The Marra Wonga site, near Barcaldine in central Queensland, is home to around 15,000 individual works of rock art.
Though they stretch across 160 metres of sandstone, and likely several thousand years of creation, the petroglyphs tell one cohesive story: that of the Seven Sisters, a common motif in Aboriginal cultures that bears a close resemblance to the Ancient Greeks’ Pleiades.
Researchers based at Griffith University, and Iningai Traditional Owners, have been documenting the site’s art from both an archaeological and ethnographic perspective and have recently published their findings in Australian Archaeology.
“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,” says lead author Professor Paul Tacon, from Griffith University’s Centre for Social Cultural Research.
“However, the order makes sense for contemporary Aboriginal community members as different parts of a Seven Sisters Dreaming story, in the correct sequence.”
The petroglyphs mostly take the form of animal tracks, lines, grooves and drilled holes, but there are plenty of more detailed designs.
These include snakes, a cluster of seven stars, engraved feet (some with six toes), and an engraved penis.
One anthropomorphic figure at the southern end of the site is interpreted as Wattanuri by the Iningai. This ancestral being appears in a range of Indigenous Australian stories, with different names, as the pursuer of the Seven Sisters.
“The Seven Sisters narrative story does vary across the country, but there are a number of components that are found in many of the different versions,” says Tacon.
“From an archaeological or visual point of view, we can see them at that site. From an ethnographic point of view, or from a contemporary cultural point of view, the site is a teaching place that has lots of different forms of meaning, but the key story is the Seven Sisters.”
The researchers don’t yet know for sure how old the art at Marra Wonga is.
“Rock art is notoriously hard to date, especially in sandstone shelters such as this one,” says Tacon.
They think it’s likely that some of the designs are over 5,000 years old, while other white stencils may be as young as one or two centuries.
“There are plans to do some excavations near the site in the future and that should allow us to determine the length of occupation right at that site, and there is a possibility that some mud wasp nests overtop of some of engraved figures could be sampled for dating,” says Tacon.
In their paper, the researchers state that Marra Wonga is “an extraordinary rock art site worthy of special protection, conservation and management given its many unique features”, and propose further research on conserving and managing sustainable tourism at the site.
“This rock art site, in terms of its contemporary Indigenous interpretation, and in terms of the imagery, is probably the strongest rock art site in Australia for the Seven Sisters narrative,” says Tacon.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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