The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 4
BLACKFELLOWS' OVENS, HOW FORMED; MOURNING FOR THE DEAD, SIGNS THEREOF; OF SEPULTURE, AND THE CEREMONIES CONNECTED THEREWITH.
Blackfellows' ovens, or cooking places, have been a fertile source of argument for many years, some holding that they are not cooking places at all, but a description of Tumuli, left by some race long since passed away, and quite forgotten; still, so far as the general public are aware, none of the writers on the point have had sufficient curiosity to dig into the mounds, and so set it at rest once and for all.
Blackfellows, ovens are not misnomers, but to all intents and purposes are genuine cooking places, and the following is the manner of their formation:—
A family, or perhaps several families, as the case may be, select a site for their camp, where abundance of game and other sources of food exist, and are procurable with the least expenditure of time and trouble. Towards the middle of the afternoon the hunters drop into camp, with the result of the day's industry, consisting, in all probability, of all sorts and sizes; for our present purpose, however, we will imagine the game to consist of opossums only.
As soon as the hunters have seated themselves comfortably, they set to work skinning the opossums, whilst several of the lyoores go off with their yamsticks. When they reach the spot which they had before selected for the purpose, they begin with a will to excavate a hole three feet in diameter and eighteen inches deep. During the digging of the hole, any pieces of clay of about the size of cricket balls which are turned out are carefully placed on one side. When the hole has been dug sufficiently deep, it is swept or brushed out with some boughs, or a bunch of grass; it is then filled to the top with firewood (which the lyoores had previously collected for that purpose), upon which the selected pieces of clay are carefully placed. The wood is then ignited, and by the time it is all burned the clay nodules have become baked, until they are exactly similar to irregular sections of well-burnt brick; of course, they are red hot. When this result has been properly achieved, the hot clay is removed from the hole; for this purpose they use two pieces of stick, about eight inches long, holding them both in one hand, and working them deftly, even as a cook-maid uses a pair of tongs. The natives now term these sticks tongs. Prior to the advent of white men, they had no name for them, other than kulky. The use of these tongs is an accomplishment possessed by old and young alike. This dexterity almost seems an aboriginal gift, as few, if any, white men have ever attained to any degree of proficiency in their use.
After the hot clay is removed from the hole, the ashes are carefully swept out, and a thin layer of grass slightly moistened, placed over the bottom, and round the sides, upon which the prepared opossums are nicely packed, and then covered over with more damp grass. The hot clay nodules are then spread equally over the top of the grass, when the whole oven is then closed with the finer earth which originally came out of the excavation. Should this covering be too thin to keep the steam from escaping, it is supplemented by earth, dug in immediate proximity (this supplemented soil accounts fully for the depressions always found about the bases of these ovens). Ashes are never employed for the outside covering, because, being tine, they would percolate through the interlining both of the grass and clay nodules, thereby adding an amount of grit which would not improve the flavour or appearance of the food. Before the heat in the clay nodules, and the bottom of the hole has become exhausted, the opossums are beautifully cooked, as perfectly so indeed as though the operation had teen performed in the most improved kitchen range extant.
When the cooking has been completed the covering is scraped off, and this debris, consisting of calcined clay, ashes, and burnt earth, becomes the nucleus of a black fellow's oven. This process being repeated at short intervals, over a series of years, perhaps indeed for centuries, results in the mounds, which are in reality blacks' ovens, although frequently termed (most improperly so) tumuli.
As long as the camp remains in one place, the same hole is used for baking their food in, and when it is understood that at least a barrowful of fresh clay is required every time the oven is heated to replace the unavoidable waste by crumbling, which is by no means inconsiderable, in consequence of the clay being used in an unwrought state, it will readily be seen how these mounds gradually, but surely increase. Bones, too, of the animals which they use for food, besides charcoal, etc., tend materially to hasten their growth.
As a general rule the natives do not erect their loondthals, on these cooking mounds. An exception to this exists, however, on the extensive reedy plains of the Lower Murray, which are annually inundated, and remain so for at least five months out of the twelve.
On these wide-spreading reed-beds the blackfellows' ovens are of a larger size, and more numerous, than they are in any other portion of Australia, thus plainly denoting the at one time denseness of the population in that locality, as well as the abundance of food pertaining thereto. When the mild rains of spring dissolve the snows on the alps, the liberated waters rush down the innumerable tributaries of the Murray, until the volume becomes greater than the capacity of the river's bed; therefore, on reaching the vast expanse of the lower river, they have perforce to spread themselves out on each side, until many hundreds of square miles are submerged.
All over the submerged country, cooking mounds stand up out of the flood, perfect little islands, looking bright, green, and refreshing to the eye, by reason of the great growth of succulent saltbush, dillines, and giant mallow with which they are prettily dressed. These oven islands the natives utilise in the flood season for their village sites, conveying their firewood and other requirements over miles of water from the main land in their canoes. A village, or native encampment, will often times remain on one of these tiny islands for a whole month, feasting upon the oleaginous codfish and his congeners, taking ample toll from the great Murray lobster, as well as from his more delicate, though pigmy brother, the crawfish. Aquatic birds, too, of many species, together with their eggs, have to contribute pretty heavily to the aboriginal cuisine, and by way of salad they have. the watery ionty, and the bitter sow thistle, which, all combined, go a long way towards forming a delectable melange, such as even a of the famed Epicurus could scarcely cavil at.
It will thus be seen that everything used by the dwellers in these island villages has to be brought there from outside places, and the daily refuse therefrom aids very materially towards the growth of these mounds. So long as the game and fish continue plentiful, the natives never think of moving to fresh quarters—that is to say, unless the tiny spot becomes too offensive for even aboriginal olfactories to bear with any degree of pleasure. When it does so, they shift away to another mound, leaving natural agencies to purify the contaminated atmosphere round about the abandoned spot.
Aboriginal skeletons are frequently discovered in the cooking mounds, hence the idea which generally prevails of their being tumuli. This fact can, however, be accounted for in a very simple manner. For example, a death takes place on one of these isolated spots, when their happens to be only a small section of a tribe located thereon; and as grave-digging is very arduous when hands are few, and the implements merely yamsticks, the easiest method, therefore, of covering up the dead from their sight is at once adopted, and that is done by scraping a hole in the friable soil of the mound, in which the body is placed and covered up. Immediately after one of these hurried burials, the mound is vacated, and ere much time has passed, the defunct subject is entirely forgotten. Be it understood that this description of sepulture is only given to old women, or those who had been invalids of long standing, and who had. become troublesome thereby to their unwilling attendants. We once had occasion to remove the whole of a blackfellows' oven; it contained fully three thousand cubic yards of soil. During its removal we exhumed twenty-eight skeletons This large number was a matter of considerable surprise to us, but on making due inquiry amongst the very old natives, we discovered that they were the remains of some of the smallpox victims who had died during the earlier stages of the epidemic, when sepulture was yet being given to those who succumbed to the loathsome plague.
When men of consequence and consideration, or young people, die, there is much mourning and grief in the tribe, and amongst those related by blood to the deceased. The mourning takes the shape of very violent physical suffering. At those times these (the relatives) score their backs and arms (even their faces do not always escape) with red hot brands, until they become hideous with ulcers. These ulcers stand them in good stead, however, in this way: if their grief is not sufficiently acute to induce a genuine cry, they have only to come against the ulcers roughishly, when they will have cause enough for any quantity cf lachrymosity. At sunrise and sundown the one who is principally bereaved begins to cry, or howl, in a long, monotonous kind of yodling tone, which is taken up by old and young. At first it is begun very low, but gradually swells into such volumes of uncouth, excruciating sound, as is heard under no other circumstances, and, we think, amongst no other people. The mourning cries at a good large wake are considerable, and not by any means pleasing, to the generality of mankind; still, they are as music of the spheres, when compared to the hellish din created by a camp full of mourners.
Each period of daily mourning lasts for about an hour; the rest of the twenty-four hours the mourners, to ail appearance, are as free from grief and trouble as though no such evils had being. Of course, every member of the tribe has his or her head plastered over with a white pigment, which is made by burning gypsum, and then mixing it with water, until it reaches the desired . The face is also painted with the same stuff in such designs as best pleases each individual savage. When the whole tribe are so decorated they give as perfect a representation of a ho3t of demons as the most imaginative in demonology could well , and a stranger, unacquainted with the aborigine and his customs, coming suddenly on an encampment, where all the members thereof chanced to be figged out in this guise, could scarcely be blamed if a thrill of real terror did imbue his every nerve.
They prepare their dead for burial by wrapping them up tightly in the opossum cloaks which they wore during life, winding numberless plies of cord round the body to keep the cloak in its place. This operation is performed as soon as the body has become rigid, and when completed the body is borne to the grave at once. The graves are usually about four feet deep, and always bearing east and west. In the bottom of the grave a sheet of bark is placed, or, if bark is not to be had, it is thickly strewn with grass; the body is then let down, with the feet towards the east. All the property, such as weapons, bags, etc., belonging to the deceased are laid beside the body, then sticks are placed across the grave, the ends of which rest on ledges a few inches above the body; over these, and crossing them at right angles,, sticks the length of the grave are arranged; then bark, or a good thick covering of grass, hides the body from view, and prevents the earth (which is now filled in) from coming in contact therewith. When all this is properly completed, the relatives of the deceased fling themselves prone upon the grave—howling, tearing their hair out by handfuls, and rubbing earth in quantity over their heads and bodies; ripping up the unhealed ulcers in the most loathsome fashion, until with blood and grime they become a hideous and ghastly spectacle. There is about an hour of this performance before the ceremony comes to an end. After it is finished, the mourners trudge back to the camp in twos and threes. - On their arrival there, they sit down silently and stolidly tor perhaps an hour more, after which they seem again to wake up into life; their grief thenceforth is forgotten (unless at the morning and evening intervals of mourning), although the self-inflicted sores remain long unhealed, and should, consequently, have the effect of keeping their bereavement fresh and green in their memories.
Should the person buried have been esteemed of consideration in the tribe prior to death, a neat hut is erected over the grave; the covering thereof being generally thatch, made of a hard knotty grass, having many joints, therefore probably akin to Polygonum. This thatch is firmly secured to the frame by means of cord, many hundred yards of which are used in the process. Upon some occasions a net is made, having meshes four inches square, with which the whole hut is securely enveloped.
These mausoleums cover the graves entirely; they are five feet high, and are of an oval shape. A small opening or doorway is left at the eastern end. These openings are never more than two feet high; in fact, they are only just large enough to allow of a full-grown man to get in by creeping on hands and knees. The tops of the graves, or floors, are covered with thin layers of grass, which is renewed from time to time, as it becomes withered.
The tombs are enclosed with brush fences; the forms of the enclosures always take the shape of a diamond, the tomb being the centre thereof. All the grass inside of the fence is neatly shaved off, and the ground is swept quite clean. It is kept in this tidy condition for two or three years. After the lapse of that time, however, the whole arrangement is permitted to dwindle to decay, and after a few more years the very site of it is.
When a first-born child dies, should it be a son (if a daughter it is hidden out of sight as soon as possible), and under two years of age, instead of being buried in the usual manner, the body is tightly swaddled in an opossum cloak, and well fastened round with cords, until the body assumes the appearance of a long narrow bundle; not, however, showing the outline of the figure, as is the case with a body prepared for burial, but looking exactly similar to a bale of skins ready for despatch to market. This bundle the mother carries with her wherever she goes, and at night sleeps with it by her side; and this she continuesto do for six months, until from decay nothing but bones remain. After this, they (the bones) are put in the ground and forgotten.
These decomposing atoms of mortality do not tend to make the atmosphere in the vicinity of the camp either pleasant or healthful. These savages, however, bear with the offensive effluvium without the slightest murmur, deeming it doubtless the correct thing to do, more especially as it was a custom which had been handed down to them by their progenitors from ages long since forgotten.
When very old women die, or wittols of long standing (of whom there are generally a few in each tribe), a shallow hole is merely scraped in the most convenient spot, both with regard to proximity and softness of soil, wherein the body is thrown without any preparation or ceremony, and covered slightly up, is so left, and forgotten; unless, indeed, the shallow grave chances to be scraped out by the dogs — which frequently happens—and the poor remains of humanity are voraciously devoured by the ghoul like brutes. Instead of the natives viewing such desecrations with horror, they actually make merry thereon, and bandy obscene facetiæ with each other on the subject, deeming such occasions fit in every way for the display of their vile and prurient wit.
- They are of precisely the same character as the "kitchen midden" of prehistoric man, found on the Banish coast, and in some portions of the American Continent.
- Kulky—any piece of wood, great or small, thick or thin.
- Dillines—Edible berries of a yellow or red colour, as large as cranberries, having a stone in the heart; they grow on green, prickly bushes, and attain the height of three feet. It is a species of salvola. The natives are extremely fond of these berries, and to this fondness may be attributed the fact of their prevalence on the cooking mounds.