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Melville Island Sewn Bark Indigenous Canoe

Vessel Number: HV000368
Previous Owner:
Vessel Dimensions: 4.01 m x 0.67 m (13.16 ft x 2.2 ft)
Classification:Vessels and fittings
The Melville Island Indigenous Sewn Bark Canoe is an example of the traditional watercraft construction used by the Indigenous Tiwi communities on Melville Island, Northern Territory. The canoe reveals many details of its construction and is in good condition. It was collected from the island in 1912 by merchant D Sayers, it is believed not long after it was built. This is suggested by the fact that the bark material used in its construction has a relatively short life span and would have deteriorated over time had the canoe had a long working life.
DescriptionThe Melville Island Indigenous Sewn Bark Canoe is part of the collection at the South Australian Museum, numbered A16590. It is built from an undetermined species of tree bark that is lashed to branches on the edges, while the fore and aft ends are sewn together. The stitching is in an intricate double over-under pattern creating a diamond shape series of stitches around the centreline join between both sides. The branches or saplings which extend for almost the full length of the craft keep the sides almost parallel. The branches are lashed to the outside of the hull with fibres that are passed around the branch and through the bark sides. Three woven ropes run across the hull at roughly equal spacings and are tied to the side branches. These ropes could be tightened or loosened when required to maintain the hull's shape. An additional piece of bark has been sewn to the port side and is thought to be a repair.

Sewn bark canoes were probably the original method of canoe construction for the Tiwi community. It would have been the sole known method of building a canoe until Macassan traders introduced the dugout log canoe, possibly as early as the 1600s. It is thought that sewn bark canoes were still made in conjunction with the dugout log canoes.

The South Australian Museum canoe has sufficient length and volume to indicate it could have carried a modest load of people or the catch from fishing or hunting expeditions. It is possible it may have been capable of use in open water, such as the crossing of the Clarence Strait between Melville and Bathurst Islands and mainland Australia.

In 2009 the Melville Island Indigenous Sewn Bark Canoe was located in the South Australian Museum's storage premises.

This text has been prepared using material from a thesis by Zack King, Flinders University South Australia, and information from the South Australian Museum.

Vessel Details
Current status:not on display
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:paddle
Hull material and construction:indigenous materialsnative materials
Hull shape:monohull
Hull shape:round bottom
Alternate Numbers

: A16590

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