Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wurdi Youang - the latest research

Recently, our paper on the alignments of the stones at Wurdi Youang was published in the journal Rock Art Research.  You can read the paper here.

Ray P. Norris,  Priscilla M. Norris, Duane W. Hamacher, and Reg Abrahams
Wurdi Youang - an Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications
Rock Art Research, 2013, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 55-65.

In this paper, we present a detailed survey of the arrangement, testing the hypothesis that the stones have two sets of orientations tot he setting position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes.  We have published a previous post describing Wurdi Youang, but this paper presents the details of the survey and statistical analysis.

Wurdi Youang has featured prominently in many media programs about Aboriginal astronomy, but some of the reported facts are in error. I would like to clarify these errors here for our readers.

1) We do not know the age of the stone arrangement. The family that owns the property on which the arrangement sits are the same family that settled the area upon colonisation. They claim the stones have always been there, rejecting a European-origin. Sites in the area have been dated to 20,000 years BP, but that does not mean Wurdi Youang is that old. Quotes in the media about this arrangement being 10,000 years old have no basis in fact. That was merely a hypothetical date used to give context to the oldest astronomically related sites we know about.

2) We do not know the purpose or use of this site. It seems to be some sort of ceremonial site, but the astronomical alignments may be peripheral to its main purpose. For this reason, we are careful not to label it an "observatory".

3) Some have suggested that the arrangement is not Aboriginal in origin, pointing out that no ethnographic data supports this claim. They also suggest that we not speculate about the origin of this arrangement until we learn more from our "Aboriginal brothers and sisters." We are still searching for Aboriginal elders who can tell us about the site, but the local Aboriginal land councils have informed us that almost nothing is known about it. But since the family that owns the land say it has been there since their ancestors colonised Australia, we can say that it is not European in origin. And we should be clear that we are testing a particular hypothesis, which does not include speculation.

4) Some people also claim that the stones could have been moved into these positions by humans and we cannot rule out that these alignments are the result of this action. We completely support this notion - that is the whole crux of our argument!  It is obvious someone moved these stones into their current positions for this purpose (it is not a natural feature). However, I believe the comment indicates that this was done by non-Aboriginal people after colonisation. While some of the outlier stones are relatively small and easily moveable, most of the basalt stones forming the main arrangement are quite large and heavy (some exceed 500 kg). Without an archaeological survey, there is no way to be certain who built it. But, again, the owners of the site have claimed the stones were there when the first colonists came to Australia. No other European arrangement resembles Wurdi Youang and it would have made a relatively poor "goat paddock".

The only facts we have are from the archaeological record. We are working closely with the traditional owners and submitting the appropriate permission forms in hopes to date the site and help restore some of the fallen and damaged stones (in some places, large bushes are growing between the stones, dislodging them). Dating the site will conclusively show whether the arrangement was built pre- or post-colonisation. Hopefully, we will be able to determine how old the site is and help the local community piece back together knowledge that has been lost or damaged by colonisation.


  1. Duane, this work is fascinating. The dating of the site will be important to so many people all over the country, not to mention the world. Restoring dignity to Aboriginal people is also an issue here as this work, albeit much yet to be done, may help to debunk some significant claims that serve no purpose other than to belittle the rich Indigenous cultures from across this land. Best wishes in your endeavours. Linda Nadge,Broken Hill, NSW.

  2. Hello,
    thank you for your interesting article. Just some days ago I began to do some research for an article on solstice (and new year, midsummer, equinox) rites, and, being interested in aboriginal culture, wondered if these rites existed in Australia. In Europe, astronomical alignements as the one you're writing about (which reminds to me megalitic sites), normally are connected to sacred sites and rites. Is there any evidence for such a connection in the Wurdi Youang region, or otherwhere in Australia?
    Are the basalt stones local stones, or were they moved from far away?
    Thank you for a short answer
    Georg Wallner

    1. Hi Georg.
      We do not know the purpose of the site, but it is most likely ceremonial. The basalt stones are local, but were moved some distance from their probable source (You Yangs hills). Some of the stones were as heavy as 500 kg.