Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Bora Ceremonial Grounds, Southeast Australia – Astronomical Orientations

It is indicated by ethnographic evidence that bora (initiation) ceremonial sites in southeast Australia, which are typically comprised of a pair of circles connected by a pathway, are symbolically reflected in the Milky Way by the ‘Sky Bora’. It is also indicated by this evidence that the time of year when the initiation ceremonies are to be held is signified by the ‘Sky Bora’. Archaeological data was used to test the hypothesis that Bora grounds in southeast Australia have a preferred orientation to the position of the Milky Way in the night sky in August, when the plane of the galaxy from Crux to Sagittarius is roughly vertical to the southwest in the evening sky. This was accomplished by measuring the orientations of 68 bora grounds by the use of data from the archaeological literature and site cards in the New South Wales Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System database. The study found that there is a preferred orientation to the south and southwest, which is consistent with the Sky Bora hypothesis. It was shown by Monte Carly statistics that these preferences did not arise by chance alignments, but were deliberate.

            Notice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Readers

  • This paper discusses bora ceremonies and contains the names of people who have passed away. The exact locations of these sites are concealed in order to protect them. The co-ordinates provided are within 10 km of the site and are used only to   demonstrate the general distribution of known bora grounds in southeast Australia.

In traditional Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia young males are taught the laws, customs and traditions of the community, undergoing a transition ceremony from boyhood to manhood. A ‘rite-of-passage’ event is often included in this ceremony, in which the initiated males undergo some form of body modification (Jacob, 1991), which in southeast Australia typically involves tooth evulsion (e.g. Berndt, 1974: 27-30). There are many names for this ceremony, but it has come to be generally known as Bora’ in Queensland (Qld) and New South Wales (NSW), the name used by the Kamilaroi whose country is in north-central New South Wales (Ridley, 1873: 269). Bora grounds are generally comprised of 2 circles of differing size, one large and the other small, that are connected by a pathway. The larger circle is the public space, and the smaller circle that is some distance from the larger circle is restricted to elders and initiates. When colonists first settled the Sydney region Bora ceremonies were one of the first Aboriginal cultural activities to be described by the early colonists (Collins, 1798: 468-480; Hunter, 1793: 499-500). In this discussion information about Bora ceremonies will be limited to the ceremony itself, because they are culturally sensitive ceremonies.

A variety of evidence in the anthropological literature (e.g. Berndt, 1974; Love, 1988; Winterbotham, 1957) indicates a connection between bora ceremonies and the Milky Way and that ceremonial grounds are oriented to the position of the Milky Way in the night sky at particular times of year.

In this paper Fuller et al. used ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature to explore connections between bora ceremonies and the Milky Way. They then used the archaeological record to determine if bora grounds are oriented to the position of the Milky Way at particular times of year. Monte Carlo statistics were used to find if these orientations were deliberate or resulted by chance.

Bora Ceremonial Ground

Across southeast Australia the layout of bora grounds are similar, with only minor variations from region to region (Bowdler, 2001: 3; Mathews, 1894: 99). The grounds have been described as consisting of 2 rings of different sizes which are connected by a pathway in several reports (e.g. Black, 1944; Collins, 1798: 391; Fraser, 1883; Howitt, 1904; Mathews, 1897a). There are some places where bora sites where they have 3 or more rings (Steele, 1984; Bowdler, 2001). Each ring is bordered by raised earth or stone, and the area within these rings is cleared of debris and the earth is stamped until firm. The larger, public ring has a typical diameter of 20-30 m. The smaller, sacred ring, where body modifications take place, is generally 10-15 m across, and this is restricted to the initiates and elders. A pathway that ranges from a few 10s of metres to a few 100s of metres in length connected the 2 rings. An Aboriginal man from Marulan, New South Wales, stated in 2004 that the parts of many such sites were destroyed immediately after the ceremony to conceal their location (Hardie, 2004). This would explain why some of the reports of bora sites that were reported in the Archaeological literature feature only a single ring, the smaller one having been destroyed.

It has been found that bora grounds are distributed throughout Southeast Australia, covering most of New South Wales and southern Queensland, and may extend into South Australia (Howitt, 1904: 501-508) and northern Queensland (Roth, 1909). Near Sunbury, Victoria (Vic), ceremonial rings have been found which may be bora grounds, though there are no ethnographic records attesting to their use for ceremonies (Frankel, 1982). A western boundary for bora which runs from the mouth of the Murray River to the Gulf of Carpentaria has been cited (Howitt, 1904: 512). It was noted by Mathews (1897b: 114) that the bora can be found across ¾ of New South Wales and for some distance into western Queensland, with a boundary that extended from Twofold Bay near Eden, NSW in the south, to Moulamein, NSW in the west, and Barringun, Queensland, to the north. The geographical area covered by this paper includes distinct language groups, each of whom may have a separate culture and traditions, and to aggregate the data from such a wide area may be misleading. However:

(a)    Some commonality in culture is implied by the existence of similarly constructed bora rings, and

(b)   Any preferred orientations arising from a single group will be diluted by aggregating orientations from a large geographic area, rather than forming a correlation of spurious significance.

The bora ceremonies were, according to Love (1988), held predominantly in August each year, though a variety of dates have been reported by other authors including March-May (Winterbotham, 1957), April-June (Mathews, 1894: 99), May-July (Mathews, 1894), August (Needham, 1891: 70), September-November (Winterbotham, 1957), and October-December (Mathews, 1894). It is indicated by this that in some cases, the date of the bora ceremony is influenced by a number of variables, including the availability of food and water or having a sufficient number of boys to be initiated (e.g. Mathews, 1910). Though these factors vary across the region, in this study the hypothesis proposed by Love (1988) has been tested, Love having presented evidence that the association of the bora ceremony with the night sky and the orientation of the Milky Way, suggesting that most initiation ceremonies occur around August.

Anthropological Support for an Astronomical Connection

It has been well established that the night sky plays a significant role in several Aboriginal cultures (e.g. Cairns & Harney, 2004; Johnson, 1998; Norris & Hamacher, 2009; Hamacher, 2012). Dark spaces within the Milky Way are as significant as bright objects in the Aboriginal astronomical traditions. There are 2 animals that symbolically link bora ceremonies with the dark spaces of the Milky Way. A spiritual serpent, the ‘Rainbow Serpent’ that was known across Australia was one of them, that was traced out by the curving dust lanes of the Milky Way. It has been explained (Needham, 19981: 69) that in the Hunter Valley among Aboriginal communities motifs of this spiritual serpent were represented in the bora ceremonies and during the ceremony information about the serpent was recounted. The emu was the other animal, which is also traced out in the dust lanes in the Milky Way (Norris & Norris, 2009). It has been argued (Love, 1988: 129-138) that in southeast Australia the emu was an important part of the bora ceremony, as did Berndt (1974: 27-30), as male emus brood and hatch the emu chicks and rear the young (Love, 1987). This is symbolic of the initiation of young boys by the male elders.

An illustration of the night sky and the associated stars in local Aboriginal astronomical traditions was provided (Needham, 1981). Altair, as the ‘All Father’, is cited in this illustration, which provides the positions of the celestial objects in August, the month during which the Aboriginal initiation ceremonies were held (Needham, 1981: 70). In August the Milky Way stretches across the sky from northeast to northwest in the early part of the night sky. An Aboriginal religion that was based on a deity that was variously described as Baiame, Bunjil or Mungan-ngaua (Henderson, 1832: 147; Howitt, 1904: 490-491; Ridley, 1873: 268) was referred to in many early reports. These names translate roughly as ‘father’ or ‘father of all of us’ (Howitt, 1904: 268). Baiame gave his son, Daramulan, to the people and it is through Daramulan that Baiame sees all, according to Frazer (1883: 208) and (Howitt, 1884:458). At the bora ceremony Daramulan is worshipped (Ridley, 1873:269) and Daramulan is believed to come back to Earth by a pathway from the sky (Fraser, 1883:212). It was reported (Eliade (1996:41) that Baiame ‘dwells in the sky, beside a great stream of water’ (i.e. the Milky Way), and there  are various reports (e.g. Berndt, 1974; Hartland, 1898; Howitt, 1884) that Baiame’s wife, or in some cases Daramulan) is an emu. There are reports from various cultures across southeast Australia of Daramulan, Bunjil and Baiame, which result in variations of these reports. They share some features, however, such a close connection between bora ceremonies and the Milky Way.

Hypothesis testing

In order to focus the discussion, the study was concentrated specifically on the hypothesis that had been advanced by Love (1987, 1988), his argument being that bora ceremonies were held in the Milky Way, referred to as the ‘Sky Bora’, by the ancestral spirits in the heavens. The work of Love was based, in part, on another author (Winterbotham, 1957), who obtained information from a Jinibara man from southeast Queensland. Bora circles, according to Winterbotham (1857:38), were always oriented towards points on the compass, with the larger circle to the north and the smaller one to the south. In this rule they conformed to the position of 2 dark (black) spaces (circles) – the Coal Sacks in the sky.

According to Love (1988:130-131), the Sky Bora was identified by the Jinibara account with the Emu in the Sky (Gaiarbau et al., 1982:77; Winterbotham 1957:46). The ‘Coal Sacks’ or Mimburi, which were referred to, are a dark absorption nebula that borders the western constellations Crux (Southern Cross), Centaurus and Musca, which represents the head of the emu, with the eye being represented by the star BZ Crucis. The neck is represented by the dust lanes running through the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri, and the galactic bulge, which is near the intersection of Sagittarius, Scorpius and Ophiuchus, represents the body. This area is the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. The legs are traced out by the dust lanes along the Milky Way through Sagittarius. The motif of the celestial emu is present across Australia (e.g. Cairns & Harney, 2004; Norris & Hamacher, 2009:13; Stanbridge, 1861:302; Wellard, 1983:51).

According to Winterbotham the dark nebulae were also known by other Aboriginal groups, such as the Badjala people of Fraser Island and the adjacent mainland, who knew them as Wurubilum, and the Wakka Wakka people near Murgon, Queensland. This concept was not restricted to southeast Australia. It has been explained (e.g. Smith, 1913) that the initiate is left tied to the ground until the Milky Way is visible during an initiation ceremony in Western Australia. When the Milky Way is visible the initiate is asked if he can see the 2 dark spots, and he is released when he can see them. Fuller et al. suggest that though this account is not from the area where the study was carried out it may be similar to the example that Gaiarbau described.

According to Gaiarbau the bora ceremonies were only held when the celestial bora rings returned to their ‘proper points of the compass’ (Winterbotham, 1957:38). In southeast Australia the Milky Way is visible in the clear winter sky about an hour after sunset. As seen from southeast Australia an hour after sunset, the orientation of the plane of the Milky Way changes from near vertical in the south-southeast in March to horizontal across the southern sky from east-southeast to west in June and back to vertical (but inverted) in the southwest in September. The Galactic bulge and the Coalsack (celestial emu) cannot be seen together in the sky (perpendicular to the horizon), but stretches from south to east.

In August an hour after sunset is the only time the Sky Bora can be seen in the sky together vertically aligned to the horizon, or later in the night as the year progresses. The Galactic plane, stretching straight through the celestial emu, is vertical 1 or 2 hours after sunset in August, and later in the month this occurs later in the evening. The azimuth is about 213o (south-southwest) at this time.

It is expected that the orientation of each bora site, from the larger circle to the smaller circle, would be oriented to about 213o, if the hypothesis of Love is correct, which corresponds to the time the ceremonies are held in August. It was claimed (Needham, 1981:70) that in the Hunter Valley (NSW) the bora ceremonies were held in August, which is a time when the Milky Way was vertical in the south-southwest, which agrees with the expectation.

It has been reported by other researchers that bora ceremonies in Queensland and New South Wales are held at various times of the year, as noted previously (Winterbotham, 1957; Mathews, 1824:99). According to Fuller et al. bora ceremonies could be held at times of the year that have little or no connection with the position in the sky of the Milky Way, even if the ceremonies are linked symbolically to the Milky Way. It has been claimed (e.g. Mathews, 1894:128) that the direction of one bora ring to the other depends entirely on the conformation of the country in which the ceremony is being held. It is expected that there would be a roughly uniform distribution of the orientations if the bora grounds are not oriented to any particular object or direction. If at least some bora grounds are oriented to the position of the Sky Bora it would be expected that a preference would be found for south-southwest orientations when overall distribution of bora grounds examined at.


It was shown by this study that there is a preferred orientation to southerly directions for the bora grounds that were studied, and these orientations are not the result of chance, but were deliberate. It is not known for sure why this is so, though it is consistent with the Love hypothesis that there is a preferred orientation for bora ceremonial grounds in southeast Australia to the celestial emu in the Milky Way in the south-southwesterly sky. During the month of August the celestial emu is in this position in the sky in the evening, the time during which it has been claimed (Winterbotham, 1957; Needham, 1981) that the bora ceremonies were held. It has been shown (Hamacher et al., 2012) that linear stone arrangements in New South Wales also have a preferred orientation to the cardinal points, especially north-south orientations. Many stone arrangements are ceremonial sites, which lends support to the claim that orientation is an important factor to Aboriginal people when they were laying out ceremonial sites.

Though the Love hypothesis is supported by the analysis by Fuller et al. it is not definitive evidence of the bora grounds being oriented to the Sky Bora. It has been stated by some researchers, such as (Winterbotham, 1957; Mathews, 1894) that across Queensland and New South Wales many bora ceremonies were held at various times throughout the year, which do not correspond to any particular orientation of the Milky Way. There is, however, strong evidence from ethnography that the Milky Way is associated with the bora ceremony and it is considered likely by Fuller et al. that some ceremonies were timed, and the sites of bora grounds oriented, so that the vertical Milky Way was visible above the path connecting the 2 circles during bora ceremonies. Fuller et al. say that to understand these links additional research is necessary and they are engaged in such research projects exploring this.

Sources & Further reading 

  1. Fuller, R.S.; Hamacher, D.W., and Norris, R.P. (2013). Astronomical orientations of Bora ceremonial grounds in Southeast Australia. Australian Archaeology, No. 77, pp. 30-37.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 20/10/2016
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