|Historical notes: ||Aboriginal land
Aboriginal people have inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years, with the oldest inhabitation sites found in the northern Territory possibly dating from 60,000 years ago. The traditional owners of this part of the upper Hunter Valley are known as the Wonnarua people.
The Wonnarua Aboriginal Nation Corporation maintains a website which offers the following history of their people:
'According to the Wonnarua dreamtime the Hunter Valley was created by the great spirit, Baime (Byamee). Before Baime there was nothing, everything was sleeping. Baime awoke and created everything, the mountains, plains, rivers and every living thing.
'The Wonnarua were part of the land. Renowned historian and Wonnarua descendant, James Miller explains in his book 'Koori a Will to Win': 'The land held the key to life's secrets. Man was given the knowledge to read the land and for every rock, tree and creek he found an explanation for existence. He did not own the land, the land owned him.
'The spirit of Baime is depicted on a cave overlooking the Valley at Milbrodale . . . Baime has his arms stretched open protecting the Valley. Baime also created Kawal (Ka-wal), to watch over the Wonnarua people. The spirit of Kawal is embodied in the wedge tailed eagle, found throughout the Hunter Valley. When the Wonnarua see the wedge tailed eagle, they know Kawal is looking over them, protecting them.' (Wonnarua Aboriginal Nation Corp website, 2014)
James Miller's book, published in 1985, includes a detailed historical account of the traditional lifestyles of the Wonnarua people, which has been turned into a PDF entitled 'About the Wonnarua' and which is available for download form the Wonnarua Aboriginal Nation Corporation's webpage at: http://wonnarua.org.au/history.html
Some excerpts from Miller's account of the traditional life of his people are quoted below:
'The Valley was always there. It was there in the Dreaming, though mountains, trees, animals and people were not yet formed. The river as know it today was yet to be born. Everything was sleeping. For some unknown reason there was movement. This movement stirred from invisible forces. It was not physical. Sky spirits were opening their eyes, eyes that had been sleeping in chasms of eternity. Some spirits recognised their belonging, others did not. Some fought, some slept on and others held council to consider, bargain, compromise and ultimately to create.
'Only after much time would the finished product be ready. The spirits interacted, shaping what was nothing, into something. They gave life to the whole valley. Nebulous forms began to take shape. Some forms flew, others crawled, hopped and walked, while gigantic forms were satisfied to stay in one place. Everything was ready. But something was missing from the valley floor, something to sustain the life that was already created. After further interaction amongst the spirits the valley floor parted and what was to be the keeper of life was formed. The river now flowed. The land was ready. Both man and animal descended from the spirits and moved over the earth. They were related to each other through interactions that had taken place in the Dreaming.
'The land of the Wonnarua not only held human and animal life. It was the home of spirits - spirits who were born in the Dreaming. The land was full of spirits. They had their own territories localised in rocks, trees, the river and its creeks, the mountains and gullies. Playful spirits darted in and out of rock crevices and chased each other through creeks or bush and hid in the shadow of large mountains.
'A Wonnarua camp was no doubt a very busy place, with children leading a carefree and indulged lifestyle. Their playing activities were spontaneous and followed no regular pattern initially. But later both sexes played various games that involved a great deal of imitating of adult roles. Boys possessed miniature spears (durrane) boomerangs (barragan) and shields (korreil), while girls had dillybags (buakul) and coolamons (koka). Swimming, tag, sliding down muddy creek banks and hide-and-seek were just some of the activities Wonnarua children pursued. At an early age, the septum of a boy's nose (nockra) was pierced for the insertion of a nose peg after reaching puberty.
'As they grew older, more responsibility in tribal cooperation was expected of the children. Older boys were expected to accompany males on the hunt, learning and observing. Upon reaching puberty, the young adults were fully aware of some of the important laws of the tribe without fully understanding all the implications. They would have been told legends about significant aspects of their environment by storytellers. Storytelling was one of the ways that Wonnarua children were disciplined in the morals and values of their society.
'Members were related to each other by their kinship classification, common language and law. It was the kinship group that moved within various allotted areas of Wonnarua lands in search of food, and it was only occasionally that these groups would meet to discuss important matters concerning the Wonnarua people as a whole. Such issues were considered by a council of elders, whose decisions were respectfully upheld. There was no single person such as a king or chief who could rule individually, but certain men had a much greater influence in decision-making than others.
'The quest for food consumed a significant part of the waking hours. Like all tribes in Koori Australia, the Wonnarua followed a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Each kinship group moved in a cyclical pattern through their allotted lands. Men were responsible for hunting the larger game, such as the womboin (kangaroo), murrin (emu), ukae (dingo) and the baninbellang (wallaby). Their skills were also applied to fishing. Women, on the other hand, gathered bush fruits, yams, grubs, roots, waterlilies and the many species of smaller game such as the wirraman (lizard), mouse and possum.
'Thus sex roles were clearly defined in the daily round. Although food supplies fluctuated with the seasons and the vagaries of nature, the diet of the Wonnarua Kooris was varied and rich in protein, as was necessary for a physically active people. The land provided everything that was needed to survive. It gave the Wonnarua Koori his implements for hunting and gathering. It provided materials for bark shelters (mia-mias). Boomerangs were fashioned from selected trees as were spears and throwing sticks (werrewies).
'Stone implements, such as cleavers, knives, scrapers and bondi points (sharpened stone flakes), were readily available-the patient grinding of the edge producing an effective tool. Most furbearing animals provided skins that were used for body-covering in the cold seasons.
'Nets were also used for catching emu and makroo (fish). Women, girls and uninitiated boys gathered their roots, berries and smaller game in the kokas (coolamons) and buakuls (string bags). They dug for yams and other taproots with their yamsticks and waded into creeks for waterlilies. In these instances an intimate knowledge of the seasonal cycle of plant life combined with a knowledge of plant localities were essential.
'Although the economic necessity of acquiring food consumed a large part of the day, spiritual matters remained paramount. The spirits dictated the success or failure of the hunt and determined how food resources were to be allotted. Unseen powers or forces explained sickness and death, and in the aesthetic life much artwork showed spiritual symbolism. In Wonnarua society, death was seen as another stage in the spirit cycle. The spirit gave up its physical form and returned to the spirit world. Naturally, those left behind mourned this passing and marked it with suitable ceremonies.
'As befitted a very spiritually religious people, the spectrum of life began and ended in that invisible but very lively world of the spirit creatures.' (Miller, 1985)
Recent research suggests there may be other traditional cultural associations with this region. Geoff Ford argues that the country where the cave is located is within the traditional lands of the Darkiung people, and presents analyses of R.H. Mathews' writings and notebooks in evidence of this (Ford, 2010, p207-9).
Archaeological studies of the upper Hunter Valley
In the late 1960s there was an archaeological excavation by the Australian Museum of a traditional indigenous site at a rock shelter at Milbrodale, a few hundred metres from Baiame Cave. It was written up in an article that also described the findings of an excavation at Sandy Hollow, about 20km west of Milbrodale. The study suggested that both places had been occupied by Aboriginal people for less than 2000 years:
'The next excavation was of a large sandstone rock shelter above Bulga Creek, near Milbrodale, on the southern fringe of the main valley. This site is not far from a very fine painted shelter [Baiame Cave, which is illustrated in the article]. It proved to contain an assemblage very similar to that already obtained at Sandy Hollow. The deposits were comparatively shallow and a maximum depth of 24 inches [60cm] was excavated before the underlying rock shelf was reached. Charcoal from this site was subsequently processed and returned dates of approximately AD 500 from a depth of 12 inches [30cm] and about AD 1,300 from 6 inches [15cm]. Those dates tallied closely with those from Sandy Hollow. . .' (Moore, 1969)
The authors wondered why the occupation dates were so recent, just 1500 years old, compared with digs done 80km away at Captertee, on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, which found Aboriginal occupation dating back14,000 years:
'The puzzle then, was why there should be no Capertian material in the Hunter Valley sites and why the occupation appeared to have started so late. . . It is obviously too early in the Australian Museum's survey to reach any definitive conclusions but a number of tentative points may be made. The consistency of the dates from the Sandy Hollow and Milbrodale sites suggests that possibly the Hunter Valley was occupied much later than the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range. . . Dates of the order of 9,000 to 14,000 BC have been obtained on the western side of the Dividing Range, whereas the earliest sites known on the eastern coastal strip are dated to about 5,000 to 6,000 BC. [A footnote here reads "Since this was written, a date of approximately 18,000BC has been obtained from an occupation site on the South Coast of New South Wales]. It is conceivable that the Hunter Valley was not, in fact, occupied from the inland through the Dividing Range, which is fairly rugged [here]. . . If, in imagination, one reforests the area, the routes into the upper Hunter would not be at all obvious. It may be, then, that occupation came from the coast, only after other obviously attractive areas, such as Botany Bay, Port Jackson, Broken Bay, Lake Macquarie and Port Stephens, had been fully populated. . . On the other hand, it may be that the sites so far excavated in the upper Hunter are not by any means the earliest occupation deposits in the region . . . '(Moore, 1969)
The archaeological research suggests that the Aboriginal occupation of the Hunter Valley was comparatively recent relative to the whole of Australia, possibly less than 2000 years. This suggests that the Baiame Cave painting may be no older than 2000 years old. Whatever its age, it remains an ancient, rare and invaluable remnant of the traditional culture of the land.
The legend of Baiame
[The different spellings of 'Baiame' in this section reproduce the spelling of this name as it appeared in the different sources of information quoted.]
'Byamee . . . is to the Euahlayi [people of north west NSW] what the . . . 'Dream time' is to the Arunta [people of the Northern Territory]. Asked for the reason why of anything, the Arunta answer, 'It was so in the [Dreamtime].' Our tribe have a subsidiary myth corresponding to that of the [Dreamtime]. There was an age, in their opinion, when only birds and beasts were on earth; but a colossal man and two women came from the remote north-east, changed birds and beasts into men and women, made other folk of clay or stone, taught them everything, and left laws for their guidance, then returned whence they came. This is a kind of '[Dreamtime]' myth, but whether this colossal man was Byamee or not, our tribe give, as the final answer to any question about the origin of customs, 'Because Byamee say so.' Byamee declared his will, and that was and is enough for his children. At the Boorah, or initiatory ceremonies, he is proclaimed as 'Father of All, whose laws the tribes are now obeying.' Byamee, at least in one myth (told also by the Wiradjuri), is the original source of all totems. . .' (K. L. Parker, 'The Euahlay Tribe', 1904)
'For the northern [people of] NSW the most important Ancestor was Biame, the law-maker. He laid out the rules about social relationships to be followed by all the animals. And there was no real difference between a person and an animal. Both were made of the same material as the earth. They were equals, except that in the Burruguu animals that obeyed the law were turned into people. This is how they got their totems-they were originally animals but were rewarded by being turned into people. . . Everything is somehow 'alive'. Every rock, landform, plant and animal has its own consciousness, just as people.' (Haglund, Brewarrina Aboriginal heritage study)
'Biamie is one of the great ancestral beings of the Creation period. Biamie the creator's presence is felt throughout many South-Eastern Indigenous Australian communities. During the creation period he moved across the land, shaping the landscape giving life to the environment and the human race, initiating lore of country. When his journey was complete Biamie's returned to the sky appearing in different seasons to remind his peoples of the lore. Biamie's journeys are recorded through song, dance, art, oral histories and through Dreaming sites. . . . According to the Wonnarua dreamtime the Hunter Valley was created by the Great Spirit, Baime (Byamee). Before Baime there was nothing, everything was sleeping. Baime awoke and created everything, the mountains, plains , rivers and every living thing.. . . The Biamie's Cave at Milbrodale shows an art representation of Biamie in the lands of the Wonnarua. The culturally significant site of Mt. Yengo, south-west of Wollombi in Darkinjung country is said to be the site where Biamie's descended from and ascended back into the sky. Early Europeans recognised the revered status that Biamie held in lore and in trying to place him into their equivalent concepts of being, equated him with the Christian God. . . . The spirit of Baime is depicted on a cave overlooking the valley at Milbrodale . . . Baime has his arms stretched open protecting the Valley. Biaime also created Kawal (Ka-wal), to watch over the Wonnarua people. The spirit of Kawal is embodied in the wedge tailed eagle, found throughout the Hunter Valley. When the Wonnarua see the wedge tailed eagle, they know Kawal is looking over them, protecting them.' (OEH Draft AP)
Analyses of the iconography
In a short video on the webpage of the Wonnorua Aboriginal Nation Corporation, Victor Perry stands in Baiame Cave and explains his traditional owners' understanding of the art work:
'On the back of this cave out here at Milbrodale is a figure of, a deity figure that was known up and down the coast in Aboriginal tribal society. He had different names. In our language we called him Goign. But in some other languages he was called Baiame or Biamee. In other areas they used to call him Bundjel, Nerunderee and a lot of other different names. But essentially the figure in the cave here is . . . revered as the creator figure. If you'd like to interpret that, that would be the same as same as God as the creator to the English people. That is the Aboriginal interpretation of the creator. Just to explain about the drawings around the figure, there's boomerangs there which are called boringan in the Wonnarua language, stone axes which are interpreted as mogos. The hands on the wall are symbols of the people who perhaps looked after the area, or in this case may have looked after the cave and the actual painting on the wall. Some of the stories that are connected to the cave talk about Baiame's arms and why they are so long. The reason being is because he was believed to be protector of the area and protector of the people in the district. His eyes also are of large capacity because it was said also he was all seeing, all knowledge. And everyone revered [him]. Like they do today they had their own religion and the Aboriginal religion had the deity figure, Goign or in the other people's language, Baiame is the figure.'
The nineteenth century anthropologist R.H. Mathews offered a detailed description of Baiame Cave and its imagery in two learned papers published in the 1890s, which are quoted in the "Description" section of this listing (Mathews, 1893, Mathews, 1896). His only attempt at interpretation is when he states: 'In front of this cave there is a large level valley, timbered with large and lofty trees, well suited for a Bora ground, and I think it more than probably that Boras were held here, and that the figures in the cave are connected with the ceremonies which took place on such occasions. There was plenty of good water in the Bulgar Creek close by, and good hunting grounds all around. . .
'I was informed by Mr. W.G. McAlpin, who is now 84 years of age, and has resided in the neighbourhood for the last fifty years, that the figures in this cave were there when he first came to the district; and even at that time the drawings were beyond the knowledge of the local blacks. Mr McAlpine further states that the figures on the rock are now in about the same state of preservation as when he first saw them upwards of fifty years ago, having suffered very little in that time.' (Mathews, 1893, p355-6)
European colonisation of the Hunter Valley
'The discovery of the river Hunter was partly from the downstream government enclave [at Newcastle] - Colonel Paterson in particular is said to have reached Patrick's Plains - but also overland from other settled districts. William Lawson found the Goulburn River from Mudgee [on the other side of the Great Dividing Range] in 1822, and after a number of attempts, John Howe, Benjamin Singleton and others found a route from Windsor in 1820' (Heritage Office and DUAP, 1996, p46). This route was to the north of the cave.
The nearby town of Bulga was settled in the 1820s, and the land on which Baiame Cave is located was first granted in 1839 as part of 630 acres purchased by Thomas Parnell of Richmond Victoria. By 1909 it was part of the farming property owned by Charles Boyd Alexander of Bulga before being sold to Leonard Charles Dodds of Bulga in 1912. In 1951 it was purchased by Eric John Smith, the grandfather of the present owner, Rodney Smith. Under the Smiths the land below the cave was used as a dairy farm with orchards and vineyards. In recent years it has been used mainly for running cattle.
In his first public talk about his burgeoning amateur interest in Aboriginal anthropology, which was given to the Royal Society of NSW in 1872, R.H. Mathews presented a detailed description of Baiame Cave and suggested that it had been known to white colonisers at least since the 1840s: 'I was informed by Mr W.G. McAlpine, who is now eighty-four years of age, and has resided in the neighbourhood for the last fifty years, that the figures in this cave were there when he first came to the district; and even at that time the drawings were beyond the knowledge of the local blacks. Mr McAlpine further stated that the figures on the rock are now in about the same state of preservation as when he first saw them upwards of fifty years ago, having suffered very little in that time.' (Mathews, 1893, pp356-7)
Mathews' talk of 4 October 1893 was published in the proceedings of the Royal Society in 1894 and became Mathews' first publication. It is seen as the commencement of Mathews' pioneering and now highly esteemed amateur career in anthropology when he spent decades respectfully documenting and analysing Aboriginal culture and heritage (Thomas, 2002)
In the early 1990s the National Parks & Wildlife Service built a timber and packed-earth stairway from Welshs Road up the embankment to the cave, to make for safer access. A steel mesh viewing platform, several bench seats and signage was also installed at this time.
Although located on privately owned farmland, the cave is accessible to the public via Welshs Road courtesy of the current owners. The cave is highly valued by the Wonnarua people, who still use it for ceremonies and as place to teach their young people about their culture.
There are many hundreds or perhaps thousands of traditional Aboriginal rock art sites still intact throughout NSW, even after more than two centuries of European colonisation. There has been little in the way of public thematic surveys of these cultural works, partly because many traditional custodians prefer to keep them secret-for a variety of reasons, at least to minimise the risk of vandalism. A major survey of "NSW Sites of Significance" based on interviews with elders throughout NSW was undertaken by the NPWS 1973-1987 and this survey fed into two lists of Aboriginal relics and places which are now kept under the National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974.
The first list is the Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System (AHIMS) which records the location and brief characteristics of 60,000 - 70,000 sites where relics have been found or which have been identified by Aboriginal people as significant. There are many Aboriginal art sites included here but the list is not readily available to the public nor easily searched. More readily accessible to the public is the list of 96 Aboriginal Places, although a large proportion of this list is also deemed "culturally sensitive" and their locations not given. Baiame Cave is listed on AHIMS and work has commenced on its listing as an Aboriginal Place.
Of the 96 places currently listed on the Aboriginal Places register, the Bulgandry Art Site and the Kariong Sacred land site, both in Gosford, are the only ones where their artistic characteristics are emphasised in their brief public descriptions. Like Baiame Cave, the Bulgandry Art site features a large human figure nearly two metres tall. In contrast to Baiame Cave, the Bulgandry Man is engraved, not painted, and lies horizontally on a rock face.
There would be numerous Aboriginal cultural works included in SHR-listed sites across NSW, especially in places such as the Willandra Lakes. However these sites are rarely included within the description or significance sections of their SHR listings. There is currently just one Aboriginal art site listed on the SHR because of its significance as a rock painting: the "Earlwood Aboriginal Art Site" on the Cooks River, listed in 2011. Whereas the Earlwood site is modest but significant for having survived unscathed in the heart of the nation's oldest metropolis, Baiame Cave, more remotely sited in the Hunter Valley, is significant for its powerful image of a larger-than-life-sized human-like said to be Baiame, the primary father creator figure in traditional eastern Australian Aboriginal society. While most images of Baiame have been recorded by anthropologists as temporary art works depicted lying horizontally on the ground as part of Aboriginal ceremonial culture, this large painted image of Baiame is positioned upright with arms outstretched overlooking the valley. Recorded to have been there since before European colonisation of the upper Hunter valley in the early 19th century, this larger-than-human-sized painted image of Baiame is rare in NSW.
Another SHR listed site comparable to Baiame Cave is the Brewarrina Fish Traps, also known as Baiame's Ngunnhu, which are listed on the National Heritage Register. The fish traps are understood to have been created by Baiame, and are understood to be part of a network of sites associated with the dreamtime activities of Baiame which are located across eastern Australia.