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Labour of the Indigenous Seasons

Stimulus #1: 
The Book of Hours, Bourges, ca 1480, from the workshop of Jean Colombe

Student activities

Task no. 1

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Labour of the Indigenous Seasons

Your teacher will tell you about Books of Hours, and ask you to contribute to a class discussion.

The Labours of the Months

The contents of a Book of Hours will vary greatly between examples. A common feature of a Book of Hours was the Labours of the Months. These were pages that featured a calendar and information about astrology or star signs. A Labour of the Months included illustrations of the activities that traditionally took place during the different months and seasons of the year. Often these depicted rural and farm activities but they could also reveal scenes from the court, towns and cities.


Look at images 5-16 to see the Labours of the Months as depicted in the Book of Hours, Bourges, available on the State Library of New South Wales' catalogue

The subjects of the small miniatures that depict the Labours of the Months in The Book of Hours, Bourges c.1480 are set out in a table available in the downloadable resource. Read through this table.

Indigenous Australian Seasons

The portrayal of the Labours of the Season in a Book of Hours reflects the culture and world of medieval Europe. Indigenous Australians have their own ways of dividing the year into seasons. Each group of Indigenous Australians has their own seasonal calendar that is based on natural events particular to their country. The names and ideas about seasons reflect the diversity of indigenous Australia. They differ between each group of Indigenous Australians and according to the nature of their country.

Australia’s climate is diverse. The idea of four seasons does not suit a continent the size of Australia and which has alpine, rainforest, savannah, desert and temperate regions. Rather than just using dates, Indigenous Australians would observe changes in the natural environment and these would provide evidence of the changes in season. Understanding the weather and climate and linking these to the events in the natural world was an important strategy to ensure the survival of Indigenous Australians.  This knowledge was important for knowing what kinds of food were available at different times of the year. Often the understanding of Indigenous Australian seasons was women’s knowledge as it was they who traditionally collected plants. This knowledge of weather and the climate belongs to indigenous people and it is not always culturally appropriate for it to be shared. 

The Gadgerong people of the north western Northern Territory know that when march flies appear it is evidence that crocodile eggs can be found and it is time to collect honey from the hives of native bees. This was just one of the clues that help them know it is approaching the end of the late dry season. When male koalas start fighting in the country of the D’harawal people they know that hotter weather will soon arrive. The country and language area of the D’harawal people extends from Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) to the northern shores of the Shoalhaven River and from the Wollondilly River to the sea.

The D’harawal people divide the year into six seasons. A number of these seasons are named for the plants whose flowering and fruiting indicates the change in season. The European idea of dividing the year into four seasons has only existed in Australia since 1788.

Many Australians are already realising that this way of thinking about the divisions of the year does not fit this continent. In the Northern Territory many non-indigenous people already think about dividing the year into two parts, the “Wet” and the “Dry.” Some are adding a third season they call the “Build Up”. The Yolngu people of north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory divide the year into six seasons.


Create your own overview of a Labour of Seasons that demonstrates your understanding of the calendar of seasons that is part of an Indigenous Australian culture.

The labour or work might relate to collecting of foods or materials.

Be aware that this knowledge remains the intellectual and cultural property of indigenous Australians. It must be treated with respect and appreciation.

You can research online a range of websites that provide information about the ways a range of indigenous Australian groups consider the idea of seasons.

Make the effort to look for sites which include and respect the perspectives and experience of indigenous Australians. A number of meteorological services (that give information about the weather) include information about indigenous seasons on their websites.

Some possible indigenous Australian groups to explore include:

  • Yolngu
  • Noongar (Whadjuk)
  • Brambuk
  • Yanyura
  • Mirriwoong
  • Anangu Pitjantjara
  • D’harawal
  • Nyoongar
  • Walabunnba
  • Jarwoyn

There is a template available for your use, in the downloadable resource, to set out your Labour of Seasons. 

Book of Hours, Bourges, ca. 1480- Calendar April-May, ca. 1480
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