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An Adventure in Archaeology

For those who missed my talk at July's meeting, here's the story of my recent trip to the Simpson Desert, rediscovering what could be Australia's oldest village.

Because we are interested in the protection of a fragile environment, BIEPA members are usually open to shifts in perception and understanding of the natural world. Even when tangentially related to the environment, accounts that we can share from our experiences probably will be of interest to our fellow members. Such a story has come to me over the year June '21 to July '22.

It began when Dax, a son of ours, visited Bribie from England after living there for 20 years and badly missing home, seeking a deeply Australian experience. His arrival coincided with some work his brother Joff, an historian, was conducting around Birdsville in the Channel Country. He was with an expedition of archaeologists investigating a recently discovered arrangement of stones on Mithaka Country, between Birdsville, Bedourie and Windorah, an area the size of Belgium.

We joined them...

A Stunning Structure

Satellite and drone photography had revealed to custodians of the land, in company with an Archaeological Surveyor, this array of stones in a mysterious and beautiful pattern. And there were others around.

The visiting group included Prof. Peter Hiscocks (Professor of Archaeology, Sydney U), Asst. Professor Mike Westerway (U of Qld), 3 researchers, archaeological drone technicians, historian Joff and an anthropologist.

Intensive Industry with Settlements?

The investigation was to encompass; firstly, the structure itself and speculating on its uses and rituals. Initiation ceremonies? Marriage arrangements? Also the many hundreds of stone quarries in the vicinity that produced a number of products and tools for employment and trade. And finally a number of standing gunyahs — a home consisting of a deep trench with a roof over it — and evidence of over one hundred other homes in this one location.

standing gunyah

Mithaka Country features numerous ancient intersecting trade routes joining the Flinders Ranges to the Gulf. Across this area and beyond there was a demand for the stone implements produced by the Mithaka: sandstone for grinding; silcrete for blades, scrapers etc.; chalcedony for hammerstones and mullers. There is evidence of 73,000 quarry pits; an industrial scale that may have required accommodation nearby for a workforce.

Either seasonal or permanent, a workforce is likely to have been deployed. Two standing gunyahs and subterranean disturbance showing around 103 other sites, suggest a village. The two standing structures are probably the oldest existing domiciles in Australia. Here are two drawings showing Gunyah No. 2 as it is now and when in use, painted with some Australian ochres.

I was commissioned to complete these two studies and a large painting depicting the complete village of possibly 300 inhabitants.

Our Assumptions

The books The Biggest Estate on Earth and Dark Emu present evidence that Australia's First Nations people often lived in settlements with thriving trade and industries. We, all of us, should be ready to embrace new discoveries about Australian pre-history.

And on Bribie, there are lessons we can learn on sustainable land management from the world's oldest civilisation, especially the practices that encouraged all life to flourish.

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