Aboriginal rock art, Beechworth, Chiltern Mount Pilot National Park, Dhudhuroa, Minyambuta, Mount Pilot, Waywurru, Yeddonba
Indigenous people were in Beechworth when thylacines still roamed the mainland — and we have two art sites to prove it. While the rock art at the easily-accessible Yeddonba Aboriginal Heritage Site is well-visited, a second, lesser-known art site can only be reached with a considerable amount of bush-bashing.
You’re probably wondering why I’d start a blog about the early gold rush in Spring Creek (Beechworth) with a visit to one of the lesser-known local indigenous rock art sites. The answer is that one role of this blog is to do some myth-busting, and it’s best to start with busting the myth that Aboriginal people had virtually disappeared by the time gold mining started here in 1852. Beechworth sits in an area which was almost at a convergence of tribal boundaries between the Dhudhuroa, and Waywurru (Waveroo) speaking ‘tribes’ (the Dhudhuroa called the Waywurru language ‘Minyambuta’). These people had been in occupation for tens of thousands of years, whereas the European squatters had been, at the time of the gold rush, in occupation for a patchy 14 years. Disease and gun-shot wounds had greatly reduced the number of Aboriginal people (and that’s another story ), but they were still here. Anyone reading historical records, diaries and letters from 1852, will catch glimpses of them, living a partly Europeanised but still largely indigenous lifestyle.
I first visited the rock art at the Yeddonba Aboriginal Heritage Site 23 years ago with Pangerang man Eddie Kneebone , and had returned many times since to ponder the lives of the people who’d painted a thylacine in that rock shelter over two thousand years ago. Although I’d read about it, I’d almost forgotten that a second art site existed nearby, until a good friend — who is a Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park stalwart — mentioned that he’d been shown an art site depicting yet another thylacine in the early 90s. At one point, park rangers had even built a path to this site, but bush fires swept through in 2003, and since then, a nasty thicket of young black cypress pines and shrubs had grown in its place. After our discussion, my friend decided to relocate the site, and after half a day of bush-bashing (I witnessed his subsequent cuts and scratches), we were able to re-locate it. With my trusty guide, getting to the site on the first sunny day of Spring 2015 was a comparative walk in the park.
The Mt Pilot rock art site 2 (as it was unimaginatively named by archaeologists , who recorded it after its relocation in 1982) sits on granite rock faces in a rocky outcrop which faces north-east into a steep gully that drains into the Black Dog Creek basin. It has art on two panels of relatively smooth rock, which join like a book opened to 90º to form an alcove. The larger wall depicts a number of animal tracks and human stick-figures, and what I thought looks like a human figure holding a raised club or woomera to a thylacine (although drawings done by archaeologist R. G. Gunn make the human figure look more like an emu, so let’s just say it’s open to interpretation). The adjoining smaller wall features two hollow-bodied figures, which look like they are dancing. These remind me a little of figures in paintings by local nineteenth century Aboriginal artist Tommy McCrae.
Yeddonba Aboriginal Heritage site in the Chiltern Mount Pilot National Park, is located on Tovey’s Road, about 10 minutes from Beechworth via the Beechworth-Chiltern Road. I don’t have the coordinates to the second site, but it is in a rocky area on the south-western side of a steep gully, about 1300m south-south-east of the Yeddonba site.
(1) The indigenous population had been decimated by a frontier war, which had come about as a series of indiscriminate reprisals in the wake of the Faithful massacre. Although few would later admit to the wholesale slaughter of local indigenous people, squatter George Faithful recounts firsthand a full day of gunning down Aborigines in Letters from Victorian Pioneers. On the note of placing actual ‘tribes’ on the map historically, I have referred to the manuscript notes of anthropologist RH Mathews (National Library of Australia), who interviewed Dhudhuroa man Neddy Wheeler in the early 20th Century. Notes taken directly from this ancestor, who was a well-known local Aboriginal identity in his day, constitute one of the most reliable sources available.
(2) You can read what Eddie wrote about the Aboriginal seasons of the North East in:
Kneebone, Eddie, ‘Interpreting Traditional Culture As Land Management’ in Birckhead, J., deLacy, T. & Smith, L.J., Aboriginal Involvement in Parks and Protected Areas, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993.
(3) A report on the Mount Pilot Aboriginal Rock Art Site, (Site 82253/001), by R. G. Gunn, was printed for the Victorian Archaeological Survey Occasional Reports Series, Number 16, in September 1983.
Greg Clydesdale said:
You should send this to Martin Flanagan of the age who wrote a piece in last Saturday’s paper
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Hi Greg. Thanks for the comment. I don’t really know Martin’s work but I will look out for it. There should be a few more blog posts to come with Indigenous themes too.
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Mick Webster said:
I think I must have missed this! Although Ive now shown at least 8 more groups or individuals in to the site. I wonder if you have a copy of the Gunn report on the site? I’d be interested to read it. And also borrow the book you showed me which prompted my memory of this site!
Jacqui Durrant said:
I can lend you the Gunn report; or maybe I will photocopy it for you. And the book that I have… by Josephine Flood, I’ll try to find where I put it!
OK that would be great! Just keep them safe, I wont be up the hill this week and then away till late August – unless youre passing through Chilts…. Cheers, M
Wendy Rose Davison said:
Hello Jacqui my friend Lesley Milne referred me to you in the hope that you could clarify for me the traditional owners of the land upon which the post colonisation village of Chiltern is situated. I have found Pallangmiddang (people), Waywurru (Waveroo) nation or language group, Dhudhuroa nation and for a short few days an interpretative sign appeared on the Hume Freeway “You are on Yorta Yorta land”. Would you be able to assist or direct me to clarifying information?
Jacqui Durrant said:
Hi Wendy. From an ethnohistorical point of view, most scholars (including some Aboriginal) think it is Waywurru (language group). From a current government point of view it is Yorta Yorta nations who are now the Registered Aboriginal Party for the area. These are two separate language groups. Pallanganmiddang is historically a local area group within the Waywurru speaking peoples. We do not know what the local area group for Chiltern is — there’s no evidence.
Mick Webster said:
Me again, after 5 years! Did you ever send me the Gunn report on Site 2? I can’t remember reading it. Might be time for another visit in there, with the report…!
David Chitty said:
Just for interest the built track into the site was from the old coach road and was built by Eddie in the late 1980s. He and I both took groups to the site at the time (As Licenced Tour Operators) – he from the old coach road and I from Tovey’s road. The track was not constructed by Rangers.(I dont believe there should be a track to locations such as this). I still take the odd tour there as an LTO. There is, I believe, a third art site in the Reference area at the North End of the Park
Jacqui Durrant said:
Thanks David, that’s an interesting bit of history. I’m glad there’s no path there now.
Mick Webster said:
Yes I agree this site doesn’t need any track, although someone has been in to the site recently (last 2 years?) and rather crudely reduced the undergrowth around it. I have heard of the Reference Area site, but never seen it.