Aboriginal engravings around Sydney

This page consists of two essays which I wrote a couple of years back on this subject, and some selections from my scanned and photo-cd pics, showing selected sites. These are here as thumbnail JPEG files, linked to larger JPEG files of about 40 kilobytes each.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I stand, just fifteen metres off a busy Sydney road, surrounded by natural bush. From this high point, I can see the tall buildings of the city centre 10 km away, I can catch several glimpses of small inlets of the harbour, and airliners pass to the west of the city as they approach the airport.

Above me, there are high voltage power lines, behind me, there is the busy hum of constant traffic. All around me is an ancient art gallery. The bare rock surfaces beneath my feet are covered in careful engravings of animals and objects, drawn in hand-made grooves up to a centimetre deep. They were made by the first Australians, and none has been added to or touched up in the past two hundred years.

I have been ‘collecting’ engraving sites since 1957, when an old man showed me how and where to look. This was the first site he sent me to find on my own, and it remains my favourite. Next Sunday, I will take twenty members of the Australian Museum Society over some of my favourite sites. Today I am checking on my old friends to see if they are all healthy.

CAPTION: In this illustration, my son, then seven, was standing carefully beside some engravings in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park to give a sense of scale. These engravings have been damaged by people walking on them, and there are now timber barriers in place to show where people may safely walk. Most engravings are not protected in this way, and their sites are not widely known.

Rock engravings can be found on many of the flat surfaces of Sydney's sandstone, if you know where to look. Some were ceremonial, some seem to be for hunting magic, others will remain a mystery forever. The people who made them all died within a few years of the white folk landing in Sydney, mostly of measles, TB, or what was then diagnosed or misdiagnosed as smallpox. Quite a few were murdered or killed with excessive kindness.

Their traditional culture was destroyed in just a few years, by population loss and by alcohol, and we are left with few memories of them, apart from many of our geographical names, and these engravings. Sadly, nobody cared enough to ask what the art meant. Those who cared for the survivors were well-meaning Christians, concerned for their charges' eternal souls, not for their heathen nonsense.

An engraving site needs flat sandstone. Usually it will be in a high place, somewhere on a ridge, where the sandstone is clean, hard, and more silica-bonded than most of the formation. Usually the bare rock is broken into smaller sections by patches of sandy soil with moss, small plants, and shrubs. Commonly, there will be ironstone pebbles lying around, weathered remnants of the sandstone in which the ferric iron has been concentrated until the stones are little more than coagulated rust.

These iron-rich pebbles are very hard, and can be used to ‘peck’ holes in the sandstone, to scrape the rock to join the peckmarks, slowly and laboriously making a picture that was probably first drawn in charcoal. The sites also bear vandals' initials, survey marks, the tracks of heavy machinery, and trail bikes. Here, my friends are safe for now, as the authorities have put up a stout four-strand wire fence that will keep the trail bikes out. Until one of them comes along with wire cutters . . .

Satisfied, I move on to the next site, some kilometres away at Terrey Hills, and close to a creek that still runs, even in the middle of a drought. The creek is lower than usual, and I take advantage of this to hop across and explore the other side, checking out the likely-looking surfaces. The best sites are always pieces of hot flat bare rock, with nothing better to do than lie in the sun getting hot, and soon I am both hot and thirsty.

CAPTION: This figure of a woman is deeply incised into extremely tough iron-rich sandstone near Terrey Hills. Notice how the breasts are depicted as a marker of sex. In the full version of this picture, you can see the peck marks which were later joined together to make the image.

The creek tinkles invitingly in a background of bird calls, but I know better than to drink from it, as there are buildings further up the catchment. I check a few more rocks, and then retreat to the shade of a tree to drink from my lukewarm water bottle. Next to oxygen, water is the most essential substance for humans: without a minimum of a litre a day, we would soon be dead, though we can go without food for three weeks if we have to. Even tepid water is of some assistance.

Slightly refreshed, I search a bit more. I am looking for thin scratches on the rock, scratches that have been abraded by shod feet and hooves and wheels over a couple of hundred years, that have been attacked by acidic outflow from swampy mossy growths, and on this windless day, I keep being fooled by the dim shadows of high branches. I find three faint wallabies, but that is all.

It is time to move to the next site, and I step off the rock onto the dry leaves that cover the track, startling a goanna. These are monitor lizards, varanids like the Komodo Dragon, though a little smaller. The goanna rushes noisily off and storms up a tall tree, taking care to climb the side of the tree furthest from me. I notice that, drought or no drought, I am ankle-deep in delicate purple orchids, all desperately flowering. Perhaps they are trying to set seed before the drought wipes them out.

I pass some weeds beside the track. I am close to civilisation now: feral plants and civilisation go together. Nearby, I see a fibro (asbestos cement) and timber house, squatting on a sandstone slab. The slab looks perfect for engravings, and probably was smothered with engravings. It was also perfect to build a timber-framed house upon, since termites like to eat wood, and they will burrow through soil to sneak up on you, but they cannot burrow through solid rock.

Yet buildings need not be a bad thing. One of Sydney's best-preserved engraving sites lies beneath a false floor of a garage in a built-up area in the eastern suburbs, but the sites which remain need sympathetic treatment. People need to be shown what to look for, and where to look for it, which is why I will be out here next weekend.

At the next stop, the bush has been badly burnt, and I decide to search for some engravings I haven't seen in 20 years. The track once went straight past a magnificent engraving of a totem figure. Close by, there was an initiation circle, the only one I know of in the whole area. They moved the track some years ago, and that piece of rock seemed to just disappear. Over the years, I have tried many times to find it, but never with any success.

Now, with the fires of last summer clearing the bush away, I plan to try again. Approaching the general area, I see footprints in the sandy soil. They lead off between the fire-blackened sticks into the bush and I follow them, hoping they will lead me to the missing site.

Maybe my predecessors were mere hopefuls like me. Perhaps my footprints will help in turn to delude the next victim. Suddenly, the site is there, right in front of me. Infuriatingly, it is just ten metres from a track I have probably walked along maybe eighty times over the years, but it was hidden by thick and impenetrable bush until the fires came through last year.

The initiation circle is to one side, with a sandy patch of soil in between it and the main site. Now the whole area is completely cleared, with just a few blackened twigs left standing, but there was probably once a screen of bushes here, so the young boys, about to be initiated, would have no knowledge of what was happening. They would sit with bowed head in the circle, hearing loud chanting and whoops until two disguised figures came and dragged them forth to play out their role.

CAPTION: This set of figures includes a number of fish, a trail of wallabies (small kangaroos), a man and a woman. The man has been initiated, as he is shown wearing a belt around his waist.

Initiation was deliberately a fearful experience, but it was worth it for the young boys. At the end, you were a man, and able to see the rich art culture of the tribe. You could pass the culture, the legends, the hunting traditions of the tribe, on to the next generation. Today, we only have to know where to look for engravings, and we can go to see them. After next week, there will be a few more who know where and how to look. And I will have repaid another small part of my debt to the man who introduced me to this hunting tradition in my early teens.

Engravings at dawn

Up in the early morning, long before piccaninny daylight, I look at the night sky to make sure there is no cloud, then I awaken my younger son. His older sibs lack the resilience to tackle a pre-dawn scramble up a rocky hillside, but he seems to have inherited a wild and scatty nature that makes such things appeal to him. He must get it from his mother, because she has elected to come as well.

All the day birds are silent at this hour, though I can hear one mopoke making his mournful cry of ‘more pork’ away in the distance. We hurry into the clothing we laid out the night before, grab up the rucksack of water bottles, coffee flask and fruit, and then we sneak quietly out into the car and away.

We head for a small mountain, half an hour north of our home through the dark and deserted streets. We pass just two other cars on the way out, and my son points out a smudge of light in the east, just before I stop the car. The moon is about four days past full, so it is still up, and there is light to see by.

We all know how to walk quietly through the night bush without a torch, but the moon will help us see any wildlife still out on the hillside in the cool pre-dawn. Dawn is close now, for the day birds are staking out their territorial claims with considerable gusto.

We have been this way before, and we know from the tracks and scats we have seen that there are quite a few mammals in this area, so we walk quietly. There is barely any breeze, but what little there is blows towards us. We maintain our hope, but we also maintain our pace, for the wildlife is a secondary concern this morning.

On a rock ledge that looks out to sea, there is a swarm of faintly engraved animals. There are at least eight kinds of fish, lizards, and many other shapes that are too faint to see clearly. We are here because the early morning sun will have to slant across the ledge, bringing the faint grooves into sharp relief, and we plan to photograph as much as we can. The engravings are at least 200 years old, but probably they are older, very much older.

I first heard of this ledge from a friend Some years ago, I carried his book on the area up here, and followed his vague instructions. He is mildly dyslexic, as I discovered when we collaborated on a book some years ago, and the disorder manifests itself especially around maps, it seems. At first, I managed to get lost all over the mountainside. After a while, I found three small groups and one very good site, but I eventually despaired of ever finding the famous ledge. Heading back to the car, I went across country and stopped on the edge of a small cliff line to drink some water. Stepping forward to look over the edge, I realised that I was about to tread on a whole mess of fish.

Most engraving sites are in places with good views, and this one is no exception. From here, you can see the highest of Sydney's city buildings, some 30 km to the south. Close by in the east, you can see Pittwater, the next harbour up the coast from Sydney, a few small patches of settlement, and a huge expanse of unbroken bush, with the Pacific Ocean lying beyond that. By careful selection, you can see the view almost as it was before the white man came.

As we step onto the top level, the sun shows suddenly in the east. I hurry my son back down the track, so we can watch it rise once more, then we scramble back up and sit behind the ledge. Now we can relax, eat, drink, and search the bush below with our binoculars, looking to see who is late in getting to bed. After the fires last year, we only see two wallabies and a couple of moving blurs, probably bandicoots.

It will be maybe half an hour before the sun is high enough to show the engravings off to their best advantage, and Chris begins to speculate. The main engraving site on this mountain, after this one, is believed to be where the women went to give birth. This mountain has most of the main food animals on it that women used to catch: could it also be a ‘women's business’ site?

The sad fact about these sites is that nobody knows enough about them to say anything at all with any real certainty. The people who knew the answers nearly all died within a few years of the arrival of the first whites, mainly from disease. The remainder had their society shattered by the trauma of their losses: with few descendants to pass their culture on to, they took their surviving secrets to their graves. Her theory sounds like a good one, we decide.

By now the sun is just beginning to slant across the rock. My son sets up the camera on a tripod, lays a metric scale on the rock, and we start photographing systematically. We repeat this every five minutes until the grooves start to fade with the rising sun, and then retreat back down the mountain. Fruit may fend off hunger, but now we need a serious breakfast.

CAPTION: These figures were also seen in the last picture. Here we see a man and a woman -- the man's gender is normally indicated by showing the penis and the hair belt of an initiated male, the woman's gender by breasts and sometimes (as here) by implied pudenda. Puzzlingly, she seems also to have a hair belt.

We head back to a more open site, one where overseas tourists are taken, where timbers have been set in place to stop the stupid and uncaring from walking all over these precious art works. At this hour, we have it to ourselves, unless you count a few animals. This is on what we call "armadillo stone" in our family -- a look should tell you why it gets that name. This stone seems, wherever we find it, to have been engraved: it was clearly recognised by the Eora people as a suitable stone for working.


Unfortunately, none of the photographs was successful, so we will be returning, with lights and other equipment, same time next year.

This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/engravng.htm
It was last revised on July 21, 1996
It was created by Peter Macinnis -- macinnis@ozemail.com.au
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