FACULTY Q&A/A renowned anthropologist searches for stories and meaning in the Australian desert.
When Peggy Reeves Sanday began researching the sacred stories about Australia’s Wolfe Creek Crater—a crater discovered by her father in 1947—she found the Aborigines who live near the crater decidedly tight-lipped.
To them, everything about the 2,850-foot-wide crater is sacred and secret. So Sanday, Penn’s R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor of Anthropology, had to find a way to both tell their story and respect their culture.
The result is the new exhibit on display at Penn Museum through Feb. 27, 2005, “Track of the Rainbow Serpent,” a collection of 27 bright and colorful paintings from the Aboriginal artists themselves.
Though she doesn’t have plans to return to the bush, Sanday is working on a book that further tells the Aboriginal story—and how those natives feel about the crater. “I just feel they took me on a tour of a wonderland and a sacred landscape,” she says. “I feel extremely privileged to have had that experience.”
Q. How did your father find Wolfe Creek Crater?
A. My father was an exploratory geologist of the old school, traveling all over the world in jeep or on horseback or camel or donkey, mapping and describing various gas-bearing formations and suggesting places to drill for oil. He discovered the crater while flying from Perth to Wyndham over the Western Desert. At first, he thought it was volcanic in origin, but he came back a couple of months later and went to the same community where I found most of the artists more than 50 years later. He got some samples and mapped it, took a look at it close-up and then determined it was meteorite, not volcanic. This discovery made him famous. Internationally, he’s known as the discoverer of the crater, although we now understand that there were other people who undoubtedly saw it before he did.
Q. How did your father’s story impact you?
A. After the discovery of the crater, we moved to Perth, and then he went back to the Western Desert for another exploratory trip. I pleaded to go along with him. … He told me Aborigines were going to serve as guides and they were going to travel by horse. I was a very accomplished horseback rider and also loved to camp, so I pleaded to be taken along. He wouldn’t take me along, and I had to stay in Perth and go a Catholic girls’ school. But during that trip, he almost lost his life.
A. The guide that he found was at Jigleon, which is on the rabbit-proof fence. After crossing the rabbit-proof fence and going 100 miles east into the desert, they ran out of water and lost their way. They were found by a native [named Jepatu] who lived in the bush. This man was roaming in the desert, 300 miles south of the crater, and he came across them, led them to water and for three days, guided them to the place where my father was to rendezvous with the plane that was to pick them up.
Q. What did you know about the Aboriginal story of the crater?
A. There’s one little story posted at the crater about two rainbow serpents that made the crater and creeks by going underground and poking holes. The rainbow serpent is one of the oldest religious beliefs in the world. The idea that the rainbow serpent story is still told [means] that there was a very rich Aboriginal culture in the area—that it was part of their Dreamtime.
Q. What is Dreamtime?
A. It’s the word that white people use—it’s the time of the beginning and the ancestral past that is cosmological and ancestral. The rainbow serpent is a cosmological figure in Dreamtime. It’s one of the great creator beings who’s found all over Australia.
It is responsible for creating all of the features of the land, like the crater or creeks, streams, water holes. Most of the stories say a star fell down and became a rainbow snake, went under the ground, and made that water hole.
Q. Were Aborigines willing to talk about their spiritual beliefs?
A. At first, they wouldn’t talk to me at all. The day after seeing the crater, I immediately talked with two Aboriginal elders. … I’m an anthropologist, but I’m not an expert in Aboriginal studies. I should have known better, but you never really interview Aborigines about the sacred in a large company, certainly not in front of women. Women may know the story, but they won’t ever say that. Everything associated with the crater is sacred and secret, and there are certain people who don’t know anything about it. The only people who know anything are “traditional owners”—people whose family for generations have been roaming in the area. …When I talked to the Aboriginal elders, they suggested I go to the local Hall’s Creek art center. I was really stunned by the wonderful, beautiful paintings. The stories associated with each painting are about “my Dreamtime,” or “my rainbow serpent.” I realized that would be the way to approach understanding the crater.
Q. What was the response when you commissioned paintings?
A. By then they understood who I was and what I was trying to do and I understood that you had to speak to the traditional owners in private. I was interested in getting their view of the crater, their understanding, the webs of significance that they weave around this object in the desert.
Q. What are some of the challenges of working in the bush?
A. There is no place to live; you have to camp. It’s not conducive to long-term research. I don’t see this really as long-term research, but as having a body of work that tells their story, which will hopefully do two things: one, someone else will continue the story; and two, this body of work now establishes the crater as a sacred place. The next step would be for them to reclaim the land that the figure is on and at least administer it along with the national park.
Q. What have you learned?
A. I’ve became very close to the traditional owners who took me out into their land all around the crater and showed me how it is connected to a number of sacred sites. It doesn’t just stand alone on the desert. What you see emerging is a very rich landscape—a storied landscape.
Q. This seems like a professional and personal journey.
A. As an anthropologist, I feel privileged and blessed to have had this experience, because this is totally outside my area of expertise, which in a way, allowed me to be freer. In being freer, I thought more about what they wanted to say as opposed to my own theoretical interest and leanings. I’m very pleased to be able to bring it back home in a way that incorporates their view of the world into our view, just as my father incorporated that piece of rock into our understanding of meteorites. I realized when I was doing this that this is what anthropology is all about. … Once, we had a flat tire in the desert and nobody knew how to change the tire. We all sat down around the car and the elder—one of the custodians of the crater—started to sing, calling the spirits. Gradually, we just figured it out together, and we got home that night. In a way, that’s the same story of the crater. My father came and told a story and they figured out his story and incorporated it into their Dreamtime lore. Then I came and tried to figure out their Dreamtime lore, and brought it back here. I see that as kind of figuring it out together.
Originally published on October 21, 2004