Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Stone Structures in Southwestern Victoria

In Victoria, and in Aboriginal Australia in general there are various types of stone arrangements, and in the case of places such as Wurdi Youang/Mt Rothwell there are large arrangements containing stones up to 500 kg (Lane & Fullagar, 1980: 135; Marshall & Webb, 1999: 9), though there are many much smaller arrangements. The main problem with identifying stone structures is distinguishing between natural and man-made structures and between those constructed by pre-contact Aboriginals and the settlers.

Both the number and density of stone structures in western Victoria are unusually, the geology of the southwestern region being an extensive volcanic plain of basalt rock, has been suggested as a possible reason for the high numbers and the high density of the structures. This stone has been widely used by people both before and after European contact.

The Victorian stone arrangements have been divided into 4 categories according to function  (Lane & Fullagar, 1980: 146):

Technological - connected with food gathering
Technological - connected with shelter
Demographical - connected with various rites of religious and mythical significance
Demographical - connected with tribal boundaries

The stone arrangements are broadly divided into 2 categories in the report1 those for the function is known and those for which the function is not known. The author1 has generally assumed those with unknown function may have been used for a ceremonial purposes, though she recognizes that they may have had a utilitarian function that is not known to modern observers (e.g. Kimber, 1981), and there is also the possibility that the lines between ceremonial and utilitarian may be be clear (e.g. McNiven, 2003: 337; O'Connor et al., 2007: 20).

  • Utilitarian stone structures associated with fishing and water
  • Terrestrial utilitarian stone structures or arrangements
  • Terrestrial stone arrangements, structures and complexes of uncertain purpose, presumed to be of ritual or ceremonial significance

The first 2 categories that are of a more utilitarian type of arrangement are to some extent easier to identify because it is possible to assess their physical suitability to perform the function that has been assumed for them. There is also direct ethnohistorical evidence of their use in western Victoria, that provides an indication of their physical appearance together with a description of them actually being used by the Aboriginal inhabitants of the area.

It is most difficult to identify is the 3rd category as its purpose is not not known, making it difficult to identify as an Aboriginal structure. These arrangements are generally assumed to be have been used for ritual or ceremonial purposes that have been suggested to include "totem-centres, initiation grounds ... and places associated with culture heroes and magic" (McCarthy, 1940: 188-189; also Palmer, 1977). As is the case with other parts of Australia, these arrangements are not included in the ethnohistorical sources from western Victoria. The author1 suggests it is assumed that the Aboriginal people don't disclose information about these sites and arrangements to non-Aboriginal people because they are sacred to the Aboriginals (McBryde, 1974: 50).

Utilitarian stone structures associated with fishing and water

In Australia there are 3 main types of fish traps known, coastal or tidal traps, that are not well known of in Victoria. Traps that are present along creeks and rivers, that were common along the Hopkins River in western Victoria, and complexes that were used for trapping fish, as are known at Lake Condah or Toolondo, that were constructed in swamps, marshes or lakes.

William Buckley, an escaped convict who lived with the Wathaurong Aboriginal people, apparently claimed credit for the invention of the estuarine fish trap, but types stone estuarine or tidal fish traps are known from many parts of Australia. It is also possible that he was given credit with the invention of the fish traps by John Morgan, who recorded Buckley's story for publication in 1852. On the north coast of New South Wales and in Queensland several have been recorded (e.g., Bowen, 1998; Campbell, 1982; Coleman, 1982: 5-6; Walters, 1985, but see also Godwin, 1988). In southern Western Australia (Dortch, 1997; Dortch et al., 2006; in northern Western Australia (Smith, 1983; Vinnicombe, 1987: 34), and in South Australia (Welz, 2002). In Victoria there is less evidence for fish traps, though there are 2 possible examples known from Port Phillip Bay, both of which are in the Corio Bay/Point Lillias area.

The process of use of tidal weir traps has been described by Smith:

"This type of trap functions by movement of the tide...Fish feeding on the advancing and high tides, swim over the wall. As the tide recedes that water runs out through the loosely packed and gradually exposed walls  stranding the fish on the sand or in small pools of water which remain (Smith, 1983: 30).

Examples of archaeological fish traps

A tidal weir built from organic materials, as described by Buckley, is unlikely to survive long enough to be studied by archaeologists, hence most of the known fishtraps studied by archaeologists are of stone. The choice of construction material was probably determined by availability, aas with their counterparts from rivers and creeks, though the athor1 suggests it might have been necessary to construct coastal structures of stone, a more substantial material as it would be subjected to tidal currents. The author1 also suggests that at least in some cases, tidal fish traps probably had organic superstructures on top of a stone base (Dortch, 1997: 21).

In other parts of Australia stone fishtraps in tidal locations tended to be in the shape of an arc or semicircle with the concave side facing the shore that held back fish, that were mostly of the schooling type, when the tide receded. Fishtraps of various other shapes have also been recorded, horseshoe-shaped, box-like, and in the form of a  maze (Godwin, 1988: Table 3).

There are 2 known possible tidal fishtraps on the western side of Port Phillip Bay. According to the author1 one of these, the Corio Bay Fishtrap (VAHR 7721/505) has been described as "lines of basalt in intertidal zone" for which there is oral tradition of it being "a known fishtrap that worked prior to coastal works along the Avalon coastline" (VAHR 7721/505 sitecard). The author1 suggests the recording of the other known Aboriginal fishtrap, at Point Lillias, as an Aboriginal archaeological site may be somewhat contentions. At this second site there are historical remains that it may actually have been connected with the oyster industry that operated in the area in the late 19th century.

Identification of fishtraps

According to the author1 estuarine/coastal fishtraps are mostly located on low-energy shorelines (Welz, 2002: 110). In western Australia it has been noted that tidal weirs, that usually consist of low walls of various shapes of piled stones, designed to be covered by the water at high tide, emerging as the tide goes out to trap the fish, are generally positioned on "the nearly level shores of estuarine basins" (Dortch, 1997: 16). There are a number of difficulties encountered when identifying stone arrangements as Aboriginal estuarine coastal fishtraps.

One of these difficulties is the distinguishing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fishtraps. Coastal fishtraps are known from various places around the world, the oldest being believed to have been constructed in the Mesolithic, though some were still being constructed until the 1860s (Bannerman & Jones, 1999: 70, 79), making it possible that coastal fishtraps could have been constructed by the colonists. Some possible examples have been found in Tasmania, that had walls of loosely piled boulders that would be difficulat to distinguish from those built by Aboriginal People without the aid of historical evidence (Stockton, 1982).

The author1 says there is also a problem distinguishing some structures from fishtraps. An instance was documented from Western Australia where a modern structure that had been built between the 1960s and the 1980s was recorded as a fishtrap. In South Australia what was believed to be an Aboriginal fishtrap was found too be debris from grading activity by Walshe (Welz, 2002: 45).

Evidence also exists of Aboriginal people using natural tidal pools as fishtraps, such as the Champagne Pools on Fraser Island, Queensland. Such natural fishtraps may sometimes be evidenced by other archaeological material. See Eel Harvesting for early descriptions of fish traps.

The author1 notes that ethnohistorical sources indicate that the presence of fishtraps or weirs across rivers and creeks were common in western Victoria. It is generally indicated by the early observations that even where stone was available for these traps it formed only part of the structure, descriptions, such as Robinson's, making it clear that part of the structures was of organic materials, stick and/or brush barriers and eel pots and baskets. Robinson's descriptions of fish traps from other areas suggest that organic material comprised most, if not all of the material of the fishtrap. An example is in Twofold Bay region where Robinson described "an old weir for taking fish, i.e. fence of brush cross river" (Robinson 30/8/1844 in Clark 2000d, 166). The author1 suggests that the easy availability of basalt on the basalt plains probably accounts, at least in part, for the comparatively high number of stone fish traps in western Victoria.

The author1 suggests the purpose of building so many fish traps in western Victoria was mainly to catch eels on the annual migration to the sea, and it has been noted by Schell that migration of elvers up the streams from the sea may also have been exploited (Schell, 1995: 12). Based on Dawson's description it is indicated that where eels were not available, such as the Corangamite drainage basin (see McNiven, 1994: 62), other fish were caught with the stone traps.

Archaeological examples

A number of stone river and creek fish traps have been recorded for southwestern Victoria, some being present along the Hopkins River (Hotchin, 1980; Schell, 1995). Evidence from the accounts from Robinson indicate that V-shaped stone fish traps were also common in the area.

The author1 suggests there are 2 main difficulties identifying stone fishtraps in rivers and creeks are:

Differentiation non-fish traps from fishtraps, historical or contemporary fording places are structures that are most likely to be mistaken for fishtraps, in some cases evidence exists that the stones from a preexisting fishtrap were used to build a fording place.

Robinson wrote:

"The fording place at Bolden's are the remains of an old stone were [weir] called by the natives yere.roc, but now destroyed by Bolden's people" (25/4/1841in Clark 2000b: 144).

Natural features are sometimes confused with fishtraps. Rock scatters in the rivers that are natural occurrences have been Schell to make it difficult to determine is it is actually a natural scatter of rocks or the deterioration of a fish trap resulting from strong currents in the rivers.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Lane, Sharon, 2009, Aboriginal stone structures in southwestern Victoria, report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 29/04/2012

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