IN A research program running for two years, a team of archeologists and anthropologists from Griffith University has shed new light on the stories behind a renowned Aboriginal rock art site in Outback Queensland.

The Marra Wonga engravings are situated on Turraburra Station, about 70km north east of Barcaldine, and comprise an estimated 15,000 rock artworks, known as petroglyphs, and 111 stencils spread across a 160m sandstone escarpment.

Unique compositions on the shelter wall feature seven large, engraved star-like designs with central engraved pits and large, engraved snake-like designs running across and through other petroglyphs.

There’s also a cluster of human-shaped foot petroglyphs on the floor of the shelter, some with six or more toes, and, peculiarly, an engraved penis.

Researcher Suzanne Thompson in front of the engraved snake-like design, interpreted as a ‘Rainbow Serpent’ depiction (with black line showing its position). IMAGE: Supplied
Map showing Marra Wonga rock art location. IMAGE: Supplied

Griffith researchers led by Professor Paul Tacon carried out the first comprehensive study of the ancient artwork, finding that the most prominent ‘star’ markings are likely a representation of the ‘Seven Sisters’ dreaming story.

“Ten clusters of designs spread across the length of the engraved area of Marra Wonga appear to have been placed in a particular order, from south to north, although the designs were likely made at different times, with an accumulation of these clusters and other rock markings over time,” Professor Tacon said.

“However, the order makes sense for contemporary Aboriginal community members as different parts of a Seven Sisters Dreaming story, in the correct sequence.”

The central portion of Marra Wonga with an extensive wall of petroglyphs and stencils. IMAGE: Supplied

According to the research, the Seven Sisters are associated with the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion constellation.

The Seven Sisters are chased by men or a man and sometimes a hunter and/or clever man associated with Orion, who loved and/or lusted after one or more of the sisters.

“All rock art sites have or once had stories associated with particular designs and the sites themselves, as well as the landscapes they are a part of,” Professor Tacon said.

“But we know of no other rock art site anywhere in the world with a narrative that runs across the entirety of the site.

“It is very rare in the world today to have detailed ethnographic perspectives to sit alongside archaeological description, although in Australia we are fortunate that some remain strong, as with Marra Wonga.”

Explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell

The research also documents European colonisation in central Queensland and the first encounters between renowned explorer Thomas Mitchell (pictured) and the Iningai people of the region:

Passage from Marra Wonga: Archaeological and contemporary First Nations interpretations of one of central Queensland’s largest rock art sites

Mitchell noted substantially constructed lean-to huts with bark tiles on the roof (Hoch 1986:14) as well as large permanent huts of a ‘very numerous tribe’ and well beaten paths (Hoch 1986:14; Smith 1994:15). Mitchell tried to avoid the local Aboriginal people, but he encountered a big group digging for mussels in a lagoon (Hoch 1986:14). ‘His party was greeted by loud shrieks of women and children and by angry shouts of the men who called “Aya minya” taken to mean “What do you want?”’ (Hoch 1986:14). Mitchell described a long-handled iron tomahawk in the hands of ‘a Chief’ but Mitchell came to no harm (Hoch 1986:14).

The Griffith University team partnered with Yambangku Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Tourism Development Aboriginal Corporation (YACHATDAC) to perform this research.

The findings ‘Marra Wonga: Archaeological and contemporary First Nations interpretations of one of central Queensland’s largest rock art sites’ have been published in Australian Archaeology.

The central Marra Wonga panel featuring seven star-like designs clustered in three rows interpreted by Aboriginal community members as representations of the Seven Sisters. IMAGE: Supplied
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