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National Museum of Australia

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Glass plate negative - Men showing their scars, Port George IV, Western Australia, photographed by Herbert Basedow, 1916


Object information





L 100mm x W 125mm


Physical Description

Black and white glass plate negative showing three standing Aboriginal men viewed from behind; all show prominent cicatrices (body scars); the man in the centre also wears a waist band and a string necklace.

Educational Significance

This is a photograph by Herbert Basedow of three young men standing facing away from the camera. They have rows of scars on their shoulder blades, middle and lower back, buttocks, thighs and calves. One boy is wearing a string necklace and a thick, tightly-woven rope around his hips.

Decorative scarring was practised all over Australia, by both men and women, from adolescent years onward. This photograph was taken in the Kimberley region. Cuts could be made with a stone flake or sharp shell, or burnt on with a firestick or heated stone. Cuts were then filled with clay or ashes to produce raised scars, called cicatrices. The chest, abdomen, shoulders, back and upper arms were the most common areas for cicatrices, but they could also be made on the forehead and legs. Their purpose varied and apart from beautification, could be related to initiation, affiliation with a particular social group, or social status.

Herbert Basedow was a doctor, anthropologist and explorer. From 1903 to 1928 he ventured to remote regions of central and northern Australia - places rarely seen by Australians even today. Aboriginal people often feature in his photographs. Basedow wanted to document Aboriginal cultures as they had been before British colonisation, and often went to some lengths to craft his photographs to appear as such.

This photograph was taken during an expedition in the Kimberley region of north-east Western Australia to investigate a reported deposit of metal that would be useful for munitions.


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