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hollow log coffins

lesley schorpp

The Yolngu, an aboriginal society that inhabits a region of Australia’s Northern Territory called Arnhem Land, create hollow log coffins as containers for the bones of their deceased clan members.  On the outer bark of the coffins, the deceased’s kin paint clan designs that visually reference both the landscape and specific ancestral beings.  For example, one clan design employed by a Yolngu group simultaneously evokes ancestral beings called the Djang’kawu and the mangrove trees that grow in their clan’s land.  Howard Morphy notes that for the Yolngu “[l]andscape is an externalization of the ancestral beings; through paintings and sacred objects their human descendants reinternalise landscape in the form of a living and transforming code” (Morphy.129).  The decoration and subsequent ceremony of the hollow log coffin reifies the Yolngu conception of their social connections with one another and their ties to the land.  Through an investigation of the creation and use of hollow log coffins, this paper attempts to examine the relationship between clan designs, the ancestors’ spirits, and Yolngu society. 

To create a log coffin, clan members cut down a tree hollowed out by termites and transport it back to a ceremonial camp that is separated from the main camp.  A clan member paints the tree trunk with clan designs while related songs and dances are performed.  The painter creates reds and yellows from natural ochres and white from kaolin clay.  Charcoal or the carbon from dry battery cells is used for black.  In the past, natural fixatives such as egg yolk were employed to bind the ochres; however, currently, wood glue is most often utilized to ensure that the color adheres to the tree bark.  An incision or hole is also cut into the top of the coffin to provide the deceased with a viewing hole in which to survey the land.

The clan designs the Yolngu paint on the log coffins, play an integral role in Yolngu society, linking people to land, language, and social affiliations.  All Yolngu clans are one of two complementary moieties, Dhuwa or Yirritja.  Each moiety is responsible for specific ceremonies and “owns” different creation stories and totemic creatures.  The designs are passed down patrilineally and one must have the authority to paint them or risk retribution from the owners of the misappropriated design.  “Designs are part of the specificity of place, since each place has its own associated set of designs” (Morphy.129).  At this level of interpretation, clan designs relate to the landscape either via representations of animals from the region or other visible aspects of the environment. 

The Liyagawumirr people, part of the Dhuwa Moiety, employ a pattern similar to the natural marks left on the mangrove trees by the rise and fall of the tides.  The outgoing tides of the wet season run-off carry dirt and debris into the flats, leaving dark rings on the trunks of the mangroves.  The related clan design depicts an alternating striped pattern using red, white, and yellow ochres evoking the stripes on mangrove trees growing in the land’s marshy tidal flats.  In addition to referencing the markings on mangrove trees, the striped design also relates to the ancestral spirits, the Djang’kawu, whom the Yolngu describe as three ancestral beings responsible for creating the Dhuwa clans and for shaping the landscape. 

The Djang’kawu, a brother and two sisters, gave language, land, ceremonies, songs, and dances to the people of Arnhem Land.  As the Djang’kawu traveled throughout Arnhem Land, they created sacred waterholes with their digging sticks and fertilized the land.  During their travels, the Djang’kawu noted how nature seemed to ‘paint’ the trunks of the mangrove trees with parallel lines and recorded the action in their songs.  The parallel lines used on the log coffins symbolize the forces of spirit and nature to the Yolngu.  As a Yolngu viewer grows older and learns more about the clan’s land, he/she develops an understanding that allows for multiple interpretations of a design, referencing both the landscape and the ancestral story.

The log coffins painted with clan designs, such as the striped pattern of the Liyagawumirr, are used in the Yolngu second burial ceremonies.  When a person dies, their body is sung over, mourned, and also painted with relevant clan designs.  Restrictions are placed on various members of the community.  The body is taken to his relative’s land and either buried or placed on a platform in a tree to decompose.  Months or even years later, the bones are collected and distributed to family members as sacred items.  After several more months, a decision is made to perform the hollow log ceremony, and the relatives turn the deceased’s bones over to the ceremonial leaders.

In the ceremonial camp, the bones are painted with red ochre and placed in a log coffin.  While some of the larger bones may be broken to fit, the skull is never broken.  With the accompaniment of relevant songs, the coffin is danced into main camp and left to the elements.  The abandonment of the hollow log coffin in the center of main camp marks the end of the burial cycle, the end of the mourning period and related restrictions, and the safe arrival of the deceased’s spirit.  Morphy focuses on the efficacy of the visually depicted clan designs in the safe arrival of the spirit, stating “paintings on bodies and coffin lids have the power to transport the soul of the dead from the place of death to that of burial” (Morphy.130). 

In a discussion on the role of Malangan in New Ireland, Gell describes the memorial sculptures importance as the internalization of integral aspects of society such as ritual privileges and land rights through visual images (Gell.223).  Similarly, the hollow log coffin provides a visual image that reinforces Yolngu social connections through the internalization of the clan designs.  The designs represent social relationships as well as the clan’s connection with ancestral beings.  “[T]he original ancestor is now instantiated, not as one body but as the many bodies into which his one body has transformed itself” (Gell.140).  For example, the ancestral story of the Djang’kawu is invoked by the striped pattern painted on log coffins and the Liyagawumirr’s viewing of the designs internally reinforces the clan’s connection to those ancestors and each other.

The hollow log coffin also depicts an important dichotomy between what the Yolngu term the “inside” and the “outside.”  The “inside” is viewed as below ground, ancestral, within the ceremonial ground, or restrictive.  Conversely, the Yolngu describe the “outside” as above ground, open, public, or produced.  The “inside” is considered the “truth” that must be approached in a certain way in order to be understood.  The hollow log coffin creates an inside and outside by enclosing the bones of the deceased within its hollowed core.  The coffin protects the inner, while also projecting it (i.e. Djang’kawu ancestral spirits) for internalization through the clan designs that decorate the coffin.  The incision at the top of the coffin also provides an outlet for the ancestral to interact with the above ground.  As one Yolngu man describes, the painting of clan designs and creation of hollow log coffins, “[t]o Yolngu people it’s a power.  It’s part of being—part of themselves” (as quoted in Jenkins.42).  The power represented in the designs and their display on the log coffin internally reinforce Yolngu’s understanding of their connection to the land and ancestors, as well as to each other. 


Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency:  An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Susan. 1999. "An Overview of Aboriginal Burial Practices and Their Contemporary Significance." In The Memorial: A Masterpiece of Aboriginal Art. Lausanne: Musee Olympique.

Morphy, Howard. 2000. "Inner Landscapes:  The Fourth Dimension." In The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art & Culture, edited by Sylvia Kleinert and Margo Neale, 129-36. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

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