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Arnhem Land, 1948 - The expedition

In 1948 Charles P Mountford led the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land ('the Expedition'). 

One of the largest and most comprehensive scientific expeditions ever undertaken in Australia, the party spent eight months in the field with camps at Umbakumba (Groote Eylandt), Yirrkala and Oenpelli. The 17 party members came from organisations across Australia and the United States and covered a range of disciplines in the fields of medicine, nutrition, ethnology and natural history.

The idea for the Expedition came in 1945 when Mountford was on a lecture tour of the United States under the auspices of the Commonwealth Department of Information, his employer at the time.

After receiving an excellent response to a presentation on Aboriginal culture in Central Australia given at the National Geographic Society, it was suggested he apply to the Society for a research grant. Arnhem Land was purportedly chosen because there had been little research into the natural history and ethnology of the area. Once the concept received support from the Australian Government, planning commenced and was further progressed during Mountford's second visit to the US in 1946.

The impetus for the Expedition also had a strategic aspect, as it was anticipated that information about the availability of food and other resources would provide intelligence should there be another conflict or emergency in the Pacific region involving America and Australia.

The ground-breaking expedition got underway in 1948 and received widespread publicity (evidenced by the thick volume of newspaper clippings in the Mountford-Sheard Collection). The party were treated like VIPs and received official receptions in Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney before they left for the field.

The Expedition members were:

Leader, Film Director and Ethnologist: Charles P Mountford, Department of Information, South Australian Museum

Deputy-Leader and Archaeologist: Frank M Seztler, Head Curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution

Ornithologist: Herbert G Deignan, Smithsonian Institution

Mammalogist: David H Johnson, Smithsonian Institution

Ichthyologist: Robert R Miller, Smithsonian Institution

Botanist: Raymond L Specht, University of Adelaide

Anthropologist: Frederick D McCarthy, Australian Museum, Sydney

Photographer and Staff Writer: Harrison Howell (Hal) Walker, National Geographic Society, Washington

Honorary Secretary: Bessie I Mountford

Guide and Liaison Officer: William E (Bill) Harney

Cine-photographer and wireless operator: Peter Bassett-Smith

Transport Officer: Keith Cordon

Cook and Honorary Entomologist: John E Bray

Cook from 12 August 1948: Reginald Hollow

Attached to the Expedition was a Nutrition Unit from the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, with the aim of studying Aboriginal health and food:

Medical Officer: Brian Billington

Nutritionist: Margaret McArthur

Biochemist: Kelvin Hodges

This was the first Expedition undertaken in Australia that covered so many different fields of study.  Originally four camp locations were planned, however transport and communication problems saw this reduced to three.  Despite the difficulties, the Expedition yielded a huge amount of scientific data and specimens, the end result being a four volume report, Records of the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land.

Significantly, just after the complicated move to the Yirrkala camp, with virtually no notice, the Administrator of the Northern Territory (Mr Driver), the acting Director of the Department of Information (Mr Kevin Murphy) and the US consul in Adelaide (Mr Siebert) arrived at the camp. Mountford and Setlzer were summoned into a tent where a wide ranging discussion is said to have ensued.  The outcome of the meeting was that Setzler was to be appointed Expedition leader in Mountford's place, possibly a result of the many transport difficulties that had plagued the work, or that the credentialed American scientists should not be working under a self-taught Australian. The four American scientists were quick to agree privately that they would not support this coup and it was settled that Mountford would continue to lead the Expedition.

Despite the upheaval caused by these events, Mountford comments on the fellowship that developed between the members of the Expedition party, who were together in the field for 8 months, often under very difficult conditions.  Mountford writes of Oenpelli, '...when writing up our notes or preparing the specimens gathered during the day, the mosquitoes attacked us and myriads of moths, beetles and other flying things crawled into our eyes and became tangled in our hair and clothing...I think that Billington and Hodges worked under the greatest disadvantages. Their laboratory consisted of two Army tents, set end to end in a dusty paddock.  The high temperature and the dust, where cleanliness is so important, were a continuous trial.  Yet these two kept going without complaints...'   (Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, vol. 1, p. xxviii)

Mountford reported that the work yielded 13,500 plant specimens, 30,000 fish, 850 birds, 460 animals, thousands of Aboriginal implements and weapons, hundreds of bark paintings and string figures, plus photographs of cave paintings from Chasm Island, Groote Eylandt and Oenpelli. This was complemented by the comprehensive field notes of the scientists, plus the photographs and film of Aboriginal lifestyles and natural history.  The specimens were distributed between appropriate Australian and American collecting institutions. The papers of the Expedition members are variously held at different institutions.

The ethnographic information collected by Mountford can be found in Art, myth and symbolism - volume 1 of the Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. This work continues to be one of the most detailed analyses of the art of Arnhem Land.


American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, (1948). Records of the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land, Melbourne : Melbourne University Press, 1956-1964

Berndt, Ronald M and Berndt Catherine H. Arnhem Land : its history and its people, Melbourne : Cheshire, 1954

Lamshed, Max. 'Monty' : the biography of C.P. Mountford, Adelaide : Rigby, 1972, pp. 120-153

National Geographic Magazine, vol. 96, no. 6, 1949, pp. 745-782, 'Exploring Stone-age Arnhem Land' by Charles P Mountford.


01. Wonders of Arnhem Land
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02. Letter of application
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03. Letter of application
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04. Letter from Dr A Wetmore to Charles Mountford
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05. Arnhem Land explorers take off for Darwin
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06. Members of the 1948 AASEAL Expedition party, on Gro
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07. Charles Mountford taking photographs from an aircra
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08. Bob Miller
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09. Margaret McArthur, scientist
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10. To Study Native Diet
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11. Nutrition Camp, Bickerton Island
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12. Retrieving sunk Expedition gear, Bickerton Island
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