Friday 9 September 2022

The art of the Marra Wonga Rockshelter, Queensland.

The Marra Wonga Rockshelter is a sandstone escarpment on the Turraburra Station in Jericho Shire, Queensland, Australia, roughly 890 km to the northwest of Brisbane. The site is covered with an extensive network of art, with about 15 000 petroglyphs (rock carvings), and 111 stencil paintings over an area of about 160 m. The area is located on traditional Iningai land, and an Aboriginal-led tourism destination, with the local community playing an active role in research at the site.

In a paper published in the journal Australian Archaeology on 24 June 2022, Paul Taçon of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage UnitGriffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, and Australian ResearchCentre for Human Evolution, at Griffith University, Suzanne Thompson of the Yambangku Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Tourism Development Aboriginal Corporation, Kate Greenwood, also of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit, and Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research at Griffith University, and the Greenwood ConsultancyAndrea Jalandoni, again of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, and Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, at Griffith University, Michael Williams of GBA Consulting Engineers, and Maria Kottermair of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland, discuss the Marra Wonga artwork and its significance.

The location of Turraburra and neighbouring Grey Rock. Maria Kottermair in Taçon et al. (2022).

The site is located in an area of desert uplands, with loamy, sandy plains and plateaus, Cainozoic duricrusts, and sandstone ridges. The area has sandy red and yellow soils, with some clay and siliceous sands, with a vegetation dominated by Eucalypt trees with an understory of Spinifex. Rainfall occurs mostly in the summer months, peaking during cyclones. The area immediately surrounding the rockshelter is an open woodland of Lancewood, Wattle, Mulga and Ironbark.

The first non-indigenous record of the Iningai People was made by the Scottish explorer Thomas Mitchell, who visited the area in 1846, noting the people were a 'very numerous tribe' constructing lean-to huts with roofs of bark tiles, as well as large, permanent huts connected by well beaten paths. For the most part, Mitchell tried to avoid contact with the local peoples of the areas he was mapping, but recalled encountering a large group of Iningai digging for mussels in a lake, who shouted at him angrily.

The first farming station in the region was established by Robert Christison (another Scott) in the 1860s, at Lammermoor, about 200 km to the northwest of Turraburra. Christison appears to have enjoyed better relations with the Daleburra/Iningai people of the region, employing many and writing extensively about their language and culture.

The settlement at Grey Rock dates from 1877, when the Greyrock Hotel was opened there, and Turraburra Station was first granted as a farming concession to George Porter under the name 'Charlie's Creek No. 5'. Porter's son, also George, again wrote about the Aboriginal people of the area, but this was a less happy story, recording massacres and forced relocations to mission stations. By 1902 there were only 37 Iningai  adults and three children remaining who were not living on stations, most at a camp at Lake Dolly. 

Turraburra passed through 17 different owners between 1882 and 2019, when it was acquired by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and leased to the Yambangku Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Tourism Development Aboriginal Corporation, during which time it's name was changed four times. The site is now being developed as a heritage and cultural tourism centre.

The oldest archaeological evidence for Human settlement in the highlands of central Queensland is at Kenniff Cave, a site dated to about 19 000 years before the present. Rock art in the area has been divided into three phases, with the oldest, identified as Central Queensland Phase 1, dated to more than 5000 years ago, and comprising pecked engravings into hard rock surfaces, forming complex patterns. Rock art of the Central Queensland Phase 2 is dated to between 5000 and 36 years ago, and includes pecked and abraded engravings, as well as red paintings, including stencils. Central Queensland Phase 3 dates from between 140 and 36 years ago, and shows an increased use of white paint, combined with the appearance of Lizard, Tortoise, and grid motifs. 

Iningai Country is host to a wide range of Aboriginal cultural herritage sites, including rock art sites as well as native wells, artefact scatters, stone arrangements, scarred and carved trees, a midden, contact sites, quarries, hearths, ovens and story places. There are eight registered cultural heritage sites within 40 km of Turraburra, divided into seventeen components, eight of which are rock art. 

The Marra Wonga site is first known to have been photographed in 1958, with those photographs being used to illustrate an article about the site by Fred McCarthy, an archaeologist at the Australian Museum, although McCarthy never visited the site himself. The first visit to the site by an archaeologist was made by Robert Neal of the University of Queensland in 1987, who noted that the site had become a local tourist attraction, albeit without any organised tours of the site being run.

Marra Wonga was formally opened as a tourist attraction in 1996 by the Dyer family, who owned the site at the time, with tours being run by one Tom Lochie, who later installed toilets and a picnic area close to the site. The first moves to have the location designated a protected site stem from this time. Lochie continued to run tours to the site until 2017; he passed away in January 2018.

Taçon et al. visited the Marra Wonga site in September 2020 and June/July 2021. They photographed the site extensively, as well as taking notes and making accurate location measurements with a GPS unit. Other sites in the immediate locality were recorded, including scatters of stone tools and native wells.

The central portion of Marra Wonga with an extensive wall of petroglyphs and stencils. Andrea Jalandoni in Taçon et al. (2022).

The site comprises an 160 m long, east-facing rockshelter, with art panels across the back wall to a height of 3 m as well as part of the floor. At the southern end of the site, the artwork starts with a row of 13 Birds-track peteroglyphs, overlain by at least eight Macropod (Kangaroo or Wallaby) tracks, then a small, stencil of a child's hand. Two metres further to the north are a pair of larger Macropod track petroglyphs, followed by an anthromorphic figure, after which the wall becomes covered with a much denser collection of art, some of it spreading onto the ceiling.

The actual number of petroglyphs at the site, but it is calculated that there are at least 15 000, based upon the decorated section of the wall being 160 m long, and on average 1.8 m high, with at least 50 petroglyphs per square metre. Petroglyphs are also present on nearby boulders, as well as parts of the ceiling and floor of the rockshelter.

The wall is covered with both natural and drilled holes, with some of the drilled holes cut in lines. Many of the peck-holes overcut designs pounded into the rock. Bird and Animal track designs are very common, with the Macropod tracks being the most common Animal tracks. A smaller number of Possum-like tracks are present, as well as one set of Dingo-tracks.

A portion of Marra Wonga with hundreds of petroglyphs including lots of macropod tracks. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

The site's single anthromorphic figure, towards the southern end of the wall, is 94.3 cm high and carved onto a projection from the wall. This figure is depicted with its arms bent at the elbow and five-fingured hands hanging down. The legs are spread wide, with the feet pointing outwards, and lacking toes. Between the legs is a long penis.

A photograph (A) and digitally manipulated image (B) of the Marra Wonga anthropomorph, enhanced using 3D modelling and Topographic Position Index. The anthropomorph (at the southern end of the site) is interpreted by Aboriginal community members as Ancestral Being Wattanuri. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

A large Snake, 2.28 m long and 28.8 cm high, with one end disappearing into a hole, is depicted on the wall a few metres to the north of the anthropomorph. The outline of the Snake has been marked out with lines of drilled holes, and is bulbous in the middle, tapering towards each end. This figure has been crosscut by numerous other petroglyphs, mostly Bird tracks, but also some paired boomerangs.

Engraved snake-like design on the wall between the anthropomorph and the cluster of engraved feet. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

There are a few engraved feet on the walls and a nearby boulder, although these are far more common on the remains of a sandstone platform abutting the wall. This area has 19 foorprints, including two large, six-toed footprints heal-to-heal at the bottom of the wall. the other feet on the platform have four, six, or eleven toes. At the northern end of the platform are a set of Bird tracks, two arcs and an abraded edge.

Case-hardened floor surface with 19 engraved human-like feet with varying numbers of toes, along with other designs. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

At the northern end of the site is a section of wall and a boulder with five Human feet, one six-toed and one four-toed, and a set of Dingo tracks, the only such set at the site.

A pair of large six-toed human-like engraved feet positioned heel to heel on a case-hardened floor area with 17 other engraved feet with varying numbers of toes. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

High  on the wall to the north of the platform of feet is a distinctive phallus, 24.6 cm high and 16.5 cm wide, with a red ochre outline. To the right of, and slightly below this, are a pair of stencilled hands, one red and one purple. Seven small boomerangs, depicted as if in flight, lead from the phallus to a series of seven star petroglyphs to the right of it.

Engraving of a Dingo paw print. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

The seven stars are formed by pits surrounded by radiating lines. They form three rows, with three stars in the top row, and two in each of the two rows beneath this. The three largest stars are those at either end of the top row, and the left star in the bottom row, the smallest star is the right star in the middle row. These stars are surrounded by Macropod and Bird tracks, a Possum hand, two feet, a vertical row of six pits, and some other less clear designs.

Engraved penis and boomerangs to the immediate left of the seven star-like designs interpreted as the Seven Sisters. The penis, outlined in red ochre, is interpreted by community Elders as referring to Wattanuri. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

An eighth star at the northern end of the rock shelter was discovered during fieldwork in September 2020. Unlike the other stars, which were clearly intended to be seen from a distance, it is in a hidden corner of the site, pointing towards the northwest rather than the east.

The seven star-like design cluster enhanced with DStretch and with star design locations indicated with numbers. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

To the north of the stars is another Snake, which extends for another 11.22 m, with its head facing away from the stars. This Snake is made up of two long lines with linear patterns between them, and is thickest at its middle section. 

The eighth star-like design at Marra Wonga near the northern end of the rock art panel just above the floor. It has been interpreted as a Seven Sister representation on Earth. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022).

Hand stencils are among the most common rock paintings at Marra Wonga, with 100 counted to date, including five interpreted as children due to their small sizes. The majority of these are red, although 22% are purple, 10% white, and 9% yellow. The majority (74%) of the hand stencils are of the left hand, although with the yellow stencils this trend is reversed, with five of the nine yellow stencils being of right hands. The oldest stencils appear to be the purple ones, which are always overlain by the other colours where they intersect, these are followed by red stencils, then yellow, then the white stencils, which always overlay any other colour. 

Suzanne Thompson in front of the engraved snake-like design, interpreted as a ‘Rainbow Serpent’ depiction (with black line showing its position). Thompson is explaining the significance of the rock art. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022). 

Object stencils are also common, and include boomerangs, digging sticks, and a purple ring which might be a ring pad used by women to carry heavy objects on their heads. No other site close to Marra Wonga has any object stencils.

Two red boomerang stencils and a red fist stencil on the ceiling of a low wall concavity. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022). 

Two long boomerang stencils within a concavity on the wall's surface form a clear pair, something not known at any other site in the vicinity. To the right of this is a fist stencil. Further to the right of this are several red hand stencils, then a digging stick stencil within another concavity, with a yellow boomerang stencil beneath it. Digging stick stencils are extremely rare across Australia, although a partial ceiling panel close to the digging stick stencil, shows parts of another five digging sticks, with more potentially having been lost by the rock crumbling away. Close to this is the stencil interpreted as a ring pad. 

Rare red stencil of a digging stick, the only one at Marra Wonga. Paul Taçon in Taçon et al. (2022). 

Excluding stencils, Marra Wonga has only a single painting, the track of an Emu, realised in short red lines, and running across a wall panel, with one footprint on a boulder which also has petroglyphs. Many of the natural features of the site, such as cavities, holes, and depressions, have been worked into the art, and used to help place or orient the petroglyphs and stencils.

The site is also home to some modern graffiti, with inscriptions reading 'N. MELVILLE', 'TMcK', 'H. HALAM', and 'PEARL'. The oldest graffiti that can be dated was left by T. Smith in 1913.

A small scattering of stone tools has also been found close to Marra Wonga, although none actually next to the art site; it is possible that tools left closer have been removed, as the site has been visited by tourists in an unregulated way since the late 1800s. The closest cluster of tools to the site is 120 m to the south, possibly suggesting people stating close to the rockshelter, but only directly approaching to perform some ceremony.

Twenty three further rock art sites have been found in the vicinity of Marra Wonga, although the artworks found at these are both smaller and less numerous. A quarry site from which pigments have been extracted was also located nearby. One site, a few hundred metres to the south of Marra Wonga, has an adult hand stencil executed in a black pigment (not seen at Marra Wonga). Another nearby site has Bird tracks and stars scattered over a wall 15 m long. At Grey Rock station, 11 km to the west, a wall has a series of adult and child hand and foot stencils executed in red and yellow.

Gray Rock Historical Reserve, the site of the Greyrock Hotel, has a wall with four anthromorphic figures, two Human feet, and what appears to be a Possum hand, as well as a large amount of graffiti. The figures are executed in a similar style to the one at Marra Wonga, which, given the rarity of Human figures in the rock art of the Queensland Highlands, probably implies that they were made by the same group or even individual artist, and may indicate a connection between the two sites.

The art at Marra Wonga has never been dated, and was probably made over a long period of time. Some of the art is overlain by fossil Wasp's nests, giving the potential for a minimum age to be established. Some of the pecked designs are likely to be over 5000 years old, with others along with the other petroglyphs and the red and purple stencils are likely to be between 5000 and 36 years old. Yellow and white stencils are generally considered to be much younger, and since the yellow stencils at Marra Wonga overlay all other art, it is reasonable to assume that they are less than 140 years old.

The art at Marra Wonga can be divided into 10 clusters, which appear to be ordered from south to north, although they were likely to have been made at different times. The modern Aboriginal community of the area interpret these panels as telling a Seven Sisters (Kungkarrangkalpa ) Dreaming Story.

The anthropomorphic figure at Marra Wonga is interpreted as being a representation of Wattanuri, an Ancestral Being known by a variety of names across Australia, and associated with the constellation of Orion and the Morning Star. The anthropomorphic figures at Grey Rock are also interpreted as Wattanuri. Wattanuri is a shape-shifting Clever Man who pursues the Seven Sisters in most variants of the story.

The Snake figure is generally accepted as Wattanuri shapeshifted into the form of a Snake, although sometimes another mythical or extinct Animal. The footprints are also those of Wattanuri, who must regularly check the number of toes he has in order to see if his magic is going out of control. The phallus is another representation of Wattanuri, while the boomerangs are carried by him and thrown at the Seven Sisters. 

The seven stars are representations of the Seven Sisters, who are linked to the constellation of the Pleiades. Most variants of the story tell that early in the history of the world the Seven Sisters came down to Earth, where they were chased by an old (and possibly evil) man with a large penis who wanted to make them his wives. All of the stories tell of different incidents as the Seven Sisters try to get away and the Man pursues them. These incidents happened at distinctive locations, such as hills, waterholes, and sometimes rock art sites, and each story has a moral lesson. In some variants the Old Man captures the Oldest Sister and rapes her, requiring the other Sisters to heal her, and includes information about healing plants. The long Snake is a representation of the Rainbow Serpent, another manifestation of Wattanuri.

One version of the story holds that the Seven Sisters travelled westward to a sacred place called Kuru Ala. Here Wattanuri captures and hurts the oldest sister, and the Sisters gather healing plants and food. While they do this Wattanuri turns his phallus into a Carpet Snake, and sends it down through the rocks to spy on them. The Sisters capture the Snake and throw it away, causing it to shimmer like a rainbow as it flies through the air. The Sisters then capture, cook, and eat the Snake, before realising that it is part of Wattanuri, The Snake makes them ill, they vomit and return to the sky.

The boomerangs at Marra Wonga are interpreted as signs of a male presence, and associated with Warranuri, while the digging sticks and ring pad are feminine objects associated with the Seven Sisters. The digging sticks may, in stories, be used to carry fire, capture the Sisters, beat of Man attacking the Sisters, or dig for food and medicinal Plants. 

The Dingo track may also relate to the Severn Sisters story, as in variants of the story a Dingo either helps to protect the Sisters or is used to hunt them. The single star on its own on the ground may represent a Sister on Earth hiding from Wattanuri, with the nearby tracks representing a Dingo protecting her. 

Rock art associated with Ancestral Beings is found across Australia, with some sites even reputed to have been created by them. This rock art often takes advantage of natural features of the sites, such as cavities, holes, cracks, and changes in orientation, as well as incorporating adjacent rocks, boulders and natural rock platforms, to emphasise and orient the artwork.

The Marra Wonga site has been recognised as being archaeologically important since at least 1960, but has not received the protection of sites such as The Palace in Central Western Queensland, despite its rock art being at least equally impressive and very different. As well as being exceptional from an archaeological perspective, the art is still very important to the local Aboriginal community.

There are at least 83 sites across Australia associated with the story of the Seven Sisters, although Marra Wonga is one of only four with artwork, and these are widely scattered across the continent. Besides Marra Wonga, there is artwork associated with the Seven Sisters to the north of Karlamilyi in Western Australia,  in South Australia near the Northern Territory border, about 100 kilometres south of Uluru, and at a site south of Lake Eyre, also in South Australia.

Preserving such sites both protects the traditional religion and culture of the Aboriginal people, it created economic opportunities in the form of tourism which remote communities can take advantage of.

The story of the Seven Sisters varies across Australia, but always contains morals, and important information about the local environment. The Sisters are always pursued by a shape-shifting Clever Man, who can turn into a variety of Animals and other objects. The need of this individual to test his footprint and count his toes is found in many of these stories, as is the Sisters being made ill by his magic and needing to return to the sky.

Petroglyphs depicting Human feet with varying numbers of toes are surprisingly widespread, with a recent global survey of sites with petroglyphs depicting feet with six toes uncovering 21 in Australia, ten in the United States of America, four in Argentina, three in Chile, two in Namibia and New Zealand, and one each in Angola, Botswana, Egypt, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), South Africa and the United Kingdom. Of the 21 sites in Australia, nine are in Queensland (and eight of those in the Central Highlands), three are found in the Northern Territory, three more in South Australia, and  two each in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia. Another 64 sites in Australia and 209 globally have feet with different numbers of toes. Of these sites, 44 are in Sweden, followed by 26 in the United States of America and 18 in Norway. Twenty four of the Australian sites are in Queensland, 18 in New South Wales, 13 in South Australia, four in both the Northern Territory and Western Australia and one in Tasmania.

In Queensland six-toed foot petroglyphs are particularly common in Bidjara Country to the southeast of Turraburra. Six toes and six finegers are fairly common among the Bidjara people. Six-toed petroglyphs (including the largest foot petroglyphs at Marra Wonga) are typically much larger than Human feet, and are considered by the Bidjara people to represent one of their Dreaming ancestors. 

Rainbow Serpents are also extremely common across Australia, with the oldest thought to be over 6000 years old. However, almost all of these are painted, rather than engraved like the one at Marra Wonga. As with other important ancestral figures, Rainbow Serpents are sometimes credited with placing their own images onto the rocks, without the need for a Human artist.

The size, large amount of artwork, and presence of a number of rare symbols and themes, at Marra Wonga may suggest that it was once an aggregation site, i.e. a site at which different bands of hunter-gatherers came together to meet at seasonal events. Marra Wonga is the largest rock-art site in Queensland, with over 15 000 (more pertoglyphs on a wall than any other site in Australia) and 111 stencils. It is also the second most diverse rock-art assemblage in Queensland, after The Palace. Most of the symbols at Marra Wonga are widespread, such as the hand stencils, which are found throughout Central Queensland, but others are rare or even unique, such as the cluster of stars, the phallus, the digging sticks, or the 11 m long Snake. However, other features common at Australian rock-art sites, such as naturalistic depictions of Animals and painted grids, are absent.

The Marra Wonga site has clearly been worked upon by rock-artists for a very long time. Given the length of the site's use, it is possible that the both the people using it and their interpretation of its meaning has changed over this time. The site is home to a diverse range of images, many of which are unique or very rare. These images are used today, and presumably been used in the past, to assist with the telling of important tales about the origin of the people and their culture, and their relationship with the world around them. The diversity of the images at the site may indicate that it was used as an aggregation site, with peoples from across a wide area meeting up their and bringing elements of their own culture to the site.

Taçon et al. consider that the unique nature and cultural importance of Marra Wonga make it worthy of special protection, and will concentrate future research both on the conservation of the site and the better documenting and understanding of its many features.

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