Jacob Nayinggul is a charismatic elder from Gunbalanya, an isolated settlement in Arnhem Land, northern Australia. Aboriginal people in this area believe that the landscape is inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors whose bones can be seen in crevices and caves.
Nayinggul is aware that many of the old burial sites have been disturbed by scientists who collected human remains for museums. This presents the terrifying possibility that ancestral spirits were wrenched from their traditional country.
Drawing on original footage from National Geographic, this carefully crafted documentary explores the impact of one notorious bone theft by a member of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Hundred of bones were stolen and deposited in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
When the location of the bones became known to Arnhem Landers in the late 1990s, elders called for their return. This resulted in a tense standoff with the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian—and eventually in the repatriation of the bones.
Made over eight years, Etched in Bone gives extraordinary insight into the deep and enduring conflict between scientific and traditional forms of knowledge. In moving footage, we see how the repatriated bones are removed from their museum boxes, coated in red ochre and wrapped in paperbark. In this way, Jacob Nayinggul draws on ancient knowledge to create a new form of ceremony that welcomes home the ancestor spirits and puts them to sleep in the land where they were born.
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