Currently at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, there is a display of baskets woven by aboriginal women, some dating from the 1840’s (See new article here).
The exhibition is called Tayenebe, which means ‘exchange’ in the language of the south eastern Nueonne people of Bruny Island, and reflects the centuries of different cross and intercultural interactions based on the making and collecting of Tasmanian Aboriginal fibre work.
While the impetus for the tayenebe project has been the desire to reconnect with the cultural craft of ancestors, it also opens a window into Tasmanian ethnobotany (the study of plants as it relates to ethnic cultures).
Basket weaving is an ubiquitous theme in ethnic cultures worldwide. Baskets, woven by fibre-plants available as part of the natural vegetation, were held in high regard by aboriginal women and served very practical uses like holding shellfish, eggs and other foodstuffs.
That is where the ethnobotany comes into the picture.
The Tasmanian aborigines used a large number of very common sedge and sedge-like plants in their basket weaving. Examples of these are usually members of the Flag irises (Diplarrena spp.), Flax lilies (Dianella spp.), Sagg (Lomandra longifolia) and sedges of the genus Lepidosperma, a large genus of plants commonly known as swordsedges.
I noted from perusing the exhibition and the publication Tayenebe: Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibre work accompanying the exhibition an incomplete list of the plants used by the Tasmanian aborigines for basket weaving. This I have produced below and will update as I find more references.
IRIDACEAE (Iris family)
Diplarrena moraea (White Flag-iris)
Diplarrena latifolia (Western Flag-iris)
CYPERACEAE (Sedge Family)
Gahnia grandis (Cutting Grass)
Lepidosperma concavum (Sand Swordsedge)
Lepidosperma ensiforme (Arching Swordsedge)
Lepidosperma gladiatum (Coast Swordsedge)
Schoeoplectus pungens (Sharp Clubsedge)
HEMEROCALLIDACEAE (Hemerocallis Family)
Dianella revoluta (Spreading Flaxlily)
Dianella tasmanica (Forest Flaxlily)
JUNCACEAE (Rush Family)
Juncus pallidus (Pale Rush)
LOMANDRACEAE (Lomandra Family)
Lomandra longifolia (Sagg)
MALVACEAE (Mallow Family)
Asterotrichion discolor (Tasmanian Currajong)
Gynatrix pulchella (Fragrant Hempbush)
MYRTACEAE (Eucalypt Family)
Eucalyptus obliqua (Stringybark)
THYMELAEACEAE (Riceflower Family)
Pimelea linifolia (Slender Riceflower)
Pimelea nivea (Bushmans Bootlace)
TYPHACEAE (Cumbungi or Cattail Family)
Typha domingensis (Slender Cumbungi)
Typha orientalis (Broadleaf Cumbungi)
In addition to sedges and sedge-like plants, the aborigines also utilized fibres from some flowering shrubs and trees as well. The common name of Pimelea nivea, Bushmans Bootlace, alludes to the fibrous nature of the bark of the shrub.
Some of the exhibits in the Tasmanian museum were made in modern times and were further adorned by shells and vines of other plants like Golden Dodder (Cuscuta tasmanica.
Did the aboriginal women of times past adorn their fibre work likewise?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I imagine that life, with each passing generation, will bring adornments and improvements to this ancient craft, as long as there are those who keep the knowledge alive.