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What we know about this Aboriginal rock engraving in Sydney.


This rock engraving is from the site known as 'Echidna and Fish' at West Head in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, less than 25 km from Sydney, New South Wales. Engraved on a horizontal Hawkesbury sandstone platform, it has 12 infill lines from head to tail representing the echidna's quills. The photograph was taken in the late afternoon when the sun's slanting rays throw the grooves into relief. The pale greenish-coloured spots are lichen growing on the sandstone. The echidna is 90 cm in length.

Educational value

The engraving is an example of the artistic expression of the people of the Guringai language group who lived in the area now known the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park for more than 25,000 years. Engraved images of ancestral beings, humans, animals and objects such as tools and weapons survive in the archaeological record and give a unique view and some insight into the lives and ceremony of the Guringai people.

The echidna engraving represents one part of the rich heritage of the Indigenous people living in this area. At this site there are six fish up to 1.9 m long, a shark 1.2 m long, two shields with internal designs, two stingrays and at least 75 'mundoes' (footprints). The footprints seem to link the fish to stingrays at one end of a line with another line leading out to the echidna.

To create the engraving, an original outline would have been sketched; a series of holes would have been drilled along the lines with a pointed stone or shell or piece of hard wood and then the holes would have been joined by rubbing a sharp object along the line. This produces a u-shaped groove up to 2 cm deep and 2 cm wide. Such grooves are distinct from natural grooves, which are v-shaped, and from modern grooves made with steel tools, which are narrower and deeper.

It is difficult to date the echidna engraving using current scientific techniques, particularly as there is no soil covering it. Dating is also difficult because re-grooving sometimes occurs during later ceremonies. However the style of the drawing, known as 'simple figurative', and its state of preservation suggests it was made in the last few thousand years. The simple figurative style is confined to the region of what became Sydney.

The purpose of the engraving is not known, but several possible explanations have been suggested. One is that engravings of animals were made during ceremonies held to increase the availability of food and hence such sites are known as 'increase sites'. Other theories are that they may have been initiation sites as some include ancestral beings, or have astronomical associations, or are simply describing historical events that took place.

Echidnas were part of the everyday diet of the Indigenous people of the region, and in the 1880s, more than 100 years after colonisation, the echidna was identified as being a totem for some people in the region. Totems are plants or animals that have a relationship with a person or group of people and provide a direct link with beings from the Dreaming.