Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry

The Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry (also known as Mount William) is just out of Lancefield in Victoria. It’s an area of green stone that was quarried by Indigenous Australians for more than a 1000 years. The name means place of the axe.

I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as part of the Australian Heritage Festival this year. It is land administered by the Wurundjeri Tribe Council. Last year I visited the Wurundjeri Earth Rings just out of Sunbury and wrote about them on this blog. You can see the post here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2018/05/21/wurundjeri-rings/

I want to reiterate what I said in that post about the Indigenous history of Australia and my place in writing about it. Firstly Indigenous history is something that all Australians should know more about, it’s arguably the oldest continuous culture in the world and over the years it has been (often deliberately) relegated to a footnote. This is slowly changing and I’m certainly trying to learn more and to share what I find. It’s also just fascinating.

I’d like to pause here to say that I am aware that as a non Indigenous person writing Indigenous history can be problematic. This post is intended to encapsulate the possible history of the site as was explained by a Wurundjeri Elder on the tour and laid out in the National Trust Heritage List report, and I claim no more than that. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is just so interesting and important that I want to make sure people know about it and to help ensure that Indigenous history is a part of the history of Victoria, if only in my small way.

So to begin. I wanted to start with an analogy, it’s the best description I’ve heard of what’s known of Indigenous history in Victoria. Bill Nicholson, the Elder who took the group I was part of the round Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, described it as a 100 page book, with maybe 30 pages left that are in the wrong order. When Victoria was colonised not only were a lot of Indigenous people killed, through disease like small pox but also through massacres, but culture and language was often banned and they were rounded up, removed from Country and installed in missions. At Coranderk (one of the main missions just out of Melbourne) Woiwurrung, the language group that the Wurundjeri are part of, was banned in 1863. Knowledge was simply lost. Breaking up a culture that is rooted in oral history, is tantamount to burning libraries and archives in Western culture. Efforts are being made to reclaim Indigenous history and new information is being found in archives all the time, but by the time a lot of it was being written down, usually by the colonisers like William Thomas who was an Assistant Protector of Aborigines, what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg of what had existed. This is why sites like Wil-im-ee Moor-ing are so essential. Apart from being spiritually important, they are physical manifestation of Indigenous culture and history. There’s a lot more around than most Victorians know about too, and again I include myself in this. There’s scar trees, possible smoking trees, burials, other quarries and more.

Possible smoking tree. Would have been used for smoking meat to preserve it.

There’s been stone formations found in the Western District that are as old or older than Stone Henge and have possible astronomical alignments. Budj Bim, also in the Western District, with its sophisticated eel and fish trap systems and remains of housing is under consideration for World Heritage Status. Petroglyphs are being un-earthed all over Victoria and then you’ve got the earth rings like the ones near Sunbury. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is part of a large system of sophisticated land management, language, law, ceremony, trade routes, Country and family that stretched across Victoria and Australia.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. It’s roughly forty acres (though the original quarry would have covered more land), and has been fenced off since the 80s. It’s been a tourist attraction of sorts since the 1800s, visited on day trips along with the near by Hanging Rock. So it has been thoroughly picked over and much of the land was cleared. That being said, since the 1800s it has been acknowledged as a site of an Indigenous quarry pre dating European colonisation, which is very unusual in Australia (it’s much earlier than any Indigenous activity pre colonisation was usually acknowledged). The first European reference to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring comes from William Buckley, who was an escaped convict living in the bush from 1803 to 1833, he describes a hard black stone from a place called Kar-keen which was shaped into stone heads. William Barak, a prominent Wurundjeri Elder in the mid 1800s, witnessed the final operation of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as a quarry and described it to an anthropologist called Howitt as one of the places that “a group of people claimed for some special reason, and in which the whole tribe had an interest.” This clear recorded history of Indigenous custodial rights and processes is very unusual.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring physically. The rock in is class five diorite. Simply put, it’s very hard.

Above you can see one of the rocks from which the stone was split. It was done by heating the rock up with fire and then pouring water on it to cause the cracking. The axe heads themselves were shaped on a flaking floor, one of which you can see below. You can also see what might be broken rejects.

Wattle branches were probably split to make a loop for the handles of the axes and Xanthorrhoea sap was boiled to make glue to hold it all together and it was bound with kangaroo sinew. These weren’t axes that were used for fighting, they were used whilst hunting and for things like stripping bark off trees. These specific axes have been found as far as South Australia and Southern Queensland. They were immensely valued, not only for their utility but probably for the spiritual significance of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. Part of the Indigenous belief system of the area is that the ancestral spirits formed themselves into the landscape, and Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is one of these landscape features. There is also records of axes being physically traded in the 1830s when William Bradley observed one polished axe head being traded for two possum skin cloaks, and a rough head for a large number of spears. To understand the value of possum cloaks you only have to think about how small a possum is, and how many you would need and how long it would take to construct one full cloak, let alone two. The axe heads were valued.

While there is more known about Wil-im-ee Moor-ring that a lot of other Indigenous sites there is still a lot to learn and hopefully be discovered and reconstructed where it can be. It’s a beautiful place, part of a broader landscape, that more people should know more about.

References:

Site visit and tour 2019, information provided by Wurundjeri Tribe Council https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/

National Trust Heritage List Report of Mount William.

The photos are all mine.

Wurundjeri Earth Rings

The history of Indigenous Australians is a vitally important part of the history of Victoria and Australia. It is something that nowhere near enough Australians, and I include myself in this, know enough about. It is a truly ancient history dating back roughly 70 000 years, making Indigenous Australians pretty much the oldest continuing culture in the world. There are Indigenous sites across Australia, many of which are thousands of years old, and if these were in Europe they’d be celebrated and visited by millions, even in places where there isn’t a lot to actually see. In Australia, however, they can be very hard to find. I’ve lived in and around Melbourne my whole life and I work in the heritage field, but I’d never even heard of the earth rings just out of Sunbury until they were part of a National Trust Heritage Festival tour this year. I jumped at the chance to visit and find out more.

I’d like to pause here to say that I am aware that as a non Indigenous person writing Indigenous history can be problematic. This post is intended to encapsulate the possible history of the site as was explained by a Wurundjeri Elder on the tour, and I claim no more than that. The rings are just so fascinating that I want to make sure people know about them and to help ensure that Indigenous history is a part of the history of Victoria.

I’d also like to say that the rings don’t show up amazingly well in photos, but I’m hoping the pictures will at least give you an idea of what I’m talking about. You can certainly see them when you’re on the site.

The rings are earthwork formations and can be found just out of Sunbury, which is an hour or so outside of Melbourne. The landscape has been farmed since 1842, but is slowly being reclaimed, and is surrounded by the curve of Jackson’s Creek. The land is being looked after by the Wurundjeri Tribe Council, using a mix of traditional and modern methods. You can see some general photos of the land and wildlife below.

IMG_0763IMG_0762IMG_0768IMG_0767The current site is 13 hectares, but it might be expanding as negotiations are currently in train to give the land council more land as part of another development.

Some of the land was owned by Salesian College, which you can see in the distance below.

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The Wurundjeri Tribe Council has begun revegetating the land, planting roughly 3000 trees and other plants. They have also cleared an extraordinary amount of weeds, including a lot of box thorn. They are using burning to help rejuvenate the land to bring back the native grasses and plants. Currently pasture grasses dominate the site, as you can see above. The smoke helps to stimulate seeds beneath the ground and regular small burns make it easier for native bushes and grasses to come back as the pasture grasses don’t regrow as easily if they are burnt regularly. You can see what I believe is an everlasting daisy which has come up below.

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While there would have been some trees originally, like the ones below, this area would have been a significant grassland.

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The Wurundjeri Tribe Council land managers have also been trying to build up the quality of the soil by raking together the leaves etc and letting them catch silt after rain before planting.

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So, that is the overall site, but what about the rings themselves. Development actually plays a key part in the history of the rings. No one knew the rings were there until a development went up on the edge of the reserve in the 1970s and they were re-discovered.

They are definitely man made and probably date to at least a thousand years, but in the invasion of western settlers in the 1800s the local Indigenous population was so decimated that the oral history of the rings was lost. They were dug out by hand with digging sticks, with nothing brought in from outside

On the site that I visited there are three rings, though there are others in the area. Unfortunately no one knows exactly what the rings were used for, only one has been archaeologically investigated. The Wurundjeri don’t want these sacred sites dug up, even for archaeology. Rings in NSW are thought to have been burial places, but there is no evidence of this for the Sunbury rings.

The first of the rings is in the worst condition. It has been too open to the public interference, especially from motorbikes. There is also a bad rabbit problem and a recent lack of rain has caused problems as well (this extends to the whole site)

The first ring was the one that was rediscovered in the 1970s with the nearby development. Once this one was re-found it was realised what the other two just over the hill were as well. You can see the ring in the photo below.

 

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IMG_0754It has been fenced off now, but even this doesn’t always work as you can see from the drain in the photo below.

IMG_0758The ring was dug out from the middle and the earth was piled up around.

The second and third rings are in better condition and it was the second one that was excavated in the 1970s. When the ring was excavated it had a pile of stones in the middle, it was thought that there might be burials underneath. There wasn’t, and it is thought that the stones were removed when the ring was dug (there is a lot of rock in the local soil) and piled in the middle. You can see the remains of the stones in the photos below.IMG_0773

IMG_0775The third ring is a little father up the hill and is actually a double ring. There is a larger ring with a smaller ring inside it.

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While it is not, currently, possible to know exactly what the rings were used for it is hoped that it will be in the future. New information is being discovered in diaries and old documentation all the time as for the first time researchers (especially Indigenous ones) really begin to look. The current theory is that the rings might have been used for marriage. You can’t see the first ring from the second and visa-versa and the idea is that the men would have got prepared in one and the women in the other and they would have joined each other in the double ring and actually married there. There is a flat section on the double ring where someone could have officiated from.

IMG_0782While at the moment this is only a theory, it is one that seems to make sense. Hopefully more answers will be discovered.

I am not in the least superstitious, but the rings do have a certain atmosphere. The atmosphere is of a place that has been used for a purpose for a very very long time, a land that has been shaped by human hands for time out of mind. It reminded me a little of the Hill of Tara in Ireland, a site that dates back thousands of years (which is perfectly possible for the rings).  This site and others like it should be part of the education of every Victorian child the way Eureka and the gold rush is. Places like the Wurundjeri rings and Indigenous history  in general needs to become an integral part of the overt history of Victoria rather than the background or subvert history. Indigenous history needs to become part of the historical consciousness of Australia, as important (if not more important) than the First Fleet and the ANZAC legends. It should be celebrated that we have this incredible history stretching back for thousands and thousands of years, and if doing this means coming to terms with and acknowledging how close European invasion came to destroying it all (much of the time quite intentionally) then so much the better.

 

References: Site visit 2018.

https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/services/natural-resource-management/

The photos are all mine.

Cemeteries: Port Fairy

img_9133Port Fairy is a town in Western Victoria that was founded as a town in 1843. There were settlers in the area before this date, and the current name for the town comes from the ship the Fairy which is believed to have arrived in the area in c.1828. The area was also regularly visited by whalers and sealers. The date of 1843 comes from the special survey which was granted to James Atkinson at that time. The special surveys were a system where the government of the Colony of New South Wales was able to control ownership of the land in the Port Phillip District. This was well before federation of Australia as a country in 1901, but also before Victoria became a colony independent from New South Wales which happened in 1851. The basic premise behind the special survey system was to stop squatters just claiming land, because when they did there was little ability to regulate it and there was no fee for the government.

Atkinson arrived in Sydney in 1830 from Ireland and became a prominent and well connected member of Sydney society, at least partly due to his family connections to Colonel Charles Wall of the 3rd Buff regiment who was married to his sister. As he had a high social standing he couldn’t use trade to make money, so he turned to land. He was granted the right to the special survey of the Port Fairy region in 1843. He worked with the existing settlers, but also moved to attract new settlers to the town he named Belfast. He most likely applied for the special survey rights to the land without ever seeing it, as there is no evidence he set foot there before arriving in 1846 with his wife and seven children. He offered very long term leases for land in the town he established, but while he was definitely trying to encourage settlement he was not immediately successful. In 1848 he appointed his nephew (and my great, great, great, grandfather) Robert Henry Woodward, who was farming in the area, as his land agent. Woodward was 25 and oversaw the majority of the establishment of the town proper. It was also Woodward who oversaw, with the blessing of Atkinson, the gifting of parcels of land within the town for churches of different denominations and for community purposes, such as a post office, a hospital, government offices, public wharves, a savings bank, a town hall, public meeting places and a cemetery.

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St John’s Anglican Church Port Fairy built between 1854 and 1856. It was the first church in Victoria to have a chancel. The tower was added later in the 1950s.

Atkinson did not remain in Belfast, returning to Sydney and to Ireland, but he did visit to survey the progress of the town in 1859, 1861 and 1864. Atkinson died in Sydney in 1864, though Woodward continued to administer the lands until 1869. The town petitioned, successfully, to change its name to Port Fairy in 1886

Before continuing to discuss the cemetery I would also like to acknowledge the indigenous people of the land which Atkinson bought as the special survey. This area was the land of the Gunditjmara people. If, when Atkinson arrived, there seemed to be a lack of indigenous inhabitants it is not because there wasn’t any ever, but because between the 1830s and the 1840s the indigenous population of the area was destroyed by settlers. A monument to them now stands in Port Fairy on Bank Street. It reads:

In memory of the thousands of aboriginal people who were massacred between 1837 and 1844 in this area of Port Fairy.

Today we pay our respects to them for the unnecessary sacrifices they made.

Your spirit still lives on within our people.  Wuwuurk

This was not isolated to the Port Fairy area. The early history of Western Victoria is mired in bloodshed. A list of the frontier wars in which the indigenous population were by and large overwhelmed and destroyed by superior western weaponry can be seen here.

http://www.australianfrontierconflicts.com.au/index.php/conflicts/chronology/vic

It was also a time of severe retaliations against any interference with livestock and systematic killings, taking of land of the beginning of the removal of children. Not to mention the introduction of alcohol and western disease and their long term affects. This article from the Warrnambool local paper The Standard out lines clearly the actions against the local indigenous population

http://www.standard.net.au/story/792108/the-south-wests-bloody-past/

It is essential that the past of indigenous Australians and the brutal suppression of them is recognised as part of the history of Victoria and Australia. This is especially true when discussing somewhere like a cemetery which provides concrete and tangible records of the deaths of early pioneers, a record that is not available for the deaths of the indigenous population.

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Port Fairy cemetery was founded in the 1850s. There is confusion as to whether it is the ‘old’ or ‘new’ cemetery as many descriptions seem to use the term interchangeably. The other cemetery at Port Fairy was laid out by Robert Hoddle, famous for Melbourne’s CBD grid, at the orders of Governor La Trobe. This other cemetery was in the sand hills out of town, was discontinued and little survives today. The current Port Fairy cemetery has many very early burials and is believed to be one of the first cemeteries in Victoria to have adopted the concept of a lawn cemetery.

The earliest burials in the cemetery are of the local pioneers and their families. These people are often listed as from a local ‘station’ on their tombstones. The pioneers of the area did not have an easy life and as such there are a high number of young burials, very few survived to old age. One of the earliest and one of the youngest is the grave of Harold Woodward, a son of Robert Henry Woodward and his wife Letitia Wall (daughter of Colonel Wall). Harold died on the 8th of October 1856, but was only born on the 4th of December 1855. img_9147

Of Robert Henry and Letitia Woodward’s 11 children Harold was the only one to meet such an early end. I am descended from his brother Albert William Woodward, the youngest of Robert Henry and Letitia’s  children. Robert Henry and Letitia are buried in St Kilda Cemetery.

Much of the stone in the cemetery displays intricate examples of early stone masonry. The best example of which is probably the tomb of Abijah Brown.img_9146img_9144He died in 1862 at the age of 40 and the tomb reads:

In affectionate memory of Abijah John Brown who departed this life July 19th 1862 aged 40 years. Watch for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. 

It is an interesting monument because it does not fit any regular pattern seen in Victorian era funeral monuments. It is a, sadly much worn, figure of a young man looking skywards. This man is not an angel or a cherub but a person. It is also a remarkable piece of sculpture in its own right. The Brown tomb is not alone is being striking in the cemetery. The older section of the cemetery is a combination of plain and ornate funeral monuments. Some can be seen in the photos below.

img_9140img_9141img_9150img_9143There are more people buried in the cemetery than are known about. Many of the early burials would have been laid to rest under simple wood crosses and these simply wouldn’t have survived the harshness of Port Fairy’s coastal weather. Despite this, the surviving burials provide a fascinating record of the life and death of the early inhabitants of the district.

References:

http://www.ohta.org.au/organs/organs/StJohnsPortFairy.html

http://www.portfairypubliccemetery.com.au/

An Historic Graveyard: Some early records of Port Fairy Cemetery by P. Frazer Simons.

A Special Survey: Aspects of the development of Port Fairy from 1843. Edited by Rod Collins.

Both books can be borrowed from the Prahran Mechanics Institute Victorian History Library

The photos are all mine.