Up Dunes and Down Swales

Following my first visit to Western New South Wales in April, last week I journeyed once more out back with Trish Fanning (Macquarie), Simon Holdaway, Ben Davies (Auckland) and Matt Meredith-Williams (LaTrobe), this time all the way to Corner Country – the far NW corner of NSW, occupied  by Sturt National Park. Whilst the park provides more than enough beautiful landscape for an outback holiday (albeit not necessarily one in early December,  unless you like searing heat), the purpose of our visit was more academic.

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The Far NW corner of NSW – Cameron’s Corner where NSW, South Australia and Queensland meet. Photo: R. Ingis

We were there to recce the landscape for work that would build on the WNSWAP project’s work a mere 200km or so to the South/East at Fowler’s Gap and Peery Lake. There, Simon and Trish used pioneering interdisciplinary techniques to map the geomorphology of the landscape and date its evolution, and also to analyse the stone artefacts within the landscape. In doing so, they identified a system where, in an area where raw material was abundant in the form of silcrete outcrops and cobbles in channel beds, flakes were being manufactured and transported by Aboriginal populations out of the valleys, for use elsewhere in the landscape.

But what would the stone tool record tell us in an area where raw material was less abundant, an area where material would need to be carried in? How would Aboriginal populations have to change the way they moved material and tools around the landscape in this slightly different situation?

Sturt National Park, with its beautiful red dunes, is an excellent candidate for answering these questions. The dunes that define the landscape mean that raw material sources, such as silcrete outcrops or suitable bedrock, were likely to be buried by the dunes, and therefore inaccessible. In addition, there are no large creeks which would have transported raw material in easily knappable cobbles.

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(Vegetated) Dune Country! Photo: R. Inglis

But there’s only so much you can do from looking at an area through Google Earth (despite what I said last month – though it is obviously very useful!), so we set out in 40°C+ heat to take a look around the landscape in Sturt NP, a landscape that surprisingly vegetated following a few wet years.

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Flakes and cores were observed in numerous dune blowouts…Photo: R. Inglis

Our main aim was to get an idea of the density and distribution of artefacts across the landscape, and the settings in which they were preserved, exposed and visible for survey. This variability in the visibility of the artefacts was striking, and not exactly what we’d expected. The tops of dunes would seem to be a place where archaeology may not be exposed – if the vegetation didn’t hide the artefacts, the loose dune sand would. Yet in ‘blowouts’ where a lack of vegetation meant the sand was being eroded by the wind, there were often flakes and cores that had been carried to the top of the dunes lying on the surface. In the swales (low areas between the dunes), ‘scalded’ areas of erosion that had yielded hundreds of artefacts in Fowler’s Gap and Peery, displayed variable numbers of artefacts – some had many artefacts lying on their surfaces, others absolutely nothing. So what is controlling this variability? Could this be linked to the lack of raw material sources?

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…but not many stone artefacts visible on this scald. Photo: R. Inglis

So dune country does indeed look to be different from its neighbouring regions in terms of where the surface archaeology is located and visible. This may reflect the different opportunities it may have offered for Aboriginal populations in the past, and how they went about exploiting these opportunities. As usual, the recce brought up more questions than answers, and a lot of work lies ahead, but the area holds exiting potential for finding out more about Aboriginal use of a slightly different landscape. We’ll just have to make sure it’s winter when we start to try to answer these questions…

Thanks to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Office in Tibooburra who kindly allowed us to use their accommodation.

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