Sydney's Aboriginal Heritage

Aboriginal Sites in the Sydney region
The only surviving record of Aboriginal culture by the Aboriginal people themselves is contained in their art, found on rocks and in caves across the country. In the Sydney region, some 600 rock art sites have been recorded with over 4,000 separate figures mainly of plants, animals, fish and people, which recall the dreamtime and events from the past.

Aboriginal sites fall into four main categories:

Economic Sites: Generally campsites which show evidence of occupation. Often close to or within rock overhangs and caves used to give shelter, evidences of occupation include middens (piles of discarded shells at feasting sites), fish traps, scarred trees (where the bark of red river gums have been removed to form shields, or carved to indentify a burial site), cooking mounds, wells, watering holes (often depressions carved into flat rock surfaces used to catch the water), remnants of discarded tools, quarries and axe sharpening grooves.

Sacred sites: Areas set aside for religious ceremonies, initiations etc. Very little evidence of the use of such sites remain, the major tell-tale signs being the arrangement of stones in patterns or formations. Most sacred sites were located on hilltops which offered panoramic views of the tribal lands. Such locations were preferred as the women were not permitted at such sites and the chance of them coming across the sites by accident was lessened if they were located away from the tribal hunting grounds. A prerequisite for such sites was a large slab of flat rock upon which engravings recording tribal history and culture could be made.

Meeting sties: Places where different group of Aborigines met to trade and partake on corroborees together. In the Sydney region, such corroborees are known to have taken place on the shores of Camp Cove and where the Pymble reservoir now stands. Meeting places were usually marked by stone arrangements.

Burial sites: Senior members of the tribe or clan were buried or cremated at sacred sites from which their spirits were freed to travel skyward. Other family members were buried within the tribal area, often near campsites, in caves and beside middens. Often such sites were marked by earth mounds, stone arrangements and carved trees.

Rock Art
Rock art is the common denominator in most Aboriginal sites - where there was no rock, tree carving was practiced. This art takes the form of paintings on rock surfaces and illustrations carved into rock surfaces. Most paintings occur in rock overhangs and caves, whereas engravings are most commonly found on the top of ridges of headlands, at water level around the bays and coves of the harbour or near a waterhole or campsite, they are generally horizontal rather than vertical. Every piece of art had a particular significance to the tribe, some told of their tribal ancestry, others identified the land as theirs. No art was created without a reason, therefore all art that remains today had tribal significance, though often that significance is no longer known following the destruction of the culture and breaking of the continuity of tribal religious and cultural activity.

The creation and maintenance of existing of rock art was the responsibility of select tribal members and no other person was permitted to become involved in rock artistry. Under tribal law, the rock art which survives today can only be re-grooved or re-painted by authorised tribal members. As many of the original tribes and clans were wiped out and have no survivors, their art cannot be touched by other tribe and clan members, which is why much of the rock art around Sydney is not being maintained.

Engravings are often shallow grooves less than 5mm deep formed through the pecking of a series of holes in the soft sandstone by a hard rock (often brought in from another area). These holes were then joined by scraping away the rock between them, possibly over time and repeatedly, at ceremonies. As few sites are maintained, weathering by wind and water erosion, cracking and flaking of the rock surface, people walking over them and pollution has caused irreparable damage. Much of the art has been weathered away completely, and only those sites that are protected from the elements and man, or are in areas where the rock is hard and resists erosion, have survived. As they are best seen in low light, early morning or late evenings are the best viewing times. Viewing at night by torchlight, with a diverse rather than concentrated beam, is also recommended though this limits photography.

Rock engraving is most common near the coast, whereas inland, such as the Blue Mountains, painting is more prolific. The only colours used in painting were white, black and back, with yellow being used sparingly. White came from pipeclay; black from charcoal; red ochre came from nodules of laterite or ironstone; yellow was created from the dust of ant's nests, which might explain its rarity. A em painting of an eel in a cave near Bordeaux Dam, in which the eel is yellow with a black outline, is a rare example of the use of yellow in the Sydney region.

Motifs seen in rock art vary from animals (often recognisable only after you have disentangled the lines), hands, footprints (human footprints are known as mudoes, pronounced mun-doe-ees), small stick figures of humans and larger, more impressive figures of ancestors. Animals include fish, eels (the most common), kangaroos, emus, koalas, goannas, echidnas and dolphins.

Aboriginal midden, Jibbon Head, Bundeena

Middens are the rubbish dumps at eating sites which, over thousands of years, take on the appearance of small hills than a pile of refuse. Archeological research has found that Berry Island on Sydney's lower north shore is one gigantic midden, and might have been nothing more than a sand bar or small rocky outcrop had the Aborigines not chosen it as a favourite camping site. Most middens on the water's edge are comprised of discarded shells of edible species such as oysters, whelks, clams, cockles and mussels. Being an essential part of any camp or feeding site, they can also contain stone implements, bones of fish, birds and marsupials and plant remains. The latter are rarely detectable by the human eye, and after they have rotted away give the appearance of a mound of earth. Middens are most common outside rock shelters on beaches, headlands, river banks and the tops of ridges and hills. Middens in open areas are the hardest to find as they are often covered with grass or vegetation or have been bulldozed. Rubble at a site can tell the size of the gatherings, what time of the year it was used by identifying the types of food eaten, and how man seasons the midden was used. The latter is determined by the number of layers.
  • Identifying Aboriginal Sites

  • Jibbon Head Aboriginal art site, Bundeena

    Protecting Aboriginal Art Sites
    It is believed that over 6,000 drawings, most of which are carved into sandstone rock faces, once existed throughout what is now the Sydney metropolitan area, but many have been destroyed, bulldozed or blasted out of existence to make way for farms, bridges and later, suburbs. In most cases, those clearing the land or responsible for it did not know about the art's existence, nor did they have any inkling as to its value as either the last remaining evidence of a new vanished culture, its spiritual and religious importance to the survivors of that culture or as a part of Sydney's heritage. As there has been no one to maintain them for over 2 centuries, many of the examples of rock art which have managed to escape the onslaught of the bulldozer and pick axe have suffered the onslaught of wind, sand and sea erosion, being walked on, driven on and vandalised.

    To protect what is left, the Government has wisely brought all Aboriginal sites in New South Wales under the protection the National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974. Under the act, it is illegal to disturb, damage, deface or destroy any relic, a relic being defined as any deposit, object or material evidence relating to indigenous & non European habitation of New South Wales (not being handicraft made for sale). By definition, this includes middens, habitation sites, rock carvings, rock paintings, scarred trees, stencils, stone arrangements, stone implements and tools. Though they have been given legislative protection, there is little known about the best way to manage Aboriginal sites. To western eyes, the ideal would be to turn the maintenance of sites over to the Aboriginal people. This sounds good in theory, however, under Aboriginal law, only select people are permitted to maintain the art at these sites. Where those select people cannot be found, or if there are no survivors from a particular tribe, no one can touch the art created by and for that tribe. Even so, the art is considered sacred to the Aborigines, so there is reluctance among the Aboriginal communities to maintain the art if it is to turned into something to make money from by showing it to tourists.

    Consequently, the authorities have adopted a policy of keeping the public in the dark about the location of much of Sydney's Aboriginal sites. The thinking behind it seems to be "what the people don't know about the people can't damage". As the damage caused in the past has occurred mainly as a result of ignorance, some would argue that education of the public is a better way to deal with the problem than maintaining their ignorance. When the public do come across it, and can be vandalised, even unintentionally, as it has no relevance, hence no value to them.

    Engravings site, Grotto Point, Balgowlah

    In the right hand column of this webpage are links to information about a few of the thousands of sites in and around Sydney which have been recorded as containing evidence of occupation by the indigenous people of the Sydney region. In the main, those listed offer easy access to visitors, are often sign posted and/or contain explanations as to what they represent.

    The list includes sites which have been obliterated through the ravages of time, road and building construction etc. Though no evidence of their existence can be seen today, they are recorded here as they represent the types of sites which existed in their respective locations. For the same reason, some sites which are on private or government property have been listed, however there is no access to these sites. Attempts should not be made to view them other than from the roadside as they are on private property which, if entered without permission, is trespassing. Please respect the privacy of the owners of the properties.

Sydney's Aboriginal Heritage

About Aboriginal Culture
It is believed that the Aborigines of Australia first arrived on the continent some 25,000 years ago from southeast Asia, either by canoes, or by the now submerged Saul Shelf which once joined Australia to mainland Asia. At the time of the arrival of the first white explorers, the Aboriginal population was in the vicinity of 300,000. Each tribe had its own language, with dialects of a common language being common where a tribal area was vast.
  • More

  • Clans and Bands of the Sydney Region
    The "tribal" names by which the Sydney district Aborigines are known refer more to the localities where the language or language group was spoken rather than ancestry. Around Sydney there were a number of main groups, each comprising of a number of smaller units called clans or hordes who claimed a common ancestry had their own land area with its sacred sites.
    • More

    • Aboriginal Place Names

      Conspicuous by their absence in the Inner City are names of Aboriginal origin. Only three survive - Barangaroo, Woolloomooloo and Bennelong - the latter being the name of one of only a handful of Aboriginal people of Sydney's first decade who aligned themselves in any way with the white settlement. But in the suburbs and around the harbour and waterways there are plenty of Aboriginal names that are still in use today.
      • More

      • Aboriginal Sites

        What Is An Aboriginal Site?
        It is believed that over 6,000 drawings, most of which are carved into sandstone rock faces, once existed throughout what is now the Sydney metropolitan area, but many have been destroyed, bulldozed or blasted out of existence to make way for farms, bridges and later, suburbs.
This website is published as information only. Please direct enquiries about places and services featured to the relevant service provider.

Design and concept © Stephen Yarrow | Email us | W3Layouts