Cage of Ghosts by Jon Rhodes

cover image of cage of ghosts book

2019 Winner

Judges' Comments 

This substantial work makes a highly original contribution to the regional history and heritage of New South Wales. Starting from his own photographic documentation of sites of the Aboriginal presence in the landscape, Jon Rhodes explores the history of the transformation of these rock engravings and carved trees into cultural heritage. He also uncovers a cast of enthusiasts and antiquarians who recognised the value of these sites and tried to protect and preserve them, and of the anthropologists who ‘saved’ the trees only to cut them down and send them to museums.

Through vivid illustrations and reports of his visits, Rhodes characterises the presentation of these sites today as ‘caged’, places that are now imprisoned by development or for their own protection. Underpinned by his painstaking research into previous settler engagement with these sites, Rhodes creates a subtle, challenging narrative of the ambiguities and complexities of non-Indigenous relations with Indigenous culture over more than a century. His beautifully crafted history reminds us of the political implications of heritage, and of the physical and cultural shaping of country during millennia of Indigenous custodianship.

Cage of Ghosts is a book of unusual originality. At once personal and scholarly, stories presented in words and in pictures, it is a subtle exploration of way that thousands of years of Indigenous history are both visible, and hidden, in Australian landscapes. It is a formidably documented study with the power to reshape how we see the places where we live. Jon Rhodes evokes a multilayered country whose meanings have been shaped by the ancient cultures of First Nations peoples, but also by the complex, tragic history of settler colonialism.