’70 or 80 Natives Attacked the Party while Travelling’: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of Conflict on the Frontier

By Heather Burke

Archaeologists are obsessed with space. Not the kind you can look up and see at night, but something more earthly—the physical relationships between things that can be transformed through measurement into a variety of maps and plans. Geographic information systems (GIS) are only the most recent way to capture and collect such spatial information, but they have become central to the practice of modern archaeology.

Most uses of GIS in archaeology are quantitative (meaning that they relate to numerical data—that is, things that can be counted and measured) and focus on material traces (the physical sites and artefacts that form the various aspects of archaeological collections and analyses). Over the last few decades, however, a wider movement in the social sciences has experimented with mapping less conventional and more qualitative forms of data. Various studies from cultural geography, sociology, literary studies, anthropology and health have explored ways to spatially visualise difficult-to-map things, such as creative activity and cultural life (Brennan-Horley et al. 2010; Gibson et al. 2010), places (and feelings) of safety and danger (Kwan 2008; Kwan and Ding 2008), emotions, people’s perceptions, movements and reactions, or individual activity zones. And yes, that even has an acronym: QGIS, which stands for qualitative GIS.

The Mapping the Lakes project, for example, mapped the poet Thomas Gray’s journey through the Lake District in England in the autumn of 1769, as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s tour of the same region in August 1802.

A more intimate example is the series of emotion maps created by Christian Nold and others. You can download the emotion map for Greenwich yourself from here and explore it in Google Maps.

All such work relies on geographic information systems (GIS) technology and its ability to hold significant quantities of data in many layers. Using quantitative and qualitative data together can provide a better understanding of how particular human behaviours might emerge in specific geographical circumstances (Gregory and Healey 2007; Towers 2010). In other words, the ways in which places, their histories and our human reactions to them might affect people’s choices and decisions.

While a central strand of our project focusses on the traditional archaeological “sites” associated with the NMP, we are also trying to map frontier conflict  more widely. In our case we are using GIS to ‘spatialise’ accounts of frontier conflict contained in primary sources, such as diaries, reports or newspaper articles.

A newspaper account of frontier conflict: in this case an attack on stock.

Such an endeavour is much more difficult (and far less precise) than mapping other kinds of archaeological data, since the locations of events can only be determined through a careful process of comparing sources with different details to information on historic maps. In very rare instances old maps will actually show the locations of conflict events, although typically these tend to note the occasions when Aboriginal people were hostile to Europeans (who were the ones drawing the maps) rather than the other way around.

Extract from a map of the northern part of Qld showing the route of the Jardine brothers’ party from August 1864 to January 1865 (source National Library of Australia Map RM 3066).

The exploitation of the spatial dimensions of GIS in archaeology is not new. While the ‘spatial turn’ may have changed the way that historians or researchers from other traditionally non-spatial disciplines interpret the past, archaeology has always engaged with place and landscape as critical components of understanding past human behaviour.

Our project will bring these aspects together and use them to try and understand the placement and movement of the NMP within the wider landscape of Qld. The PhD project by Alyssa Madden will investigate these in more detail for a specific region: the Maranoa.

Mapping such elements is as much about understanding the specifics of regions as it is about personalities and consequences. We have 455 events in our database already—a miniscule proportion of what took place over the 60 year operation of the NMP—and more are added every day. Each one is a piece in a much larger puzzle.


Brennan-Horley, C. , S. Luckman, C. Gibson and J. Willoughby-Smith 2010 GIS, ethnography and cultural research: putting maps back into ethnographic mapping. The Information Society: An International Journal 26(2):92–103.

Gibson, C., C. Brennan-Horley and A. Warren 2010 Geographic information technologies for cultural research: cultural mapping and the prospects of colliding epistemologies. Cultural Trends 19(4):325–348.

Gregory, I.N. and R. G. Healey 2007 Historical GIS: structuring, mapping and analysing geographies of the past. Progress in Human Geography 31(5):638–653.

Kwan, M.P. 2008 From oral histories to visual narratives: re-presenting the post-September 11 experiences of the Muslim women in the USA. Social and Cultural Geography 9(6):653–669.

Kwan, M-P and G. Ding 2008 Geo-narrative: extending geographic information systems for narrative analysis in qualitative and mixed-method research. The Professional Geographer 60(4):443–465.

McGregor, J.R. 2002 Geohistorical archaeology: a perspective for considering the historic past. The Journal of Geography 101(4):160–166.

Starr, H. 2005 Territory, proximity and spatiality: the geography of international conflict. International Studies Review 7(3):387–406.

Towers, G. 2010 Rediscovering rural Appalachian communities with historical GIS. Southeastern Geographer 50(1):58–82.

White, A.P. 2013 X marks the spot: extracting data from historical maps to locate archaeological sites. Journal of Map and Geography Libraries 9:140–156.

4 thoughts on “’70 or 80 Natives Attacked the Party while Travelling’: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of Conflict on the Frontier

  1. Excellent

    Iain Davidson,

    Emeritus Professor, University of New England, Australia

    Mailing address: 10 Cluny Rd, Armidale, NSW 2350

    Mobile/cell phone AUS +61 402 106 853

    ORCID 0000-0003-1840-9704

    Texts of recent publications are on Academia: Cultural transmission and tone tools, Aboriginal stone houses; Paleolithic art; Fauna in rock art .

    Facebook (Davidson Iain Davidson), Academia.edu (Iain Davidson), Research Gate (Iain Davidson) Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/23766603@N07/


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