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Sunday, 15 July 2012

Collecting engravings

Acacia sp.
Here in Australia, our "winter" is almost at an end, according to the flowers.  That said, the sun is low in the sky, even at noon, and that make this the ideal time to get out in the bush around Sydney, looking for Aboriginal rock engravings.

Today, my wife and I were taken by Matt Hunt to see some we didn't know, not far from home, within cooee of Oxford Falls and within earshot of radio-controlled model aircraft.

During the morning, I counted the following in flower:

  • 7 wattles (Acacia sp.)
    Acacia longifolia.
    Boronia sp.

  • 2 daisies,
  • 1 Hibbertia,
  • 1 Grevillea,
  • 2 flannel flowers (Actinotus sp.),
  • 1 Woollsia,
  • 1 Boronia,
  • Leucopogon,
  • Epacris species,
  • Eriostemon,
  • 1 pea, probably Hardenbergia,
  •  1 Banksia.

Boronia sp
 We also saw wallaby tracks, counted a dozen or so birds, and got to a rather wonderful collection of Aboriginal rock art.

Most of this has been almost completely untouched since white people arrived in 1788 with diseases which killed off most of the custodians and severed the spiritual and mythical links between the engravings and the culture that sustained them and was sustained by them.

Click on any of the engravings shots to see larger versions.  Note that no copyright
claim is made on these: they are all Creative Commons attribution shots, but note also
that larger (and unenhanced) originals are available on request for any good cause.
They have been there for 224 years, almost untouched, except when they are harmed by vandals or fools. Sadly, we have a few of those.
The figures are all placed on flat slabs of Triassic Hawkesbury sandstone, most of them on high ridges, and when I was young, I was taught that this was so women and uninitiated boys would not see them, or because it seemed closer to the spirits/gods.  It is more likely that the most suitable stone is that with a high silica content, which is more resistant, and so ends up staying where it was, up high.  I definitely know of sites which can be looked down on.

The figures include humans, food and other animals, and sometimes, spiritual beings—we think. Nobody can be sure, because proper knowledge was only passed down to young men when they were initiated, and the culture shock of white arrival broke those chains of knowledge. We are left guessing.

For a quarter of that time, since 1956, I have been visiting and sometimes finding these sites. It's my way of paying homage to the people we displaced.  I didn't do the wrong thing, but I have benefited from others who did wrong, and that wrong can never now be righted. We can, at least, recognise that wrong was done.
These are probably three eels.  Note that you will often see feet in the photos, as a way of getting a scale: you will never see those feet on any of the lines. We walk softly, respectfully and carefully, because these are fragile works of art, more than two centuries old.

The figure nearest the pool is one of a number which have been stupidly scratched by somebody who hadn't a clue, and who has often gone off the line. You can see something of the same effect below.

Note that male figures are usually identified as such by a rough depiction of a penis, though sometimes male figures are recognised by a line at the waist, representing the hair belt worn by am initiated man.  The eel with the bands (above and below) is a puzzle: is it wearing multiple hair belts?  It was probably important in passing on a teaching legend.
 This fish, for example, has been scratched over by an idiot: it isn't overly clear, but the line of the body cuts across the pectoral fin.

 In the shot below, look at the fin on the right. On the left, just in front of the pectoral fin (lower down the picture), notice how the scratcher has gone outside the line.

Below, several fish, something that may or may not be a bird, and some mundoës, which are supposed to be footprints showing a path to be followed.

This is a shark, something which those with zoological training can tell by looking at the tail, which is heterocercal: it has two unequal lobes. Sharks have negative buoyancy and no swim bladder, and they get lift in the water by the sculling action of the lower lobe, which the more rigid upper lobe drives the shark forward: that means that by angling its pectoral fins, the shark gets lift there as well.

The idiot who worked on this made a mess of the tail, and brought is closer to the homocercal tail of bony fish, as well as missing the line of the upper lobe, which is on the left in the photo.  The idiot also chopped off the fin on the shark's right.

If I am right, this is a wobbegong shark, but whatever it is, the head is seen from above, while the tail is seen from the side: the Australian Aborigines had different criteria on accuracy, and this depiction communicated better to its audience.

If you need to photograph engravings, use water, like this:

We went to a second nearby site which has unusual mundoës with toes.  Or toës.

Now the first rule is to get the sun as low in the sky as possible: winter is better than summer, early or late in the day is better than noon.  Then you need water: compare the shot above with the two below and see how splashing a bit of water around, with the right choice of angle, the detail comes out.

So if you go looking for engravings, take along a few spare litres of water.  After all, these things have been rained-on for more than two centuries now.

Reminder: no copyright claim is made on the shots you see here: they are all Creative Commons attribution pictures, but note also that larger (and unenhanced) originals are available on request for any good cause. The photographs seen here have all been digitally fiddled to improve the clarity.

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