Thursday, April 6, 2017



In one of yesterday’s posts I mentioned the ill-fated expedition of Burke and Wills, and the commemorative face that had been carved in a tree near their last campsite.

When looking up that image I came across many more examples of faces carved into trees, which in turn led me to some other interesting carved trees. More of that later.

Some face trees:

Face carved into a tree on hill of Uisneach, West Meath, Ireland

Okay, it's more than a face but it is impressive

No, this is from Lord of the Rings

So is this one

Looking at the photographs I did have an overall feeling that it was somehow a desecration to carve a face into a living tree.

I then came across some carvings into living trees of a different sort . . . 

The following is from a commentary on a 2011 exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales, at:
An exhibition of rare photographs from the early 1900s sheds light on an ancient Aboriginal art form.

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS Aboriginal groups in central NSW marked important ceremonial sites by carving beautiful, ornate designs on the trunks of trees. The carvings, comprising symbolic motifs, intricate swirls, circles and zigzags, were intended to be long-lasting but, instead, only a handful of the trees on which they were carved are still alive today.

In the early 1900s several amateur anthropologists, including Clifton Cappie Towle, showed an interest in indigenous culture, documenting and photographing rock art, ceremonial sites, and examples of tree carvings. Thanks to their photographs, which are currently on display at the State Library of NSW, the art form can be glimpsed by the public.

Exhibition curator Ronald Briggs says the practice of carving trees was abandoned more than 100 years ago, which makes it difficult to understand the original meanings behind the designs. "I think of them as a warning to people walking by that this is a special area, a warning to you that the site is spiritually significant," he says. "They're really quite powerful."

Central and western NSW were once dotted with sacred, carved trees . . In these areas carvings marked the burial sites of important men and served as powerful initiation symbols for boys making their transition to manhood.

Most of the 7500-odd sacred tree sites recorded in NSW have been destroyed by land clearing, bush fires, farming and natural decay.

Some pics:


Which brings me to the final related item, that coincidentally at trivia last night, one of the questions was ‘In which century did the practice of creating totem poles begin?’ We said the 19th on the basis of the need for metal tools for such detailed carving. That was correct. From Wikipedia:
The carvings may symbolize or commemorate cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. The poles may also serve as functional architectural features, welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for the remains of deceased ancestors, or as a means to publicly ridicule someone. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement and importance lies in the observer's knowledge and connection to the meanings of the figures.

Totem pole carvings were likely preceded by a long history of decorative carving, with stylistic features borrowed from smaller prototypes. Eighteenth-century explorers documented the existence of decorated interior and exterior house posts prior to 1800; however, due to the lack of efficient carving tools, sufficient wealth, and leisure time to devote to the craft, the monumental poles placed in front of native homes along the Pacific Northwest coast probably did not appear in large numbers until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. 

Sydney’s Thunderbird totem, a 5 metre pole in Victoria Park opposite the University of Sydney. The cedar pole was a gift from the people of Canada, carved by Salish First Nations people who live on Cowichan Bay in British Columbia. It depicts whale, bear and the Chieftan’s mask. A totem pole is essentially a vertical narrative, describing life stories, ceremonial events, family legends, spiritual symbols and the supernatural.

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