In October 1940 a man by the name of James White unearthed, in an unprepossessing sand deposit near the junction of Dry Creek and the Maribyrnong River, what has since become known as the Keilor Cranium. Lacking, aside from the mandible, the ‘temporal segments of both zygomatic arches and a large section of the right side of the basicranium’, the Keilor Cranium is nonetheless one of our best-preserved examples of south-eastern Aboriginal cranial morphology from the terminal Pleistocene. A few fragments of femur, believed to belong to the same individual, were also found close by. There is still some debate over the significance of the cranium: on the one hand, we have the argument that Keilor provides incontrovertible evidence of unbroken, ongoing habitation of the continent by a single line of Aboriginal ancestry from prehistoric times to the present, and on the other, the argument that, while indeed a significant find, Keilor could not reasonably make such claims. Of course, what would seal the argument one way or the other is the missing mandible. But the missing mandible remains missing. Many digs, the most recent in the early 1980s, have failed to find any trace.I first came across the Cranium some years ago when I was living in that house in Brunswick with the chickens out the back. I thought at the time it might make a good topic for a story, magazine-length, starting perhaps with the accidental discovery in a nondescript suburban paddock of some apparently prehistoric Aboriginal remains and exploring in its middle and concluding pages the profound impact this discovery might have on the national story. Because if, as the science suggested, the jaw structure and mandibular dentition of the Keilor Cranium (or Skull, as it would be if the jawbone were found) showed it to be as robust and gracile as the better known Kow Swamp and Lake Mungo remains, a further and probably conclusive piece of evidence would have been found to finally overturn the trihybrid theory of prehistoric Aboriginal occupation (successive waves of migration displacing the prior occupants) and the assumption based on it that the land is as much ours as theirs. My story would put the lie to the claim, at that time gathering momentum in certain circles, that we are all immigrants, and that no-one can claim prior ownership and therefore any kind of special treatment.
Each day I caught the tram into the city and sat in the State Library reading through the scant and specialist material available. But truth to tell my heart wasn’t really in it. What was I, the white boy, trying to prove? I decided to do a little archaeology myself.
I packed a lunch, a notebook and a pen, a garden trowel, a dessert spoon, and an old takeaway container, fixed a milk crate to the back of my bike, and put my pack inside. On the track I passed houses, football fields, freeway flyovers; occasionally a jogger went past, occasionally a pair of women out walking. After a while I left the track and rode the back streets of Essendon until I came out at Keilor Road, which I followed all the way to Horseshoe Bend. I arrived there a little after midday and hid my bike in some bushes near the bridge.
The first thing that strikes you about the Keilor Cranium site, the thing that still strikes me now—the reason, in part, for my writing—is how on earth in heaven’s name such deep and significant history could exist in such a shallow, insignificant place. The dig itself, now entirely overgrown, is little more than a large hollow about twenty metres in diameter near where the scar of Dry Creek meets the Maribyrnong. The smattering of native grasses planted in the vain hope of revegetating the area has been completely overtaken by weeds: Scotch thistle, gorse, serrated tussock and the African boxthorn that some well-meaning farmer must once have hedged his paddocks with. Rabbits were hopping about everywhere, their white tails bobbing. The soil there is dark alluvial, thrown up by the river over eons past, with patches here and there of flaky limestone, the remnants of an ancient seabed. The rabbits had ravaged whatever grasses once held together the sloping hillsides above, and the overall impression was of a landscape washed, leached, weather-worn and scarred. A flight path to the nearby airport passes directly overhead: you could see the huge underbellies of the jets in fine detail as they descended towards the runway. This little piece of land, in many ways of great national significance, was, in every other way, a sad peculiarity. Dead paddocks, rampant weeds, car tyres, the rusted skeleton of an abandoned truck.
I rummaged around there most of the day, in full view of the passing traffic on the freeway above, feeling, quite frankly, a little ridiculous. I ate my lunch on a mound of dirt, relieved myself in a boxthorn thicket. I scratched around with my implements, jotted down some notes and made a few crude pencil sketches. The afternoon dragged on; the cars that had passed by that morning were now returning home.
I too was about to make my way back towards the bridge when I heard what I thought was a car backfiring. I hid behind a gorse bush and watched a figure moving slowly across the slope of the nearby hill. He was carrying a gun, and had a dog trotting along behind. He picked something up, then started in my direction.
Hello! Hello! I said, stepping out. Hello! Don’t shoot! Hello! If I felt ridiculous before, I felt completely ludicrous now. The man looked at me. What are you doing here? he said. I’m a writer, I said. This gave him little to go on. He was carrying a dead rabbit by the ears. I’m writing about the Cranium, I said, holding out as evidence my dusty utensils and my dog-eared notebook. He leaned the gun against his leg.
He was white-bread suburban, his father and probably his father before him had shot rabbits here, and if his son was not away down the coast fishing, I guessed, he would be here shooting rabbits too. A factory worker, car parts probably, recently unemployed, a small brick house with a wide concrete drive and a tin garage with a tilt-up door where on the weekends he tinkered with the trail bike he and his son rode each Sunday on the paddocks out the back of the estate. He said ‘cranium’ like ‘krahnium’. I’ve heard all the talk about the Cranium, he was saying (he had his foot on the dead rabbit’s head, ripping the pelt from the carcass; his dog, a mongrel-looking thing, was woofing down the entrails nearby); everyone around here has, I mean how it’s all a big deal and is going to put us on the map. Gavin Proctor went up to Lake Mungo there a while back to have a look; they’ve got everything up there: visitors’ centre, guided tours, overnight lodge. And what have we got? Nothing. So Gavin’s come back with all these big ideas and he’s got the local businesses onside and oh yeah for a while there it was all go, go, go. But we don’t have the mandible—do we?—and we’re poor cousins to Mungo if we don’t have the mandible. Then Gavin left—trouble with his wife, she was seeing the butcher—and the whole thing went arse-up. A few good souls tried to set up a committee with the idea of fixing the place up and mounting some kind of plaque or information board or something, but like everything else around here it was all talk no action. Same with the skate park. Piss and wind. Gavin’s the one you want to talk to, but he’s in Sydney now, or that woman from the library but she’s a pain in the arse, or you could have a look in Garden Avenue where there’s a bloke called Windridge. About fifty metres down on the left-hand side.
The dog was tense and bristling, sweeping the bloodied dirt with its nose. The man whistled her up. He threw the pelt into the bushes and put the carcass in a plastic bag. Watch out for snakes if you’re going back that way, he said, pointing towards the bridge. She chased up a tiger yesterday. He shouldered the gun and set off up the hill, the dog following behind.
I’d knocked on the door of three houses in Garden Avenue before the man called Windridge answered. A double-storey brick veneer with a central door, two large upstairs windows, and a ‘Clean Fill’ sign on the fence. It was evening, the streetlights were just coming on, the smell of cooked meat wafted out from a kitchen somewhere, while down in the bushland reserve by the river the lorikeets were screeching and chattering in the trees. He was a pale, nervous, balding man in his sixties, with one of those poloneck jumpers that had long ago gone out of fashion. He had a pair of reading glasses on a chain around his neck. I’m interested in the Cranium, I said. I heard you might know something. He glanced over my shoulder as if looking for the source of the rumour. Are you from the papers? he asked. I said I was a freelance writer, that I had a general interest only. I showed him my pad, as if that were some use. He gestured for me to come inside.
It was a 1960s house, with raw timber and lots of light. Windridge led me down the hallway to the back where a big open-plan kitchen looked out onto a terraced back yard and the bushland reserve beyond. It was getting dark out there now but I could still see, glowing strangely down on the lower part of the garden in the last of the evening light, a big white marquee. Are you having a party? I asked. He snorted. A woman came in, a lean, overtanned woman with pinned-up bottle-blonde hair. This is my wife, Jenny, said Windridge. Love, this is the man I was telling you about, from the university, you remember? The woman gave her husband, if that’s what he was, what could only be described as a withering look. She did not even bother looking at me. She picked up a wine glass and bottle from the kitchen bench and walked back with them towards the front of the house. I could hear the muffled sound of the evening news on the television, then a door closing, then silence.
The air outside was alive, the birds chattering in the trees, the moths hurling themselves at the porch light. The white marquee was radiating an eerie, alien light. Windridge stopped before its entrance. The river’s just down there, he said, past those two gums. It does two big horseshoe turns around here—one there, one further back—and the theory was that any bone fragments, even in flood-times, wouldn’t be able to get downstream past these two horseshoes but would lodge in the sandy deposit up there where the Cranium was found, before the first bend, over on the other side of the bridge. That was the theory, anyway. He pulled back the flap on the marquee and flicked a switch on the power board inside. A fluorescent light stuttered on.
The marquee was there to cover what was essentially an enormous hole. There was a walkway around it, about a metre wide, allowing access to all four sides, and in a couple of places a ladder going down into what at its deepest would have been about a four-metre drop. But the depth was not uniform, the whole thing was terraced, with little earth platforms and stopes throughout. Above the hole was a rope-and-pulley system with a bucket on the end and on the far walkway a wheelbarrow full of dirt. This is my fourth dig in this street, said Windridge; number one first, then number three, then five, then here. They’ve all got swimming pools now. They were wrong to think all the fragments were going to be found back there on the other side of the bridge, away from people, ‘in the scrub’. That’s the biggest delusion of all. No. All our houses are built on the bones of the past and under every house is a secret. He picked up a sieve, a big circular thing like I’d seen before in those gold rush re-creations; it had a few bits of gravel in it, which he pushed around with his finger. I get paid, he said, without looking at me: I’m not ashamed. My wife doesn’t want to live in Keilor—she keeps a post office box in Toorak—but she can’t say no to all that money, can she? She likes to spend. He stopped for a moment, as if a thought had tripped him up, and stood with the sieve in his hand, staring distractedly into the hole. I turned: someone was standing in the doorway, a boy of about thirteen or fourteen, dressed in dirty jeans and a T-shirt. I’m sorry, said the boy; I had to help Mum with the shopping. Windridge nodded coolly. Will I just keep going where I was yesterday? Windridge nodded again. The boy took a spade, a trowel and a brush from the milk crate in the corner. Come inside, Windridge said.
We made our way back towards the house. It was all quiet outside now, except for the low rumble of cars on the freeway and, further away still, the whoosh and roar of a plane coming in to land at the airport. I could see the dark shape of the boy moving around inside the marquee, then descending a ladder into the hole. He works for me after school, Windridge explained; I pay him well, he likes the work and he’s good at it too. His mum’s on her own; she’s got four kids, it helps them out. I have a few others too. We climbed the back steps to the kitchen and Windridge led me back down the hallway past a room with a closed door (I could hear the television inside) to another room at the front of the house. It was the spare room, obviously, full of boxes, filing cabinets and junk. Under the front window was a big table strewn with rocks, gravel and dust. There was a single bed stacked high with boxes and on the wall opposite a floor-to-ceiling built-in robe. Windridge pushed one of the sliding doors back.
The robe was filled with trays and boxes, all labelled—Windridge pulled out one of the lower trays and held it out for me to look at. Megafauna, he said, probably Diprotodon, the bigger bits are in the boxes on the bed. He slid that tray back and pulled out another. Procoptodon, he said: probably a rib. He took out some more trays, pushing the bone fragments around with his finger. He closed the first door and slid open the second. There were more trays here, more boxes. Femur fragment, said Windridge, showing me the contents of another tray. He took out a second, this one with a medium-sized, slightly curved piece of bone on it. Scapula, he said, or part of, probably from the same individual. He slid that tray back and this time pulled out, from the very bottom shelf, a shoebox. I recognised the word Bata on the side. He took off the lid and carefully peeled away the bubble-wrap from a piece of bone. He held it towards me on the flat of his hand. It was the mandible, obviously, the shape of the jawline very clear, the teeth mostly intact. He ran a finger along it. I’ve done all the measurements, he said: it fits. He pointed at one of the molars. Look at the size of that, he said. Kow, Mungo, Coobool, Cohuna; one people, one lineage, one continuous occupation. He let his finger rest there a while, as if afraid to break the spell, then wrapped the mandible up again and closed the box. Take it, he said. It took me a second to realise what he meant. I’m a fraud, he said, please take it. He turned away. I could see his shoulders shaking. I spent my best years trying to heal this country’s rifts, he said, and my worst years trying to widen them. Please—he turned—take it to the museum, ask for Max, tell him to put it with Keilor, he’ll know what you mean. There was something desperate, almost maniacal, in his look. I didn’t know it was a door handle I was holding until I found myself in the hall.
When I got outside it was pouring. I could hear the wife screaming, things being thrown. I ran to the end of Garden Avenue, cut across the scrubby ground in the valley below and crashed my way through the tall grass and prickles until I came out at the river. My bike was on the other side, its front wheel poking out of the bushes. I didn’t know what to do. I crawled in under the bridge—the earth was hard, like concrete—and with the Bata shoebox in my lap I listened for a long time to the heavy drops hitting the trees.
That was 2006. I should have gone to see this Max, but I didn’t. Something told me I ought to hang on to the mandible for a while, to see what it really meant. I’d take it out sometimes, finger it, turn it this way then the other, wonder about human history, human values, being human, humanity, all that. I asked a lot of questions but I came to no conclusions. I kept the box under my bed. Then by chance a couple of years later I was sitting at a table having a coffee and a doughnut in a roadhouse near Carlsruhe flicking through a copy of the Brimbank Leader when I saw an article inside. The museum had handed the Keilor Cranium back to the local Aboriginal people who buried it with due ceremony in the ground at Horseshoe Bend. A week later, with the mandible in the shoebox under my arm, I was knocking at the old door in Garden Avenue. There was a hole back there, I told myself, deep enough to bury all our baggage in. But Windridge wasn’t there. A young man answered, his young wife standing behind him. They’d bought the house last year, he said. Vacant possession. He was wearing tracksuit pants and a T-shirt with Whatever on it. I had a picture of the swimming pool, the young man in a pair of green and gold shorts, climbing backwards down the ladder. An awful sensation rose up in me. Sorry, wrong place, I said.