Some eight hundred years ago a girl died in the area that would be later called New England.
Her family was camping in an area now known as Blaxland’s Flat some 15 miles south west of modern Grafton. This is hilly country with long deep narrow valleys running north-south between sandstone ridges down which rush creeks often turbulent after heavy rain ending in the Orara River. It was also country with a high sacred value to the people of that time.
Six miles to the north are a series of stone arrangements on the western side of Skinner’s Swamp. Nearby are artworks including a three foot long fish like figure and a large goanna. A mile to the north east, we enter rougher country. Here in the many rock shelters we find one of the largest concentrations of Aboriginal art in the Northern River.
While the evidence is still uncertain, all these sites appear to belong to the same period, the centuries surrounding the death of Blaxland’s Flat girl.
We do not know why she died, although there is no evidence of foul play. We do know that she was loved. On her death, her family cut a shroud from the bark of a bloodwood tree and wrapped her in it. They then carried her to what could well have been the family deposition site.
Aboriginal people interred their dead at different ways at different times over the millennia. Sometimes, bodies were placed in trees to allow the flesh to rot for later burial. Sometimes, bodies were cremated and the bones then broken and deposited. At other times, the dead were tied up in sitting positions with their legs bent so that they could leap to the future chase. They were then buried in shallow graves, covered by brush.
In Blaxland’s Flat girl’s case, they carried her from the camp to a low hung rock shelter set back in a cliff a bit under eight feet from the ground. This height was probably intended to protect the site from predators. There they deposited her body, protected at some point by a sandstone wall.
I say that we know that this was probably a family site, for at least fifteen people were deposited there.
Blaxland’s Flat Girl rested for the next eight hundred years, although family hopes about disturbance proved illusory. It is clear that that the site was visited, probably by one of the large tree goannas found in the area. These tear the flesh with long claws, feeding on the remains. They could certainly have entered the site.
Late in 1963, dingo hunters found the site. This was reported to Isabel McBryde at the University of New England who mounted a carefully planned rescue dig. After eight hundred years, Blaxland’s Flat girl returned to the public gaze. Now after meticulous scientific research, we have a human being to fit into the often dry record revealed by archaeological remains.
Note to readers: This column began in the Armidale Express. Earlier in 2012 it was replaced by a new column called the Views of Gen Y in order to make the paper seem more relevant. Tsk! I am continuing the series because it gives me a chance for a different type of writing. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.