Review of ‘Roonka: Fugitive Traces and Climatic Mischief’ edited by Keryn Walshe

01st December 2010

Roonka: Fugitive Traces and Climatic Mischief edited by Keryn Walshe.  South Australian Museum, Adelaide, 2009, 334pp, ISBN 9780646503882. 

Reviewed by Eleanor Crosby

Turnix Pty Ltd, 21 Castle Hill Drive, Gaven Qld 4211, Australia

Roonka Flat is located on the west bank of the Murray River approximately half-way between the point where the Murray River turns south and the well-known sites at Tartanga, Devon Downs and Fromms Landing excavated by Tindale and Mulvaney between 1930 and 1960.

Roonka’s significance to Aboriginal Australian history is centred on its status as a burial ground commencing after post-glacial sea-level rise led to the deposition of new sandy sediments in the Murray trench. This is an immensely long time for one place to have served one major purpose and Roonka well and truly deserves this volume, with its tantalising hints of avenues of enquiry still to be pursued.

Amongst these are some more general ones. For example, although the burial practices are fascinating (the later ones linked neatly to a number of ethnographic records and the earlier ones providing examples of very different mortuary practices) and although this volume emphasises GP’s determination to place the inhumations in both their broad landscape and cultural contexts, neither the geomorphic history of the region, nor an exacting ethnographic and cultural approach has yet been written.

In 1969, Roonka Flat presented a difficult set of excavation choices. Not only was the stratigraphy neither broadly nor in detail understood; not only was the surface litter of eroded skeletons incredibly confusing; not only was the only labour available volunteers; but the work proceeded on alternate weekends for nearly six long years. The accuracy and detail of the outcome is a work of superogation. Between 1969 and 1974 volunteers, giving of their professional and recently-learned excavating skills, worked over 137 days in the field and put in innumerable hours (over $600,000 worth in a 1974 estimate) of ‘spare-time’ plotting plans, printing photographs, analysing finds, and transcribing field records.

The open area approach taken to excavation at Roonka (Trench A was 30m x 15m) was no doubt partly the result of the tangled surface remains and partly a response to working in soft sand where the traditional Wheelerian system of squares separated by baulks was very nearly impossible to keep pristine. Only the exacting survey record by architect Vern Tolcher and the rigidly adhered to 3cm spits kept everything under control. Other volunteers kept the comprehensive photographic record and the finds record. Together with field notes this meant that almost all bits of information were recorded in at least three ways.

GP’s major publication on Roonka was in 1977 (reproduced here as Part 3). The other parts are: an introduction by Keryn Walshe,a fascinating insight into the reactions of a volunteer to the work at Roonka and a summary of the developments at Roonka since 1974, including a discussion of the palaeodemography of Roonka Flat by Rebekah Candy.

This volume fills in a large gap in the history of studies at Roonka, but is by no means the last word about this complex place.

Graeme Pretty (GP) always envisaged the spectacular 11,000 year span of burials at Roonka Flat as but one element in the whole history of the district. And herein lies a rather cruel irony – that GP who had such a wide vision of the cultural landscape of Roonka ended by being stymied by the very magnitude of his vision. He wanted to produce a definitive study of Roonka in its environmental and cultural setting, but ended up, so to speak, so submerged in ‘data smog’ that no adequate synthesis was ever forthcoming. Which is to say that the broad archaeology of Roonka has still to be compiled (though a series of hitherto unpublished papers listed in his bibliography may indeed fill in many lacunae, and should at least be published, perhaps through one of the electronic publishers).

For the future, the authors have identified a need for more radiocarbon dates, but have not suggested a complementary digitising of the voluminous plans. Perhaps some Time Team-like whizz-bang graphics could be applied to give a 3D plot of the site? Amongst other possible patterns such a graphic plot would provide a pattern of levels from which various graves were dug.

I have had my interest in Roonka revitalised by this book. I was fascinated on my visit to Roonka on a weekend in 1970 (and surprised to find my name in the list of volunteers) especially as I had previously been a volunteer at Laila Haglund’s very different but equally exacting Broadbeach burial excavations (Haglund 1976). I might also mention Bernard O’Reilly’s description of vertical burials in the Kanimbla Valley, near the Blue Mountains, NSW which have not hitherto been mentioned, as a contribution to the ongoing work (O’Reilly 1949:288-289).

In status, this book may be compared with Pope’s introductory volume on the British Palaeolithic site of Boxgrove (Pope 1996) – a way of providing a summary to the many people who worked on the site, and a pointer to future determinations. The work at Boxgrove is still ongoing, but without such interim stimulus might have lapsed for want of a wider audience. Roonka is equally as significant and it is to be hoped that Walshe’s volume will do for Roonka what Pope’s did for Boxgrove – stimulate the necessary further research.


Haglund, L. 1976 The Broadbeach Burial Ground – An Archaeological Analysis. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

O’Reilly, B. 1949 Green Mountains and Cullenbenbong. Brisbane: Smith and Paterson.

Pope, M.I. 1996 Boxgrove: A Field Guide to the Excavations. Brighton: Boxgrove Project Publications.

Eleanor Crosby
Review of 'Roonka: Fugitive Traces and Climatic Mischief' edited by Keryn Walshe
Dec 2010
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