Just who built large rock walls near Jindabyne is unknown, yet other rock structures hint at an advanced indigenous understanding of astronomy, writes Deborah Smith.
At the next summer solstice in December, Angel John Gallard will look to the skies from a special place – a wall made from large stones that runs down a steep slope, exactly east-west, into Lake Jindabyne.
The former national park ranger first came across the carefully built structure in bushland more than 30 years ago, but his renewed interest was inspired by research showing indigenous Australians had sophisticated knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon and stars.
Astronomers have recently shown that Wurdi Youang – a semi-circular Aboriginal stone arrangement in Victoria that is aligned east-west – marks out where the sun sets on the winter and summer solstices.
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Many small Aboriginal rock arrangements in NSW also appear to have been built in an east-west, or north-south direction – a practice requiring close observation of the heavens.
”It is starting to show a very widespread understanding of the cosmos within Aboriginal society,” Gallard, who has found and recorded many Aboriginal sites in his 77 years, says.
The history of the large, Lake Jindabyne granite stone wall is unclear. But Gallard says the more than 100 metre-long structure was described by an early settler – a Boer War veteran who explored the Snowy Mountains on horseback – as one of several walls built by Aborigines in the local area.
This fits with his own finds of many Aboriginal stone artefacts close to the site, and a circular stone arrangement on the crest of the ridge near where the wall begins.
He believes it has a spiritual purpose, as a Rainbow Serpent dreaming site. But, on the longest day of the year, he will also seek out any clues of an astronomical intent. ”There is a hell of a lot of manpower gone into it,” he says.
Research shows Aboriginal people built a range of smaller stone structures including fish traps – such as the ancient ones in Brewarrina in western NSW – huts to shelter from the wind, and ceremonial arrangements. And Gallard, whose great great grandmother was a Ngarigo woman from the area, is also excited by an even more extraordinary set of three larger, stone walls in another area of remote bushland in the district.
A feat of engineering, they plummet down extremely steep inclines, yet have been built from thousands of rocks, some of them massive, with smaller stones carefully wedged between them.
There is about a 50-metre gap between the first 42-metre long wall and the second one, which is slightly offset from the first and ends on the edge of a cliff that plunges to a stream below. The third wall then climbs up the opposite side of the gorge.
”It is a big mystery,” Gallard, who is also an environmental activist and chairman of the Snowy River Alliance, says.
Members of the Snowy River Historical Society point out that Chinese men after the gold rush constructed many stone fences in the district. They say very little is known about this set of three walls in the bush, but it is possible they were built to mark out one of the large cattle and sheep runs leased in the district in the 1850s.
Could they be Aboriginal? ”I’m not convinced,” one society member, Keith Clarke, says.
But Gallard questions why such an enormous amount of effort would have been put into building structures with no apparent function on a dangerously steep site. ”It’s not a fence. It has to have a spiritual or astronomical purpose.”
There are also two sets of small stone lines nearby on the top of the ridge, lying east-west, which mimic the layout of the bigger walls. ”We need a multidisciplinary team to work out what is going on,” he says.
While the purpose of these stone walls remains a mystery, a large body of research by Sydney astronomers Dr Ray Norris, of CSIRO, and Dr Duane Hamacher, of Macquarie University, shows Aboriginal people were careful observers of the night sky.
Celestial knowledge played a major role in the culture, social structure and oral traditions of the hundreds of distinct Aboriginal groups that existed prior to British colonisation, they conclude in a recent paper presented at an international symposium on archaeoastronomy.
This is ”something Aboriginal people themselves have long known but is only beginning to receive long-overdue acknowledgement by mainstream Australians”, they say.
Aboriginal people understood how celestial events correlated with the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the emergence of food sources, and ocean tides. They used the sky for marriage and totem classes. And they were also familiar with eclipses, meteors and cosmic impacts.
To keep track of their own age, some Aboriginal people made notches in digging sticks with the appearance of each new moon. Message sticks with depictions of the moon in various stages of its cycle were also used to set the time when different tribes would meet for a corroboree.
”Marking the change of seasons was essential to the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies and the positions of celestial bodies were a good way to accomplish this,” Hamacher says.
In north-eastern Victoria, for example, the rising of the star Vega, was a sign to the Boorong people that mallee fowls would begin building their nests. And the Pitjantjatjara people in the central desert knew that Pleiades’s rising meant dingo breeding season had come.
Hamacher has shown that a particular Boorong story first recorded in the 1850s was a reference to a giant variable star, Eta Carinae, which had recently erupted and grown to become the second brightest star in the night sky after Sirius.
In most Aboriginal cultures the moon is male and the sun is female. Stories about how the sun-woman chases her lover, the moon-man as he zig-zags across the sky to escape her, show a lot was known about the relative motion of the two heavenly bodies.
Hamacher says the evidence is also growing that Aboriginal people made careful measurements that allowed them to determine the cardinal points of the compass. A key site is Wurdi Youang, an egg-shaped stone arrangement about 50 metres across near Mount Rothwell in Victoria, which was built by the Wathaurung people before European settlement. Some of the stones are estimated to weigh up to 500 kilograms.
Norris, Hamacher and their colleagues have recently confirmed that three outlying stones to the west of the circle indicate the setting positions of the sun at the equinoxes and solstices. They have also shown the straight lines of the circle are related to the solstices.
”The age and exact purpose of this arrangement are unknown, but the two independent lines of evidence for solar indications support an astronomical relationship,” Hamacher says.
The team has also looked at records of stone arrangements in NSW. Their preliminary analysis shows many seem to be deliberately aligned east-west or north-south.
”The determination of cardinal points requires careful measurements of the sun throughout the day and year,” Hamacher says.
East and west can be found by observing the extreme positions of the rising or setting sun on the horizon during the year, at the solstices, and then marking the middle point.
South can be determined by observing the rotation of the Southern Cross during the course of a winter’s night, marking the position on the horizon vertically below its extreme easterly and westerly positions, and identifying the half-way point, the astronomers say.
Dr Sharon Lane, of Quality Archaeological Consulting in Victoria, says Aboriginal people built stone structures for ceremonial as well as functional uses, which were noted by early European explorers. They include a variety of fish traps built in tidal waters, rivers and creeks, and swamps and marshes around the country.
”Since their ‘discovery’ by archaeologists in the 1970s, hundreds of stone circles have been recorded in western Victoria,” Lane, who wrote a report on the finds in 2009 for the Victorian government, says.
Some were stone huts, others appear to have been hunting hides, and some were arrangements of stone which surrounded hearths and ovens.
She says it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between Aboriginal and European stone structures, but historical research is important, particularly the checking of maps that show old property boundaries, trig points and river and creek fording places.