In AA75 R.G. (ben) Gunn, a highly experienced Australian rock art researcher, and his colleagues, Leigh Douglas and Ray Whear, report a new finding from Jawoyn Country, a unique part of Arnhem Land near Katherine.
The authors detail a previously unrecorded form of stone arrangement, termed standing stones. Stone arrangements are known throughout Australia, as most recently highlighted at the Australian Archaeological Association’s conference in Wollongong (December 2012) where there were two dynamic sessions on ‘The archaeology of Australian Indigenous stone arrangements’. However, the arrangements reported in this article are unique and expand archaeological knowledge of range of variation in these distinctive cultural features.
The standing stones reported in this article are at times inconspicuous in the landscape and at other times extremely obvious. Their uniting factor is that they are definitely not natural formations and have been deliberately placed by people in their positions, which for the authors and audience alike raises the question, why? But more on that later…
This discovery was part of the Jawoyn Rock Art and Heritage Project which the authors have been working on since 2005 in partnership with the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation (see Gunn and Whear 2007). The project has thus far identified hundreds of previously unknown archaeological and rock art sites across Jawoyn country, and involves the authors surveying by helicopter and also physically walking across the landscape to identify and record cultural sites. And so it was only after spending considerable time in this landscape they began to notice the repeated, and unusual, trend of stones being stood on-end.
As with all sites identified in the recording project, the standing stones reported in this article were systematically recorded. The kinds of information recorded about them include their location, the rock type used, the stone’s form and size, the orientation of the stone, and its association with other cultural features such as other types of stone arrangements or rock art sites.
This information allowed the authors to investigate whether there were any connections between the types of stones being used and the way they were being placed. They found that there was a deliberate selection of stones, with nearly parallel sides or triangular shapes, and that stones were generally stood with their longest axis vertical. The most interesting and potentially significant finding for understanding the ‘why’ question, was that standing stones always occur within site complexes that also have rock art and other archaeological sites. Contextual information like this is critical for assisting archaeologists to interpret the potential meaning of features such as standing stones.
Apart from bringing our attention to a new cultural feature in Arnhem Land prehistory, this article raises important questions over how archaeologists interpret features such as these. As the authors admit, we still do not know the age or original function of these enigmatic features as there is no specific Jawoyn traditional knowledge about standing stones.
Ethnographic information from across Australia, and specifically from the Jawoyn people themselves, demonstrates that stone arrangements can be highly significant symbolically and spiritually to traditional site owners. For an example see the authors’ other article in AA75 ‘Dating the present at Nawarla Gabarnmang’ (Gunnet al. 2013:55) and the mention therein of a ritual Dreaming stone from the Nawarla Gabarnmang site complex or work by Annie Ross and her colleagues (2008) at the site of Gummingurru on the Darling Downs of southern Queensland for explanation of the immense significance that stone arrangements can have for contemporary Aboriginal people. The combination of critical ethnographic information, and archaeological data about the intentional placement of stones in a standing position and the repeated pattern of this behaviour across Jawoyn country could allow future researchers the ability to comment on the significance of these features, even if the original function and meaning intended by their makers remains unknown.
To learn more about the Jawoyn people, their culture and lands please visit their website. If you are interested in learning more about Australian Indigenous stone arrangements we recommend visiting the Gummingurru website to start.
Gunn, R.G. and R.L. Whear 2007 The Jawoyn Rock Art and Heritage Project. Rock Art Research 24:5–20.
Gunn, R.G., L.C. Douglas and R.L. Whear 2012 Standing stones: An unrecorded form of stone arrangement from the Jawoyn lands of the Arnhem Land Plateau. Australian Archaeology 75:37–45.
Gunn, R.G., R.L. Whear and L.C. Douglas 2013 Dating the present at Nawarla Gabarnmang: Time and function in the art of a major Jawoyn rock art and occupation site in western Arnhem Land. Australian Archaeology 75:55–65.
Ross, A. 2008 Managing meaning at an ancient site in the 21st century: The Gummingurru Aboriginal stone arrangement on the Darling Downs, southern Queensland. Oceania 78:91–108.