Recreating the Country blog
Guest blogger for July is Gib Wettenhall.
Gib Wettenhall has for 25 years written, edited and published books and articles, which acknowledge that the 65,000 year-old Indigenous heritage we have inherited makes Australian landscapes as much cultural as natural.
He is the author of The People of Budj Bim, written in collaboration with the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, which in 2011 was Overall Winner of the Victorian Community History Awards. Also, author of The People of Gariwerd, the Grampians’ Aboriginal history, recently reprinted a 3rd time in association with Brambuk. He is currently writing and producing the 3rd in a series of booklets with the Yirralka Rangers, titled Keeping Country, on the bi-cultural approach adopted by this Indigenous land management group in north-east Arnhem Land.
As the principal of em PRESS Publishing, his books include Stephen Murphy’s Recreating the Country and Tanya Loo’s nature journal set in the Wombat Forest, Daylesford Nature Diary, which reintroduces a six season Indigenous calendar for the foothill forests. In 2006, he wove the Indigenous heritage of the Gariwerd/Grampians ranges into a series of essays published in a high quality landscape format book with photographs by Alison Pouliot, Gariwerd: Reflecting on the Grampians. He researched and wrote the interpretive signage for the Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre and is writing the content for interpretive signage for the Budj Bim landscape, expected to gain World Heritage listing in 2019.
As publications manager of the Great Dividing Trail Association (GDTA), he produced their four map
brochures and interpretive signage, which won a tourism award in 2003. In 2012, he wrote and produced an award winning guidebook, the Goldfields Track Walk or Ride Guide, about the 210km long Goldfields Track between Mt Buninyong and Bendigo. It was cited as “a model for future guides” and includes an essay on the Aboriginal cultural heritage of the goldfields region. A 2nd edition was published in 2017.
As an editor, he writes and manages content for several websites. Between 2000 and 2014, he acted as the editor for the national quarterly magazine Australian Forest Grower.
As a journalist, Gib was news editor of The Melbourne Times, environment writer for both Australian Society and 21C magazines, and has written articles for Parks Discovery magazine.
Gib can be contacted on email@example.com
Indigenous standing stones
...taken over by a bunch of Celts
What do non-Indigenous Australians know about the mythological power of Aboriginal standing stone arrangements? Not much it would seem. So little that a group of Celts in NSW could in the late-1990s brazenly lay claim to, and be granted by the National Trust, Australian standing stone heritage status for their faux copy of recently erected Stonehenge-style ‘menhirs.’ No reference was made to their Indigenous antecedents.
Yet artificially-wedged vertical shards of rock were once placed everywhere by the First Australians. They formed circles for ceremony, acted as signifiers for sacred places, stood attention in sculptural lines forming the shape of an ancestral being created in the Dreaming. Many were obliterated by settlement and the most powerful remaining are hidden or inaccessible.
Last dry season, I was bushwalking with a group in remote gorge country on the Kimberley coast when we came across four sets of thin, sharp-edged standing stone shards, clearly artificially-placed. We had walked in the Kimberley before, as well as the Arnhem Land plateau, and none of us, including our experienced guide, had ever seen these wedged, vertical sandstone slabs, so startlingly at-odds with their surrounds. We had encountered rock art aplenty, but knew nothing about this class of Indigenous artefacts. Particularly impressive were two large enigmatic Aboriginal standing stone circles hidden back from the gorge edge on either side of a towering waterfall with commanding views.
Two upright shards guarded the first large circle of stones, some 100 metres distant inland. On a high flat plateau, the standing stones ringed a stony knoll, perfect for viewing whatever ceremonies or dances were performed around its perimeter. It was clear to even the most hardened sceptic among us that the ring of jagged shards once held power and authority. We remembered that an Aboriginal-grafted ring tree had marked the entry to the deep, narrow gorge climaxed by the spectacular waterfall and its dark green pool. Did the standing stone circles have a totemic or ceremonial purpose? We could only speculate.
Indigenous standing stone history is sadly overlooked.
On returning to Melbourne, I went to the State Library and spied in the catalogue a book titled The History of Australian Standing Stones. Aha, I thought… but was soon disappointed on opening its pages. Ironically, The History of Australian Standing Stones focuses solely on a newly-minted Celtic stone circle of 38, five metre high menhirs established at Glenn Innes in New England in 1991. Incredibly, a mere seven years later, the NSW National Trust declared this faux imported Celtic copy as a National Monument, citing it as a significant place of Australian heritage.
All that The History of Australian Standing Stones has to say about Glen Innes’ Indigenous Ngoorabul heritage is contained in one cursory sentence claiming that they were migratory, only visiting seasonally. It is as though they left no mark. As a final unintended insult, the Glenn Innes Celts asked the local Aboriginal land council if they could appropriate a bunyip as the mascot for their stone circle. The land council said no, so the Celts settled on the idea of a dinosaur as their mascot. What a joke, if it wasn’t so sad.
An online search of archaeological field surveys in the Glen Innes region of New England did actually manage to turn up some Aboriginal standing stone arrangements found in the region in the 1970s. But there was no attempt at contextual analysis; they are simply listed without comment.
The State Library also held one 2012 journal article from Australian Archaeology Vol. 75 on a survey of 32 standing stone sites in Jawoyn country, north-east of Katherine in the NT. This, however, could cast little light on their purpose other than they were “signifiers,” possibly of major rock art sites. Jawoyn elders were reported as commenting that they once had a “ceremonial purpose.”
Standing stones were found throughout Australia
In a recent Australian Archaeology 2018 journal article on standing stones in Far North Queensland, archaeologist Ian McNiven and other authors conclude: “Despite their ubiquity, stone arrangements are an understudied site type with their distribution and morphological variability remaining poorly documented and their functional variability poorly understood.”
After I enquired, Professor McNiven sent me a few academic articles on standing stones. As you’d expect, they were reported as once being found throughout Australia either forming sacred sites representing creation stories from the Dreaming or as markers for sacred places. Little was known about their specific purpose, other than they “have high significance values to Indigenous Australians and are usually associated with… socio-religious beliefs and ceremonial/ritual activities.” (Australian Archaeology 2018 Vol. 84, No.2)
Indigenous owners hold the key to the meaning of the standing stones
In 2017, cultural anthropologist, Jim Birckhead, undertook desktop research for mining companies with archaeologist, Phil Czerwinski, on past studies into the significance and meaning of Indigenous standing stone arrangements in the Pilbara and the Kimberley. Upright standing stones are associated, in particular, with initiation sites, Dr Birckhead observed. Individual slabs sometimes represent creator beings from the Dreaming who have metamorphosed into stone. Sometimes they were “venerated by men who regard the rocks as patrilineal ancestors.”
First-hand involvement with Indigenous elders is vital, says Dr Birckhead, as the stones “defy interpretation by inspection.” While the elders may be circumspect about sites of mythological significance, and sometimes have no knowledge of stone arrangements often millenia old, interpretation without their involvement becomes an exercise in guesswork, as well as appropriation.
Consequently, Birckhead’s and Czerwinski’s report recommended undertaking field surveys with Traditional Owners in the Pilbara to cast light on the mythological stories related to each specific standing stone arrangement. The mining companies, unfortunately, did not proceed to fund beyond the desktop research stage.
How can Australians appreciate the richness of Indigenous culture if we ignore its existence.
This paucity of recognition of a significant aspect of Indigenous culture is indeed unfortunate. Without Indigenous interpretation, each site’s totemic affiliations and creation stories will remain opaque and enigmatic. Silence about the rich mythology and power that these sites of a 65,000 year old culture hold is another in the long list where we have averted our gaze from the rich and deep cultural heritage of our own continent in favour of the ‘homeland’ our European ancestors left behind. It is just one among many silences that allow the ongoing misappropriations and misunderstandings to continue.
For many, the apparent absence of evidence signifies that the Aboriginal people were at contact nothing more than ‘savages’, as compared to the supposedly sophisticated civilising settlers – such as the proud Celts of Glenn Innes with their ‘unique’ standing stone heritage
Trees and human health - how a walk in the woods makes us mentally and physically healthier.
to be posted in August
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.