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Chemical characterisation of museum-curated ethnographic resins from Australia and New Guinea used as adhesives, medicines and narcotics

Bradshaw Fiona Bradshaw Fiona Bradshaw
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Journal Article
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Background: Six ethnographic museum resins with documented adhesive, medicinal and narcotic uses have been analysed by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) as a step towards understanding the role of specific resins in 20th century Australia and New Guinea. Curated in the Pitt Rivers Museum for over a hundred years, these specimens are examples of resin used for three different purposes, some accompanied by ethnographic accounts from the collectors themselves. Results: The six ethnographic resins have been chemically characterised and identified to species where possible: an adhesive resin from New South Wales is identified as Xanthorrhoea resinosa Pers.; adhesives from New Guinea are tentatively identified as Canarium luzonicum Miq. and beeswax mixed with Canarium spp.; a narcotic resin from New Guinea is identified as Canarium salomonense B.L.Burtt; and the characterisation of spinifex resin from West Australian ‘medicine shells’ hypothesised to be Triodia irritans R.Br is presented. Conclusions: This study concludes that molecular differentiation between resins from different species is still possible after a hundred years of aging in a museum environment and demonstrates the potential of resin analysis on such aged museum items. These data alongside re-visited ethnographic accounts can confirm, correct, or provide new information to museum records. Furthermore, they can shed new light on the study of the role of these particular resins and mixtures that were used in Indigenous Sahul and contribute towards a framework of analysis and understanding of archaeological resins from this region.

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