These boomerangs did come back: the Dick Roberts collection

Xavier Leenders's blog | Created 3 years ago

When Charlie Drake wrote the lyrics to “My boomerang won’t come back” in 1961 he clearly wasn’t referring to the boomerangs recently presented to the Anthropology & Archaeology Department. It’s always interesting to witness how cultural property can move vast distances away from their point of origin and back again, and how individuals play an important role in the creation of an object’s biography. This is a topic that we’ve thinking about recently as we begin to think about objects and content for the new Museum project.

In June 2013, Dick and Rita Roberts travelled across Australia to present the Museum with a small collection of Aboriginal artefacts that had been in their care for more than 60 years. The Roberts’ journey is part of the wider story that charts the history of these objects and their efforts in caring for and delivering the objects back to Western Australia deserves public recognition. …

The story begins in 1878 when a man named John Packham first visited Western Australia, staying with family who were working on Nangetty Station, near Mingenew, east of Perth in Western Australia’s wheatbelt. He returned in 1880, bringing with him Emma Caffyn, who he had recently married. The Packham’s settled in Victoria before moving to Fremantle (WA) in 1891 where John ran a butchery for a few years. In 1894 they took up land close to Doongin Peak, near the newly established town of Tammin.  There’s no record of when, but at some point after arriving at Doongin the Packham’s collected (at least) seven Aboriginal artefacts. These objects - three boomerangs, two spearthrowers and two spearpoints – eventually made their way to the United Kingdom where they were cared for by one of Emma’s relatives.

A Spear Thrower from The Dick Roberts collection

A Spear Thrower from The Dick Roberts collection
Image copyright WA Museum 

Five of the seven objects are characteristic of the objects used by south-west Nyoongar Ballardong peoples and, perhaps, some of the local Nyoongar Ballardong who made them were living or working on the farm. The other two objects are barbed wooden spearpoints that have been cut off longer spears and are similar to spears from the Pilbara region. It is possible that these spearpoints were traded further south to the Tammin area or were collected by one of the Packham family during travels further north.

Two spear heads from the Dick Roberts collection at the WA Museum

Two spear heads from the Dick Roberts collection at the WA Museum
Image copyright WA Museum 

In 1951 a young Dick Roberts emigrated to Australia. Before he left the United Kingdom for a new life in Australia, his neighbour, Mrs Caffyn, suggested he take with him the artefacts that she had inherited through her family connection to Emma Caffyn. The first part of their journey back to Western Australia had begun. For sixty years Dick cared for the objects in his home in Bega, New South Wales (home of the famous Bega cheese) and wishing to secure their long term preservation, contacted the Museum earlier this year with the offer of donation.

Dick and Rita Roberts holding one of the donated spearthrowers at the WA Museum.

Dick and Rita Roberts with one of the donated spearthrowers. Photographer: Moya Smith, WA Museum
Image copyright WA Museum 

More than a century after they were collected, the Roberts’ made their own epic journey across Australia by train (their first visit to the West) to deliver the artefacts into the care of the Museum. From their remarkable condition it is clear that despite the time and distance travelled the objects have been cherished and cared for during their time away from the State. As the only non-archaeological objects from the Tammin area, they represent an important addition to the State’s collection. They extend our knowledge of the distribution of these kinds of objects and offer an intriguing insight into the way in which objects can journey far and wide, but eventually find their way back home.

Written by Ross Chadwick