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  • Tools and pigments, found at Madjedbeb, Mirrarr Country in Northern Arnhem Land are dated, by archaeological research in 2017, to be at least 65,000 years old, much earlier than the previous estimates of occupation of Australia by First Nations peoples. These tools and pigments are the earliest evidence of seed grinding, pigment-processing and the use of edge-ground hatchets in the world.

  • Fragments of grinding stones dating back at least 30,000 years have been found at the archaeological site at Cuddie Springs in New South Wales. They were used to grind seeds, ochre and pigments. Aboriginal peoples may have been the first people in the world to grind seeds for flour and bake bread.

  • Rock engravings, on land now known as Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, were created by the Guringai language group. Engraved images of ancestral beings, astronomical constellations, humans, animals and objects such as tools and weapons give insight into beliefs and daily life. A first design was scratched out on the surface using a rock. A sharp rock and a hammer stone were then used to make deep notches at points along the design and the spaces between the notches were then carved out. The Australian Museum used a stylised outline of the rock engraving of an echidna from Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park as its logo from 2006 to 2015 with the tagline ‘nature, culture, discover’. When Europeans arrived in 1788 they sailed into an art gallery of over 10,000 rock engravings. Each artwork told a story and held knowledge for its community. Many no longer remain but it is estimated that 2000 have survived in the Sydney region.

  • The Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, in western New South Wales, contains the world’s largest known collection of ancient fossilized human footprints. The Australian Museum used plaster casts and laser scanning to create detailed models of some of the footprints and reproduced the tracks of a young child from 20,000 years ago. The child, who was walking with a family group, seemed to have paused, turned and ran away alone.

    These replicated footprints can be seen on Museum Walk at the entrance to the Museum on William Street.

  • ‘Backed artefacts’ or ‘microliths’ appeared in Sydney’s archaeological record and then disappeared about 1500 years ago. Backed artefacts are stone implements that have had small flakes removed along one side to create a distinct, steep, blunt edge. The side is thought to have been blunted so that the implement could be gripped in the hand, attached to a spear shaft or gum handle. Previously called ‘Bondi Points’, after the Sydney suburb where they were first identified, the purpose of these stone objects is not exactly known. By magnifying, testing and examining use patterns and residue on the objects, it appears they were multi-functional and were used for wood-working, skin-working, as spear points, for scarification and perhaps even jewellery.

  • Ground-edged axes appeared in the archaeological record in south-eastern Australia and were used with handles (hafted) or hand-held. This style of axe, known as a mogoby the Gadigal (one of Sydney’s traditional language groups),was used as a tool to makenawi (bark canoes) as well as to cut wood, hunt or build shelters. Usually made from strong igneous or metamorphic rock, they were traded across nations from sites that had quarries of suitable material. By comparing the composition of axes heads to quarries, the origin of an axe can be determined. Research shows that trade routes of up to 200 km were not uncommon and one axe head in the museum’s collection travelled 1000 km from its source site. In Sydney the axes would be shaped on the sandstone near waterways. Grinding grooves, used to sharpen and shape axes, were located close to water, as water was needed to counteract the heat caused by the friction when grinding. In the late 1830s, in the northern Sydney beachside suburb of Manly, an Aboriginal man presented a hafted axe to a six-year old girl. The Manly mogois one of only two complete examples of pre-European hafted axes from the Sydney region to have survived. It remained in the girl’s family for nearly 160 years before it was donated to the Australian Museum in 1996. It is currently on display in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.

  • Fish hooks appeared in the archaeological record along the eastern Australian coast between Port Stephens and the NSW-Victorian border. In Sydney, mahn (Gadigal fisherwomen) fished with a bara (hook), garridjun (line) and ngamul (sinker made from stone). They fished day and night from nawis( canoes), catching wurridal (mullet),yarramarra (bream), wulumay (snapper), badiwa (Flat Head), baludarri (Leather Jacket) and wugara (Perch) when out on the harbour. Girls learned magari (to fish) as they grew, learning the fishing places, songs, how to burley with chewed cockle and how to lure and snag a magura (fish). A very important part of learning to become a mahnwas how to make your bara from the cheek of a turban shell using stone fish hook files. Turban shell’s reflective surface acts as a lure for the fish. Fishing line was spun from long strips of kurrajong bark and socked in a solution made from the red bloodwood tree it fraying.

  • Dutch documents recorded the journey of Maccassan trepangers to northern Australia. From 1588 Maccassan praus sail to the north-eastern coast of the Northern Territory. They traded trepang (sea cucumber) until 1906. In 1939 an Aboriginal bark painting, depicting a Maccassan prau (sailing vessel) was purchased by the Museum from Reverend Wilbur Chaseling who had set up a mission station at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. As sailing vessels were not used by the Yolngu people of the area, the painting is evidence of contact with the Maccassans from Sulawesi (in present-day Indonesia).

  • On April 29th Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay on the Endeavour. After an encounter with the local Aboriginal people, Cook wrote that “all they seem’d to want was us to be gone”. In 1894 the Australian Museum purchased one of Cook’s six or seven feathered capes that had been kept by Cook’s widow. The cape had been presented as an official welcome gift to Cook by Chief Kalaniopu’u of Hawaii in 1778 on Cook’s third voyage. This feathered cape, or kipuka, was worn by important Hawaiian rulers for significant ceremonies and in battle. This cape is made from feathers of various species of birds: the red-feathered honey-eater, the yellow O’o Moho and Mamo, and a cockerel with black plumage. It is currently on display in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum in the Westpac Long Gallery.

  • Governor Lachlan Macquarie initiated a ceremony to present breastplates inscribed with words such as ‘Chief’, ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ to local Aboriginal people, believing this would foster cooperation and loyalty. The Australian Museum holds several of these breastplates in their collections. They are an indication of a cultural divide [MOU1] as these titles had no meaning to Aboriginal people who based their decisions on the consensus of a group of Elders.

  • The museum’s first catalogue, ‘The Catalogue of Specimens of Natural History and Miscellaneous Curiosities deposited in the Australian Museum’ was published by Dr George Bennett, Secretary and Curator (Director) from 1835 to 1841. It includes 36 Australian mammal specimens, 5 exotic mammals, 2 mammal skeletons, 317 species of Australian birds, 25 exotic birds, 5 reptiles, 6 fish, 211 insects, 25 shells, 28 foreign fossils, 9 Aboriginal cultural objects and 16 from Melanesia.

  • Thousands of objects from the Australian Museum’s ‘Ethnology Collections’ were placed on display in the Ethnographic Court at the Sydney International Exhibition, housed in the Garden Palace (Royal Botanic Gardens).

  • The Garden Palace was destroyed by fire and the museum lost 2,000 objects, 359 being irreplaceable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural objects. In 1999, ‘Carved Man Arrows’ believed to have been destroyed in the Garden Palace Fire were rediscovered. The Carved Man Arrows were collected in 1836 from Mer in the Torres Strait but they are more likely to have originated in New Guinea. They are currently on display in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.

  • The Australian Museum purchased a multi-pronged, barbed Aboriginal fishing spear typical of those used in the Sydney area. The Gadi people, one of Sydney’s traditional language groups, made galara (fishing spears) from the flowering stem of the gadi (grass tree) as it is light and durable. They are easy to transport and float on the water, making them easy to retrieve. The spears had between two and four prongs depending on the purpose and the maker. Each of the prongs is barbed with shell, fish teeth, animal bone, stingray spines or sharpened hardwood. The pieces are lashed together with plant fibre and the joints strengthened by cementing them together with gadi resin. They were used when fishing from nawis (canoes), rock platforms or in shallow waters. The multi-pronged spears were particularly useful with fast-moving or narrow fish.

  • The Australian Museum purchased an Aboriginal dual-purpose digging tool that had been collected in the Lachlan-Darling area of western New South Wales. The shovel with its head and handle both designed for digging is indicative of multipurpose tools produced to reduce the number of tools to carry on treks.

  • The Museum purchased an Aboriginal wallaby-skin water carrier from the Lachlan-Darling area of western NSW. Skin carriers of this type were made by Aboriginal people to carry substantial quantities of water through arid or semi-arid areas.

  • The Australian Museum Ethnology Hall opened, on the site of today’s Hallstrom Theatre, in a ‘temporary’ brick building which was not demolished until 1906. The exhibition displayed a significant number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural objects, as well as artefacts from Egypt and the Pacific. A museum’s status during this time period was judged by how many items were on display so as many items as possible were crammed into the small space, many being multiple examples of very similar objects. The Australian Museum Report of Trustees for the Year 1888 states that the “Ethnological Hall has been opened to the public during the greater part of the year and has proved, as anticipated, to be not the least interesting portion of the Museum” which, translating to today’s language, means that it was a popular exhibition for visitors.

  • A wooden shield made by the Kuku Yalangi people of the Daintree Rainforest in north-eastern Queensland was collected by the museum. Shields such as this one with its distinctive shape and bold design are the largest shields made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people. They were used as defensive devices against missiles and clubs. Rainforest shields made by the Kuku Yalangi people are now being displayed in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.

  • A wallaby trap woven from lawyer cane from Atherton, south-west of Cairns was acquired by the Museum. Basket traps such as this were made large enough for wallabies to enter but the trap narrows to prevent its escape. Basket traps such as this were used throughout Australia to catch birds, mammals and fish. The shape, size and materials of manufacture varied according each region’s flora and fauna. This wallaby trap is currently being displayed in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.

  • Robert Etheridge Junior, Curator (Director) of the Australian Museum from 1895 to 1917 formed the ‘Ethnological Committee of New South Wales’ to acquire Aboriginal cultural objects for the museum “before more of these valuable records of the early history of the Continent are further disseminated over the world and lost to the people of the State”. Many Aboriginal cultural objects were being sent overseas at this time until their export was prohibited by law in 1913.

  • The Australian Museum purchased the ‘Roth Collection’, a collection of 2,000 Aboriginal cultural objects. Dr Walter Edmund Roth was employed by the government from 1898 to 1905 to oversee the administration of Aboriginal people of northern Queensland and to record their culture. He acquired many objects, took photos and gathered cultural information.

    A yoke-shaped dilly bag from Boulia is an object in the Roth Collection. The bag, made from woollen thread, indicates it was made after British colonisation, as traditionally bags such as this were made from fibre from bark, leaves and stems. It was found to contain Pitjuri, a plant with high nicotine content and was used as an anaesthetic, a stimulant, appetite suppressant and was smoked during ceremonies.

    A nautilus shell forehead band, made by the Gugu-Yalanji people near Cooktown, is an object in the Roth Collection. Forehead bands were worn as a body adornment and were traded with other language groups. The nautilus shell forehead band is currently being displayed in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.

    A cross boomerang, made by the Yidinji people near Cairns, is an object in the Roth Collection. Made of wood and decorated with red and white ochre stripes, it would have been used in throwing competitions. The boomerang its designed with a curved upper side to aid its flight and may have had it tips lit at night to produce a fireworks effect.

    An Aboriginal spinning top, made by the Yidinji people near Cairns, is an object in the Roth Collection. It is made from a gourd decorated with ochre and has a stick handle. It is an object used for entertainment and competitions to see who could spin the top for the longest time.

  • Charles Hedley and Allan McCulloch, biologists from the Museum acquired cultural objects from the Torres Strait Islands while on a collecting expedition.

    A highly decorative crocodile mask from Mer (Murray Island) was one of the objects collected by Hedley and McCulloch. The mask, made from turtle shell, wood, feathers, fibre and shells, is made to be worn over a man’s head during ceremonies. It is currently on display in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.

  • The Aboriginal Gallery opens on the top floor of the Vernon Wing of the museum. Unfortunately, the sun shining through the skylight made a blaze of light and reflections on the glass showcases.

  • The museum commissioned Albert Woodlands, an Aboriginal man from West Kempsey, to build a bark canoe in traditional style for an exhibition at the Australian Museum. Tied bark canoes, called nawis by the Gadigal, one of Sydney’s traditional language groups, allowed them to travel around the harbour and rivers quickly and easily. Used for general transport, fishing and collecting birds’ eggs from reed beds, paddles would help them to steer and propel the canoe. If they started to leak they would be sealed with paperbark and resin. A fire was sometimes lit on a bed of wet clay and grass which was used to cook freshly caught fish.

  • Fred McCarthy, the Australian Museum’s Curator of Anthropology, was a member of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, one of the largest expeditions of its type in the world. During the expedition many cultural objects were collected for the museum’s collections.

    Leilira blades, very long flaked blades that are triangular or trapezoid in cross section, were collected by Fred McCarthy. These blades, usually made from quartzite, are up to 20 cm long. They were used by Aboriginal people to create cicatrice (raised) scars, used as spearheads and as fighting picks on handles (hafts).

    Pandanus toy propellers, made by Yolngu children from Yirrkala, were collected by Fred McCarthy. The children used them in throwing competitions or it was attached to a spindle and a child would hold it up and run against the wind with it to make it spin.

  • The Aboriginal Gallery was reorganised and redesigned. The skylight was covered to prevent reflections, and internal lighting was installed in showcases to draw attention to the exhibits. In 1956 a Department of Design and Art had been created at the museum and, while scientists still controlled the exhibition content, the designers were responsible for displaying exhibits. The exhibition took on a design element in the arrangement of objects, and fashion colours appeared in the background of showcases. A ‘less is more’ attitude took hold in exhibition design with the quality of objects considered more important than the quantity, as had been the case in the past. The cultural objects were carefully selected and put into their chronological or cultural context with appropriate text panels.

  • The Australian Museum began repatriating human remains that had been held in its collections. Over 400 human remains have so far been repatriated and this policy and process continues today. Poor documentation of early acquisitions in the collections make repatriation a very complex task but every effort has been made and continues to be made today to ensure all human remains are returned to their community of origin.

  • The Aboriginal Australia exhibition opened after six years of planning. The Australian Museum Annual Report 1984-85 states that the “gallery’s most important initiative is the way it has brought together a highly complex picture of how Aboriginal culture is seen by both Aboriginals and Western Scientists.” Displaying over 400 objects, its wide-ranging exhibits included traditional children’s toys, a video showing the impact of European culture on Aboriginal culture and heritage, bush medicines, hands-on exhibits and contemporary Aboriginal art.

  • The museum purchased an emu egg, carved by Aboriginal artist Badger Bates, an Elder of the Paakantji people in Wilcannia, New South Wales. Emu-egg carving became popular in Australia in the mid to late 19thcentury as an art form.

  • The Australian Museum appointed Sheryl Connors, a Gamilaroi woman, as the first Indigenous Education Officer in a museum in Australia. In 1995 Sheryl was appointed to a newly created position, the ‘Manager of Indigenous Programs’. The responsibilities of this role included curating exhibitions as well as creating, co-ordinating and delivering programs about Indigenous Australian cultures to primary, secondary and tertiary students and teachers.

  • Kate Khan, a Senior Fellow in Anthropology Research at the Australian Museum, began a project to publish the catalogue of the ‘Roth Collection’. Published in 4 volumes, the catalogue was intended to share information about the museum’s collection with the communities from which they originally came. Dr Walter E Roth, a government ‘Protector of Aborigines’ from 1898 to 1905 travelled through northern Queensland and Cape York, acquiring many Aboriginal cultural objects, taking photos and gathering cultural information. He sold his collection to the Australian Museum in 1905.

  • The ‘Aboriginal Heritage Unit’ was created as part of the Anthropology department to “act as an intermediary between the Australian Museum and the Indigenous communities of Australia on issues of cultural heritage management” and to facilitate the repatriation program. Read more about the Larrakia, Northern Territory repatriation case study.

  • The Indigenous Australians: Australia’s first peoples exhibition opened, displaying 600 objects from the Australian Museum’s collections as well as life-size reconstructions, computer interactives and videos. It examined the issues in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that were relevant at that time and included the themes of Spirituality, Cultural Heritage, Family, Land and Social Justice.

  • Thelma Coconut, an elder of the Napranum community of the Weipa region of northern Queensland, received a professional development internship from Arts Queensland to work at the Australian Museum. For seven weeks she worked with Barrina South, Aboriginal Collections Officer, studying the objects in the Roth Collection and documenting her knowledge of the language and cultural practices of the Napranum people as they related to the collection.

  • The Commonwealth and State Governments jointly awarded a grant to the Australian Museum’s Aboriginal Heritage Unit for the museum’s repatriation program, the ‘Return of Indigenous Cultural Property’.

  • The fourth volume of the catalogue of the Roth Collection, written by Kate Khan, is published. It was specifically written for distribution among Aboriginal communities of northern Queensland and Cape York to share information about the museum’s collections with them.

  • The Australian Museum commissioned artists from Erub, also known as Darnley Island, to create two new ‘Ghost Net’ sculptures. They created a giant mud crab and rock cod from abandoned or lost fishing nets.

  • The Australian Museum published its first ‘Reconciliation Action Plan’, to further the museum’s “firm commitment to embrace, promote respect for and celebrate the diverse cultures of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

  • The Australian Museum established the ‘First Australians’ Galleries’ to display treasures from the museum’s collections. Garrigarang: Sea Country and Bayala Nura: Yarning Country exhibitions opened.

  • In 2017 Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden, a senior Gadigal man, created 2 shields for an exhibition at the Australian Museum called ‘Gadi’ on display in 2018.

    “This shield exemplifies the strength and resilience of our Gadigal culture. Made in our lifetime it represents an unbroken link between the Gadigal people, culture and land. Reclamation of our cultural practices is vital to our identity, health and wellbeing. Our knowledge has sustained us for thousands of years and transmission of cultural knowledge to our youth will continue to sustain us for thousands more.”