By Michelle C. Langley. Based on the article Orientations of linear stone arrangements in New South Wales in Australian Archaeology 75 by Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris.
When we think about early astronomy, people like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and other famous scientists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries tend to spring to mind. What most people do not realise is that astronomy – the study of celestial objects (planets, stars, galaxies etc) – is the oldest of the natural sciences.
Ancient cultures worldwide observed and considered the objects visible in both the day and night skies and constructed interpretations for their presence and change during the year. Indigenous Australians were one of these considering cultures, and over thousands of years constructed a significant understanding of how the natural world worked. This knowledge was used for various day-to-day and season-to-season activities, such as when it was time to gather certain foods, when the tides would be at their lowest (or highest) and shellfish could be safely collected or islands reached, when were the best times of year to travel and when and how to navigate across this enormous country of ours.
This accumulated knowledge was passed on to the next generation, not only through oral history, but also through artworks including rock art. In previous research, Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris studied astronomical knowledge and symbolism in Australian Aboriginal rock art and were able to show that Indigenous Australians had a solid understanding of the astronomical realities of our planet and its place in the solar system far back into prehistory.
New research undertaken by these same researchers – Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris – published in Australian Archaeology 75, has shown that Indigenous Australians also aligned linear stone arrangements towards the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west).
Stone arrangements are a form of rock art which typically consist of stones (generally around 30 cm in size) laid out in patterns extending over an area of several (or more) metres. These arrangements may be associated with ritual activities and have spiritual significance or simply mark specific locations in the landscape. These special constructions are found throughout Australia and have different meanings and stories depending on who made them and how they functioned.
In the study presented in AA75, Duane and colleagues examined a number of linear stone arrangements located in New South Wales (NSW). Through careful surveying and recording of a sample of these sites, they were able to determine that these arrangements are preferentially aligned towards north/south with a smaller number aligned towards the east/west. They note that east/west orientations are often related to the rising and setting position of the sun, as determined by a number of Aboriginal cultures, such as the Wangkumara and Yirandhali. Within other Aboriginal cultures (such as the Warlpiri and Guugu Yimithirr), the concept of right angle orientations is common and it may have been the use of this latter concept which resulted in the north/south orientations of some of these stone arrangements. Other methods for determining the direction of north or south in Aboriginal cultures are also known, such as locating the midpoint of the circumpolar star to determine south, and the people who constructed the linear stone arrangements may have used this method also. Currently, Hamacher and his colleagues are unable to determine which method was used to orientate the linear stone arrangements in NSW.
In the future, these researchers intend to focus on trying to understand how the orientations for the stone arrangements were estimated in this particular part of Australia and hope to extend the examination of these sites to a wider area of the continent in order to build a better understanding of these enigmatic sites.
For more information on Indigenous knowledge of orientation and astronomy see:
Hamacher, D.W. and R.P. Norris 2010 Astronomical symbolism in Australian Aboriginal rock art. Rock Art Research 28(1):99–106.
Hamacher, D.W. and R.P. Norris 2010 Meteors in Australian Aboriginal Dreamings. WGN 38(3):87–98.
Hamacher, D.W. and R.P. Norris 2011 ‘Bridging the Gap’ through Australian cultural astronomy. In C.L.N. Ruggles (ed.), Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges Between Cultures, pp.282–290. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Norris, R. and C. Norris 2009 Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Emu Dreaming: Sydney.
Norris, R.P., P.M. Norris, D.W. Hamacher and R. Abrahams 2013 Wurdi Youang – an Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications. Rock Art Research 30(1):55–65.