Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Stone Huts, Georgina River, South West Queensland (see Aboriginal Shelter)

In this paper Wallis et al. report on the recording that has not been published previously of Aboriginal stone hut structures in southwestern Queensland. There are 17 of the structures that are located along a tributary of the Georgina River that are typical, that are generally circular in plan view, which had an average diameter of 5 m and an opening that is 1 m wide that consistently positioned in order to afford protection from prevailing winds. It is suggested by the evidence that the structures were roofed with vegetation and, though they predate the contact period, also appear to have been used into at least the late 1800s. Artefacts that are associated with the structures include stone flakes, cores and fragments of ground edge axes, freshwater mussel shells, rifle cartridge cartridges, fragments of glass and metal objects. Comparison of these stone hut structures was made with similar features in other parts of Australia demonstrated that there was widespread, though consistent, use of stone for construction. According to Wallis et al. this short report contributes to an increasing awareness of, and literature about, built structures in traditional Aboriginal societies.

According to Wallis et al., awareness is growing that the use of built stone structures by Aboriginal peoples in Australia in pre-contact times (e.g., Builth, 2002; Clarke, 1991, 1994; Coutts et al., 1978; Lewis, 1988; Memmott, 2012; Mulvaney, 1993; O’Conner, 1987, 1999; O’Conner et al., 2007; Wallis & O’Connor, 2007; Wallis & Mathews, 2016). This is contrary to some common misconceptions about the lifeways of Australian Aboriginals. Memmott, (2007:xiii) provided a continent-wide overview of Indigenous built structures in Australia, though it was intended as such, in which he concluded that:

“The intermittent reporting of individual ethnographic example in the anthropological and archaeological literature in the last century [20th century] generates sufficient material to mount an argument that there was widespread use of stone structures in Aboriginal Australia, not only for shelter and house walls, even for roof cladding in one case.”

The stone hut structures, which are located in southwest Queensland, that are described in this paper were first recorded by Rowlands & Rowlands, (1978). Some have subsequently been recorded by Davidson et al. (1989) as part of a wider project nominating sites to the national Register of the National Estate, though the details were never published. Memmott (2007) included mention of them in his Australia-wide review, citing the original report of Davidson et al. (1989) without expanding upon it. As such, they are not widely known; that lack is redressed in this report.

The study area

The study site is located on Marion Downs Station, about 60 km southwest of Boulia in the traditional lands of the Pitta Pitta people. The landscape above the cracking clays and alluvial sediment that are associated with the Georgina River is dominated by a stony gibber of siliceous rock that is derived from the erosion of the Marion Formation (Wilson, 1990:5) that has been dated to the Tertiary. The source of the building material for the stone hut structures is these rounded gibber rocks, which are coated with iron oxide.

It is indicated by data that has been collected by the weather station 38014 on Marion Downs over the past century that in the study area the mean annual rainfall is just over 200 mm, most of which falls in the summer months. Less than 40 mm has been recorded in drought years, while as much as 680 mm has been recorded in wet years. Based on data that has been collected at Boulia airport, weather station 38003, the mean monthly annual temperature is a low of 22.9oC in July and a high of 38.6oC in December (BoM 2016). The prevailing wind is from the south and southwest for most of the year (BoM, 2016).

The stone structures are approximately 360 m west of the Georgina River and 100 m south and west of a meandering small tributary that is unnamed in a gentle incline of a low, boulder-strewn hill. The hut was found across an area of 125 m x 110 m, positioned at the northern end of the station’s airstrip (Davidson et al., 1989:17). There are 15 circular and 2 structures that are somewhat rectangular, which consist of low stone walls with an average diameter of 5 m, each of which has an opening that is about 1 m wide. The orientation of the openings is quite regular, ranging between 330o and 30o (i.e., north-northwest, north, northeast), which is opposite to the direction of the prevailing wind (BoM 2016). The average internal interior is 7.1 m2. In some instances the walls are still up to 45 Cm in height, they are often collapsed across a width of up to1 m. The walls are constructed of rounded silcrete cobbles that are available locally and boulders from the gibber, which are of an average diameter of 20 cm and 30 cm. A single person can easily move the boulders without assistance. There is soft sediment present in the inner space. These form one of several groups of similar stone structures that are known on the property. At Hilary Creek a group was visited in 1989, though they were not mapped or recorded archaeologically. It is strongly suggested by the presence in 1989 of gidgee (Acacia cambagei) boughs over some of the stone hut structures at Hilary Creek, that they originally had a dome-shaped superstructure of heavy curved boughs. At the airstrip site only 1 of the huts had evidence of bough superstructure remaining. Memmott suggested that this roof was probably clad with hummock grass or spinifex and possibly had a covering of sand, mud or clay, in the absence of an obvious source of tree bark (cf. Memmott, 2007: 13). In 1989 the condition of the stone hut structures was recorded as being:

Generally good but deteriorating due to natural weathering. A track had been graded though the middle of the group near the fence but there is no clear evidence that any huts were destroyed by this. It has the effect that traffic mostly goes along the track at the present, which therefore provides some protection. It is possible that some damage to the site by cattle and horses, though not likely to be due to the proximity of the airstrip (Davidson et al., 1989: 18).

Little damage beyond that originally recorded was revealed by the assessment in 2016, though the substructure of gidgee was less well preserved than in 1989. On the hillslope, including in and around some of the stone hut structures, a range of artefacts has been found that included silcrete flakes and cores, shells of freshwater mussels (Velesunio ambiguous), fragments of axes that had been edge ground made from igneous rocks that was not local, rifle cartridge cases, fragment of glass and metal tins. According to Wallis et al. there is not apparent difference between material that was associated with the circular stone hut structures and those that are more rectangular in plan. According to Wallis et al. it is worth noting that these are not the only stone hut structures on the Marion Downs Station. Several other similar stone hut structures were also located during the investigation in 1989, as well as further west on Glenormiston Station, though time constraints precluded any of these being recorded. The current manager of Marion Downs Station, Robert Jansen (pers. Comm. to Wallis (2016), has also reported seeing additional stone hut structures along the Georgina River during mustering.

Discussion

It was noted (Memmott, 2012:2) that in Australia the form of built structures depended on a range of factors which included the ‘prevailing weather, local raw materials availability, planned purpose and length of stay, and the size and composition  of the group to be accommodated’.

If the stone structures in the Marion Downs case study were originally indeed roofed, as suspected by Wallis et al. these stone hut structures would have provided substantial protection for small groups of people from heavy rains in summer, particularly as there are few rock shelters in this region that the Aboriginal people could have used as an alternative means of protection.  It is also important to consider in this sense the direction of the prevailing wind. The local landscape, that is generally flat or low, is conducive to a regime of strong wind from the south and southwest, therefore it is not a surprise that the openings are usually to the north. As such, they would have provided useful shelter, especially during cold winter nights.

Abundant easily obtained building materials are available on the boulder strewn hillslopes of the local area. It would be nearly impossible to have a comfortable night’s sleep in the vicinity without clearing the hillslopes and if they moved down the hillslope to the river flat they would have to contend with boggy ground in the wet months.

A possibility has been suggested that the stone structures that have been recorded by Wallis et al. were not part of huts ‘per se’, but simply the result of the people moving boulders in order to make clear spaces where the people could sit and/or sleep. However, it was considered by Wallis et al. that expedient behaviour of that nature would not have produced such consistently shaped and sized structures, with all having openings that faced in the same direction. It seems much more likely that these structures had been built purposely to a distinct pattern, and were most likely of a domestic nature (i.e., the bases of ‘hut structures’).

The stone hut structures at Marion Downs resemble the purported domestic stone structures from elsewhere in Australia. E.g, on the now drained former swamp area near Lake Condah in southwest Victoria is an extensive water management system of channel ponds, weirs and traps (Builth, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004; Builth et al., 2008; McNiven et al., 2012), that are associated with trees that have been culturally modified and stone walled ‘house sites’ (e.g. Clark, 1990; Clarke, 1991, 1994; Coutts et al., 1978; Lane & Fullagar, 1980; Lourandos, 1987; Richards, 2011; Wesson, 1981; Worsnop, 1897). The stone hut structures (126 of which were recorded in 1991), are semicircular, C-shaped or U-shaped that are generally in clusters of 2 – 16, though they can occur in isolation, and were constructed of abundant basalt cobbles that are available locally (Clarke, 1994). An early writer noted that they always occur in open places where timber was scarce (Lane, 2009: 14). It has been challenging to determine the age of any of the stone structures at Lake Condah, most attention being focused on the water management system rather than the huts, their age being placed at mid-to-late Holocene (e.g. Builth et al., 2008; Head, 1989; Lourandos, 1980; Williams, 1985, 1987, 1988). The Muldoons Trap Complex have recently been excavated and dated which indicated the initial activity occurred between 6,000 and 5,400 cal. BP, which was followed by little or no activity at the site until a more recent period of redevelopment and elaboration in the last 800 years (McNiven et al., 2012, 2015). It is suggested by Wallis et al. that the though these dates do not address the issue of the stone hut structures directly, the Muldoons Trap Complex may also approximate the age of the huts, given the close association between the 2 components of the system.

Stone structures in open contexts on High Cliffy Island in the west Kimberley has been described by Blundell (1875: 156) and later O’Connor (1987, 1999: 1113-117). These are comprised of circular structures that have a usable internal area of up to 2m x 3m, which have walls that are 1m high. It was posited (O’Connor, 1987:37) that these, too, were probably wet season structures that were constructed in an area that had few natural rockshelters. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to date them, though a fragment of baler shell that was found on the surface inside a structure was dated to 370 ± 50 BP (WK-1095) (O’Connor, 1987: 34). As a result of the tabular nature of the local sandstone the structures on High Cliffy Island have quite obvious coursing and are much ‘neater’ than the structures on Marion Downs Station,  as the local boulders of the Georgina Basin are of a rounded nature that does not lend itself well to structural walls. Blundell (1975: 156) was told by Aboriginal people who were working with her that the structures were primarily windbreaks that had originally been roofed with sheets of paperbark that had been brought to the island from the mainland. O’Connor et al. (2007) reported more recently a single stone ‘hut’ on Rankin Island that is not far from High Cliffy that was also constructed of tabular sandstone, though its walls had collapsed. They described this as being very similar to the huts on High Cliffy, though further information was not provided.

McDonald & Berry reported more recently (2017) the documentation of stone hut structures on Rosemary Island in Murujuga (Dampier Archipelago off the coast of the Pilbara). Forming a series of conjoined structures, the largest of the structures on Rosemary Island is 8.7 m x 5 m, though the average size is 5.5 m x 3 m. The authors were led to interpret them as likely habitation dwellings by the associated engravings, grinding patches, standing stones, stone artefacts, intact baler shells and shell midden. Age determinations on the excavated midden deposit inside the walls of one of the structures produced ages of 7760-7578 and 8161-7962 ca BP, which potentially makes them the oldest known domestic stone structures in Australia (McDonald & Berry, 2017). Insufficient information was presented by McDonald & Berry (2017) to be confident that the dated shell is genuinely associated with the use of the structures. The shell was possibly deposited 9,000 years ago, as well as a time much more recently; the stone structures were built on top of that deposit. To determine this possibility could only be to discover if the shell martial underlies the walls, but the Rosemary Island excavations were not extensive and did not extend beneath the walls, therefore, this cannot be determined. It was suggested (Memmott, 2007: 4) that there were 4 periods in Aboriginal architecture:

1)    The ‘classical Aboriginal ethno-architecture that was practiced before first contact’

2)    The acculturated ethno-architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries,

3)    Rowlands & Rowlands (1978) described the site on Marion Downs Station as a contact site.

They based their assessment on the presence of surface artefacts from the contact period; no excavations were conducted and no absolute dating of the abundant surface mussel shell was undertaken. It was specifically mentioned (Roth, 1897: 106) that the response of the local Aboriginals to contact – which brought with it the availability of cattle hides, clothing and blankets – was to invest less effort in housing, which led to a gradual and marked disappearance of the semisubterranean houses they had built previously, while it is possible that the stone hut structures could date to sometime after contact with Europeans and their more complex building methods. No mention was made of stone walled structures (Roth, 1897). The question of their dating relative to European contact is of some interest, given their apparent prevalence in the area south of Boulia. It appears that the stone hut structures on Marion Downs Station represent more, not less, effort, so doesn’t seem likely that the origin of the practice was post-contact. It should be noted that it seems Roth did not travel south of Boulia to any great extent, and, apart from his visit to Glenormiston Station, seems to have travelled by coach (Davidson, 2008).

It was argued by Wallis et al. that the stone hut structures that have been recorded on Marion Downs Station are not of European origin. The majority of structures that were built according to European techniques of drystone walling in Australia repeated a pattern of design that was summarised by Radford (2001) as including:

·        Anchoring the walls to the ground by the use of foundation stones;

·        The use of ‘face stones’ (or ‘skins’) with occasional ‘through stones’ to tie the 2 sides of the wall together;

·        Bridging joints (each course of stones is offset from that lying beneath it in order that the rocks do not line up vertically and result in weaknesses in the structure);

·        The use of ‘pinning stones’ placed beneath or between face stones in order to secure them.

·        The use of small uneven stones (‘hearting’) placed in the centre of the wall to fill the gap between the face stones; and,

·        The use of a course of ‘copping stones’ at the top of the structure to help protect the wall from the elements.

The stone hut structures on Marion Downs Station generally do not have any of these features. The walls are not ‘anchored’ to the ground by foundation stones. Bridges joints are present occasionally, though not often.

It is suggested that they are not a post-contact phenomenon by the number of the stone hut structures on Marion Down Station, as there would not be so  many of them if they were post-contact. The presence of post-contact artefacts on the surface led Wallis et al. to agree with Rowlands & Rowlands (1978) that they were certainly used into the late 19th century and likely early 20th century. It may be significant that they were of a type that was not recorded by Roth, in that they were not in use at the time of his travels in the later 19th century. If excavation of the structures post-date contact in the region, and possibly even the constructi0n of a Native Mounted Police camp at Boulia (which was comprised of several rectangular stone walled buildings, it could be argued that they          were built in response to observations of European buildings. As such they would represent another instance of Aboriginal and European martial culture that was documented by Rowlands and Rowlands (2016) for artefacts from Boulia in the Queensland Museum’s Roth collection.

Conclusion

In recent years there has been a growing appreciation of Aboriginal building techniques, which is highlighted by Memmott’s (2007) seminal publication. The use of stone as a building material apparently occurred in many different places throughout the continent, though there are only limited publications about built structures. This paper has documented the presence of what are almost certainly domestic stone hut structures in a region that has few rockshelters for protection from the elements. These structures, that are constructed with locally available, unmodified boulders, that are transported easily by a single person and the structures only rarely display regular coursing, appear similar to those seen elsewhere in Australia in that they are a dry-stone technique. The clear understanding that throughout Australia, traditional stone walling was very different in nature to that of European stone walling techniques, is a key point to be made.

 

Wallis, L., et al. (2017). "Aboriginal stone huts along the Georgina River, southwest Queensland." Queensland Archaeological Research 20.

 

Author: M. H. Monroe
Email: admin@austhrutime.com
Last updated:
29/05/2020
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