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Fire, plants and charcoal: experimental work with Birriliburu

by Chae Byrne and Emilie Dotte-Sarout

During our 2023 fieldwork with Birriliburu IPA Traditional Owners in the Fire and Plants Research Node of the Desert to the Sea project, we were able spend time on our passion for trees and wood charcoal.

As anthracologists (archaeobotanists specialising in analysing wood charcoal remains from archaeological sites) our goal with this project is to improve scientific reference collections and to record ethnobotanical knowledge.

Reference collections will allow better archaeological interpretations of different signatures left by campfires − from ancient deposits to recent sites already excavated in the Western Desert. Documentation includes traditional plant names provided by the community integrated in the two-way knowledge exchange between researchers and traditional custodians. This work is proving complimentary to a Bush Tucker book being developed by the community.

The Culture Camp during the 2023 Yamada trip, in the Carnarvon Ranges (Katjarra), was amazing! Birriliburu custodians and rangers worked alongside our botanist and archaeobotanical team members.

Chae Byrne and Emilie Dotte collected botanical samples (both wood and vouchers) from more than 20 trees and shrubs around Yamada camp, under the guidance of our Birriliburu colleagues, with project approvals (including a DBCA Reg 4, Reg 61 licenses, and the project’s Collaborative Research Agreement). Bringing these samples back to UWA, we first charred them, allowing us to look at them under the microscope and describe their specific wood anatomy.

Each tree's charcoal looks different!

Cataloguing this allows us to compare with samples found in archaeological assemblages. Ultimately this helps us identify the vegetation present in the past and how Old People have used plants in the past, and how people have moved through the landscape.

We were also super excited to conduct a hearth taphonomy experiment with the help of the rangers. This was set up in a small rockshelter with no visible rock art, or other surface material culture. This was cleared for this purpose by Birriliburu custodians. Our aim here was to record what happens to the wood-fuel during the charring or burning processes and more specifically, what happens to it after it is left abandoned for a few years (the D2S project will enable us to record these changes over the 5 years of the project).

One of the fires in this experiment even has a competitive twist to it: Proteaceae vs Acacia!

The Corkwood family trees are mysteriously absent from most archaeological wood charcoal samples: unlike the ubiquitous and resilient Wattle.

We want to know - are the Proteaceae absent because people avoided using them as fuel? (we don’t believe believe they would have been absent from the landscape, even in changing climates as Australian arid vegetation is very resistant and adaptable); or, Does this wood disappear during the charring and/or post-depositional processes?

Watch this space…

Images taken by Emilie Dotte-Sarout, Chae Byrne and Jo McDonald

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