Workshop on model watercraft

Flinders University, 29/30 March 2012

I am recently back from coastal Port Noarlunga on the Onkaparinga River south of Adelaide, where I held a two day workshop building models of Australian Indigenous watercraft.

Sponsored by Flinders University and coordinated by lecturer Jennifer McKinnon, I worked with 10 archaeology and maritime archaeology students, exploring the construction of different types of watercraft at scale and using this to discuss the background of the craft, plus the many aspects of indigenous  culture that are expressed through their diverse variety of canoes and rafts.

Participants of model building workshop in backyard

This was a workshop with a few differences; it was outside the classroom in a backyard, it was hands-on, it had fire, there were scones and Arnott’s assorted biscuits,  and there were no handouts or notes to take home.

One the key concepts of  Indigenous  watercraft construction was that the knowledge of their design and construction was handed on by word of mouth and demonstration, so I kept to that process, and the students took home the information in their heads and in their models.

We started sitting in a circle and talking about the background to the craft, the loss of the ‘canoe culture’ that once existed on many waterways, the diversity of craft around the country, and how I had got involved in all of this. Then we went to work using the samples of bark that Keryn Walshe, from South Australian Museum, had been able to source some days beforehand. Each model type began with me demonstrating the construction method then everyone had a go themselves.

Two workshop participants building model bark canoe

The process worked – watching, listening and questioning. The students took in the ideas and quickly produced models, sometimes taking them apart and improving them at a second go.   Throughout the two days we learnt about using materials in sympathy with what they could do, and we learnt about using and adapting what was around us too, seeking plants and parts of them from our backyard and kerbside surroundings to make ties, ropes, caulking and support structure.   We put them over a fire to dry them out and singe off the loose fibres,  used the spikes off Phoenix palm fronds as needles, saved twigs and branches form the fire wood pile to build rafts, all the time  sharing ideas and results.

Seven model bark canoes

As the workshop drew to a close we had five different types represented;   nawi or tied-bark canoes from south-east Australian coast, derrkas from Arnhem Land made famous by 10 Canoes, a walba raft from Mornington island, a rolled bark canoe from Tasmania, and a ‘shopping trolley’ type of towed raft based on an example I had seen in the National Museum of Australia’s collection.  We also had ideas forming for the next time- more model types, maybe larger ones too, and additional materials that could be useful.

Workshop participants with model bark canoes

To wrap up the two days I did a lecture in the city on Friday evening about the Australian Register of Historic Vessels ending with its focus on Indigenous watercraft and the forthcoming Nawi conference. Hope to see you all there!

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

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