An Artefact of Colonial Desire? Kimberley Points and the Technologies of Enchantment

Harrison, Rodney (2006). An Artefact of Colonial Desire? Kimberley Points and the Technologies of Enchantment. Current Anthropology, 47(1) pp. 63–88.



This paper considers several areas of anthropological research which have yet to be drawn into conversation: Alfred Gell's anthropological theory of art, the literature on collecting and museum studies and the colonial art histories of Nicholas Thomas and others, and the archaeology of colonialism in Australia. The implications of the nexus of these various areas of research are considered with reference to the archaeological study of Kimberley points in Australia. While these points have been understood by both archaeologists and antiquarians as the pinnacle of Australian Aboriginal stone working practices, this paper considers them as an artefact of colonial desire. Their captivating agency for late-nineteenth-century collectors largely resided in their mysterious method of manufacture, but even after this was understood they continued to enthral antiquarians and archaeologists, who have come to represent their manufacture as "typical" of Australian Aboriginal stone tool working despite its limited chronological and geographic distribution and its relationship to colonial trade. The acceptance of these objects, which essentially functioned as virtuoso tourist art, by colonial collectors and archaeologists as "authentic" ethnographic objects within a discourse which would normally be prejudiced against such items suggests that Aboriginal people engaged actively in this process of captivation—indeed, that the agency of such virtuoso objects continued long after the lifetimes of their makers, as Gell suggested. This has wider implications for an understanding of both archaeology and colonial collecting and the relationship between objects and identity in settler societies and provides an opportunity to reflect on the usefulness of Gell's work in colonial contexts.

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