Wurdi Youang: The Australian Stonehenge
On Wathaurong land, near Little River in Victoria, there is a curious stone circle set into the ground. The boulders which make it up are small by henge standards, some standing at about waist height, some as small as 20 centimeters in diameter. It is far from the only stone circle standing in southern Australia but it is probably the most famous among them. The rocks are basalt, and each one is believed to be small enough to be moved by one or two people, and it’s clear that they were placed there deliberately, rather than being a chance emergence from the bedrock.
This is Wurdi Youang, Australia’s Stonehenge: an obovate circle distended at the Eastern side, with the Western side incorporating three tall stones that mark the position of the setting sun at the solstices and equinoxes. It must have been established within the last 10,000 years, since every year the precession of the equinoxes pushes such star-calendars out of date, and this one is still accurate to about three degrees. The cardinal directions are marked in the circle by a series of stone arrangements, generally straight lines, pointing due north, east, south and west.
Figure from “Bridging the gap through Australian cultural Astronomy“, Hamacher and Norris, 2011
Photograph of the site, facing the West
The understanding required to build such structures accurately is not usually ascribed to Australian Aboriginal people by whites. When European settlers arrived in the 18th century they quickly termed the entire continent (most of which they hadn’t actually seen) as “terra nullius” (“no one’s using this land, I guess”) based on the lack of permanent boundary fences. What we’re starting to recognise as a nation is that over 400 different cultures existed across the vast continent prior to English colonisation, and that they mostly had their shit together.*
This is borne out by the developments in archaeology which have revealed extensive Aboriginal astronomical structures and “henges” aligned to the cardinal directions, pointing at the stars, watching the world turn, scattered across the south of the continent. Wurdi Youang, or “Wada Wurrung”, as well as Ngaut Ngaut in South Australia, form part of a wider “Emu Dreaming” of songs, stories and traditions related to the movement of celestial bodies. The celestial Emu is present in the traditions of a number of Aboriginal nations, and has many different layers of understanding, some of which require a kind of ceremonial security clearance to be reached before they’re taught to you.
The award-winning “Emu in the Sky” photograph by Barnaby Norris
*NB: The “terra nullius” reasoning (“whatever, no one’s using it”) is still prevalent in modern Australian discourse; it’s not uncommon to hear people say, when talking about the negative externalities of energy generation (like where do we put our nuclear waste, where should we establish solar and wind farms) “Why not put it out in the Outback? No one lives there anyway.” Well, people do live there, and have done for a long time. There’s plants and animals and fossils and everything.
References and Further Reading:
Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey / Victorian Archaeological Survey ; Dr. P. J. F. Coutts, Technical Editor
Wurdi Youang: an Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications by Norris et al, 2013