals and sketches. Choices reflected in Jacob’s decision to make a film that he would not see completed, to tell his story to Martin and Beatrice, to us, the film’s audience, and to the ancestors whose bones were stolen and brought back onto country. Luciana called on John Berger’s imagery of the storyteller who loses their identity in opening themselves to the stories of others. As I try to draw my thoughts to a point here, even as they multiply and spread in many directions, I can only pause on a knot of questions: who are the storytellers here? Whose are the stories? Who are the witnesses?

Huw Rowlands

1 Thomas, M. 2015 Because it’s your country: death and its meanings in West Arnhem Land. Life Writing 12(2): 203-223.


One thought on “Etched in Bone: Screening of a work in progress by Martin Thomas and Béatrice Bijon, with a response by Luciana Martins

  1. […] Uses of the Archive‘ Workshop at Macquarie University of parts of the documentary, Etched in Bone, being made by ANU researchers Martin Thomas and Béatrice Bijon about the stealing and […]

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