Midden Treasures

Claudia found a diamond once. It was before I met her and I won’t say where she was. The diamond was somewhat oval, like beer bottle glass worn by sand. She picked it up off the ground and was surprised when it was able to scratch glass. She has had it cut to sparkle in a ring now. They call it a champagne diamond, not a beer glass one, even if that more accurately describes the colour of it.

She’ll also tell you the story of sitting on a pile of opal mine tailings in the South Australian desert, watching people noodling around (as they term fossicking there). When she knocked her beer can over, one of the washed stones glinted pink and blue. She’d found an opal.

My Nana would have called Claudia ‘tinny’ — an old word for a person who attracts treasure or finds it easily. Claudia and I have teamed up sometimes and fossicked for garnets and zircons in the Central Australian desert (at Gemtree). And one year in New South Wales we bought all the kids sacks of sapphire-mine dirt for Christmas — every one of them found a sapphire.

I know a point on the coast that looks like any other rocky head on that part of this island. The rocks are dark brown and jagged against the royal blue and turquoise sea. The rock pools are flat and wide. Some contain a bit of rubbish — a plastic bottle, a pink thong, bits of a broken surfboard.

The ordinary, sublime beauty of the sea. Photo © Claudia Jocher 2017

The ordinary, sublime beauty of the sea. Photo © Claudia Jocher 2017

Once, at that place, Claudia found a big, translucent gem the colour of chrysoprase. If it were a diamond, it would be a very rare one and worth a lot of money. It was the same shape as Claudia’s champagne diamond and felt silky to touch.

We visited again more recently, driving along the path on the edge of the sea. The road was so bumpy that we wondered if we were damaging the car. But trees arched over the road giving sweet shade, even in the middle of the day.

The place itself is distinguished by a freshly painted military memorial. There’s also a memorial to a ship-wreck that happened there early last century. Other than that it is quite unremarkable, if beautiful in the way that any place where the land meets the sea is beautiful.

Small black crabs scampered under our feet. Claudia and I began browsing the rocks, some of which are flecked with thousands of small fossilised shells. Others had broken surfaces showing surprising colours — flashes of marbled crimson, for example..

Fossilized shells in stone, surrounded by midden shells. Photo © Claudia Jocher 2017.

Fossilized shells in stone, surrounded by midden shells. Photo © Claudia Jocher 2017.

I got hot in the early afternoon sun and retired to the shade of a pandanus tree at the sandy entrance of the point. There were big shells there, and I could tell they belonged to an important midden.

I have to interrupt myself to ask: Do you know what a midden is?

The dictionary defines a midden as a dunghill or refuse heap. It can also refer to a rat’s nest. It is an English anthropological term. But the first time I heard the word, it was from my family and other Aboriginal people. In Australia, a midden refers to an Aboriginal refuse pile. In the days before the British, Aboriginal people understood that you can never throw anything away. You can only move it. They also knew that marsupial rats are clean animals, good to eat.

Where I grew up in New South Wales, there were a couple of middens on a beach near our place. My brothers, roaming around with sharpened sticks killing fish and lizards, knew about the middens.

Their bookish sister didn’t appreciate the huge midden at that beach until she was about thirty years old. As I sat one day on the tall hill of sand and sea grass, I realised that the hill was mostly made of shells. Not just any shells, but large shells of tasty shellfish: oysters, cockles, limpets, pipis and periwinkles. All of them good to eat. I saw that one area of the midden was dense with stone tools: scrapers, worked points and flints. I was sitting high above the beach on thousands of years of social meals. I asked the ranger later about the age of the midden and he said they didn’t know. “Probably at least a few thousand years,” he said.

It took me a while to get my mind around the discrepancy between the word midden’s regular meaning and the sense of connection and immanence I feel when I realise I’m on or near a midden.

I wonder if the middens used to be, really, spiky rubbish piles.  I suspect that they were always interpenetrated by soft sand, forming a comfortable place to watch the kids while you ate your mussels. They were always the best places. And so I sat, watching Claudia photograph patterns in the rocks, surrounded by treasure. The big, bright green gem she brought home from there gave us many hours of joyful fantasizing, imagining what we could buy if we could sell it as a diamond. It was the most precious piece of glass she ever brought home.

Shells on top of the midden with shipwreck skeleton. Photo © Claudia Jocher 2017

Shells on top of the midden with shipwreck skeleton. Photo © Claudia Jocher 2017

The midden I sat on under the pandanus is known to be around 6,000 years old. It must have been a social hub for many generations after people had to abandon other places as the sea levels rose.

Underneath the ground there, researchers have found fish hooks that were in use about 600 years ago, primarily by women.

There is no sign post alerting visitors to the midden and its ancient history, while just a few yards away, the men who died in relatively recent wars and sea expeditions are honored with stone and wooden memorials. The midden is its own living memorial.

When I was in the western New South Wales desert once, a ranger showed my family and me a shallow basin of charcoal and burnt bone. “This is the earliest fire that cooked fresh fish, that we know of,” he said. “It’s tens of thousands of years old.” The remains looked as though they could have been made within my lifetime. “It’s been carbon-dated,” the ranger said.

He explained that the site was best left unmarked. “Crazy people could damage it, if they knew what it is, I suppose,” he said.

It made me sad to to think that were people in the world who could harm something so precious.

In Western Australia, the world’s largest and richest rock art gallery is not yet listed as a World Heritage site and is still endangered by nearby exploitation of natural gas. You can read about the Burrup Penisula here.

I have previously written about the transcendent rock art site Claudia and I visited in the Pilbara, in Western Australia, which is only shown on mining maps. It makes my heart sore to think about it.

Perhaps it is better if the sites remain unmarked. But it’s not always easy to trust that they can be preserved and maintained while we wait for the modern world to understand their preciousness. Some of the British descendants (and their Aboriginal collaborators) still see them as piles of rubbish. If only they knew that treasures come in many shapes: beautiful green diamonds and hills made of old shells.

Thumbnail photo of a rock pool with water as clear as a desert night by Claudia Jocher ©2017