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Leaving no stone unturned

Volume 10 Number 12 December 8 2014 - January 11 2015

Portrait of Ernest Westlake, aged 66 years, an English scholar who collected and studied three large geological collections including 13,033 Tasmanian Aboriginal stone implements.
Portrait of Ernest Westlake, aged 66 years, an English scholar who collected and studied three large geological collections including 13,033 Tasmanian Aboriginal stone implements.


In 1908 Englishman and amateur scientist Ernest Westlake travelled south from Southhampton to collect stone implements and interview Tasmanians, many Aboriginal, about native language, history and culture. In 2014, the meticulous digitisation of his entire collection of papers was awarded the prestigious Mander Jones Award. Gabrielle Murphy reports. 

Rebe Taylor is an historian with a background in the performing arts. Her acting career was launched when, at the age of seven, she played the role of the child Sylvia Vickers in Neil Armfield’s film version of ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’. And so began a serendipitous association with Tasmanian history.

After completing a Masters of Arts at the University of Melbourne and PhD at the Australian National University, Dr Taylor drew on the research conducted in both theses to write her first monograph, Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island. Published in 2002, the book won the SA Premier’s non-fiction award, and was short-listed for two other national prizes.

Now this year, Dr Taylor and colleagues from the University of Melbourne’s eScholarship Research Centre, Director Gavan McCarthy and Senior Research Archivist Michael Jones, have won the Mander Jones Award for their annotated history and guide to the collections and papers of Ernest Westlake (1855–1922) which they have named Stories in Stone.

“Awards such as these, and the stipend which came with the Peter Blazey Fellowship, are an honour and recognition of years of research,” Dr Taylor says. 

“In my case, they importantly also pay for such things as childcare and kindergarten fees, effectively allowing me to write and not have to do other work for a while.”

Stories in Stone was published in 2013 by the eScholarship Research Centre in association with the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. 

The meticulous archival investigation, which was carried out under the auspices of the University of Melbourne Library and the Australian Centre in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, resulted in the compilation of an online guide and history of the entire papers produced by English amateur scientist Ernest Westlake from about 1870 to 1920. The papers relate to three large stone implement collections from England, France and Tasmania. 

“The project was a collaborative and cross-disciplinary one between history and archiving,” Dr Taylor says. “Gavan McCarthy digitised the records with me at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and in 2008 Michael Jones joined the team, capturing the Westlake Archive housed at the Oxford University Natural History Museum.”

According to Dr Taylor, digital archive guides are often confined to a single collection, and do not always capture that archive in its entirety. 

Stories in Stone extends the archivist’s traditional aim by capturing the stories of the records in order to meet the historian’s primary aim to reveal the stories in the records,” she says.

“Preservation meets enquiry to allow for independent searches of over 8000 images that are informed by more than 40,000 words of scholarly history writing.”

Commentators including Stephen Weldon, editor of the Isis Bibliography of the History of Science, have recognised in Stories in Stone a fascinating resource and exemplar of the increasing trend now burgeoning on the web.

For Aboriginal Elder and historian Patsy Cameron, Stories in Stone is an invaluable resource especially for Indigenous Tasmanians who want to reconnect with their recent history and listen to the voices of family members. 

“The knowledge of Westlake’s assemblage of Tasmanian stone tools and the sites from where they were collected contribute significantly to our knowledge and provide insights into the material cultural life of our ancestors,” she writes. 

Detailing Westlake’s interviews with more than 90 Tasmanians, many of them Indigenous, from 1908 to 1910, the Stories in Stone web resource provides an undeniably rich, and arguably unique, source of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, history and language dating from the early 20th century.

 “This archive was earlier deemed anthropologically ‘unreliable’ when it is arguably the evidence of a people who, while declared extinct, have survived,” Dr Taylor says. 

“We live in a time when information is more abundant than ever. What the eScholarship Research Centre does is make information digitally available in ways that are discoverable, durable and related through time.”