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A pile of old rocks turned out to be quite a find!

When we do Outback trips with our archaeological mates it never ceases to amaze us how they see things we don’t. On this excursion into the Strzelecki Desert we helped them locate what looked like a pile of old rocks, but it turned out to be something quite different…

narcoonowie “’Ow are yez goin’?” was the greeting from a pair of Santos field workers, who descended the dune from the oil-well pump they were checking out.

“We’re fine,” came back the chorused reply.

“What are yez doin’?”

“We’re surveying this ancient grindstone quarry,” answered Dr Mike Smith, senior archaeologist with the National Museum and the bloke in charge of the two-day operation.

“Grindstone what?”

“It’s an ancient Aboriginal grindstone quarry,” Mike Smith informed them and, despite a tight schedule to record as much data as possible, took the two blokes on a short tour of the site.

“Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago, this rare outcrop of white Eyre-formation sandstone was discovered by the local tribes, who set to work excavating the area, in search of stone slabs that were suitable for making grindstones,” Mike pointed out.

“They dug out the pieces of stone, choosing ones that had flattish faces and then trimmed them to size.

“The pieces they didn’t want were thrown to the outer edge of each excavation area, making the ring-like edges you can see today.

narcoonowie “The pieces that made good seed-grinding stones were used by the tribes to create bush flour and were also traded with other tribes that didn’t have the luxury of a grindstone quarry in their back yards.”

“Strewth,” said one of the Santos workers. “We reckoned it was an alien spaceship landing site!”

Looking around at the close-set, overlapping rings of stone blocks it was easy to fantasise a spaceship blasting off, leaving its rocket exhaust patterns in the dune valley floor.

“Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid,” said Mike, as he returned to the tricky job of measuring the size, depth and extent of the rock ring formations.


Narcoonowie Grindstone Quarry

narcoonowieIf Santos hadn’t started exploring Australia’s inland for gas and oil it’s quite likely the Aboriginal grindstone quarry at Narcoonowie might have lain undetected.

The white sandstone rings lie on the edge of a dune in a sea of sand ridges that stretches for hundreds of kilometres without change. The entire quarry area measures only 50 metres or so across and the projecting stones only just break the red sand surface. The site is barely discernible on Google Earth.

After a gas search team came across the site it was officially recorded by an Anutech archaeological team in 1982, but a full survey of the site wasn’t carried out. That was our task.

Mike Smith unpacked the Leica automatic level, while June Ross set up her drafting table and instruments. The rest of the crew organised a roster to alternate between holding the level staff, taking detailed photos of the entire site and measuring the dimensions of each individual excavation ‘ring’.

The system worked well: Tony and Mike alternated on the level, calling heights and distances from the central point to June, who drew the locations on her plan sheet. The measuring team called the dimensions from each ‘ring’ centre.

A day and a half later, June had a sketch plan of the Narcoonowie grindstone quarry site and post-site work converted that into the finished artist’s impression you see in this article.



grindstones Pounding stones or hammer stones were used with stone slabs for grinding and pounding plant seeds, to produce a flour-like powder. The seeds were ground and mixed with water to produce a paste that was cooked in the ashes of a fire.

Aboriginal women made flour from a range of different plant seeds, including those of native grasses, some trees, shrubs, succulents and even ferns.

The flour made from these seeds was a nutritious, high-energy food that was of vital importance in regions where other more easily processed plant foods were not readily available.

Incidentally, the technique used by Aboriginal women to separate seeds and chaff in a coolamon is worth noting. The contents of the dish were moved back and forth, with an occasional tap of the leg or the hand, to separate the contents.

We’ve participated in a seed-collection exercise and found it took a great deal of time to locate and collect seeds. The collection, crushing and cooking effort to produce a damper for four people would have been at least a full day’s work, in good seed-bearing country.

Grindstones were also used to make pigments from ochre and kaolin clays. The pigments were mixed with water and applied to rock walls using fingers or paint brushes made from bark or feathers. In another technique the wet pigment was blown out of the mouth onto the wall.

For a civilisation that relied on crushed seeds and ochres for food and decoration the grindstone was an important tool. Some tribes were blessed with stone deposits that made grindstones readily available, but others needed to trade other goods for grindstones.

narcoonowie Trade routes criss-crossed the country and trading of goods was an intrinsic part of activities that included sharing ceremonies and obtaining wives. In his book ‘Aboriginal Trading Expeditions’ A P Elkin says: ‘The actual relative values of the articles did not seem to matter as much as the giving, the friendship and the emotional excitement. All were satisfied. Eventually, the goods were passed on in the directions where they were unobtainable and were needed’.

We’ve come across large grindstones in areas that supported long-term or permanent populations and smaller, portable grindstones in areas that could support only transient or seasonal occupation.

There are several Aboriginal ‘dreamtime’ stories relating to grindstones. Most concern a spirit being who steals a grindstone to improve the quality of his food, only to suffer pursuit and hardship for his transgression.


Thanks to Santos

santos narcoonowie The Santos people could hardly have been more helpful in this enterprise. They readily gave permission to enter their mining areas, provided detailed mud maps to the quarry site, allowed us to use their ablution facilities and even donated 40 litres of diesel for two of our vehicles that were running short of fuel!


Dr June Ross

june ross Home for Dr June Ross is a grazing property on the lush eastern fall of the New England Tablelands in northern New South Wales, where her husband and family produce beef cattle for the Japanese and European markets.

But the remote sand ridge deserts and rugged ranges of arid Central Australia provide the focus for June’s working life.

As an archaeologist specialising in the study of Aboriginal rock art, June divides her time between lecturing at the University of New England in Armidale and field work in Central and Northern Australia.