Rare kangaroo spotted on North Head!
This wonderful carving of a small kangaroo was recently discovered during our most recent recording program at North Head. While we have no definitive indication of who the maker was, we suspect it may be the work of a highly skilled stonemason quarantined around the beginning of the 20th century. Animal motifs are extremely rare in the historic inscriptions associated with the former quarantine station, and to date this is our first recording of identifiably native fauna.
By contrast, kangaroos and wallabies are a common motif in the Aboriginal rock art of the Sydney Basin, with more than 500 engravings of ‘macropods’ recorded to date (McDonald 2008). Like the kangaroo we spotted at North Head, many of the Aboriginal engravings of macropods are located in the open air on high ridges and cliff tops. Spectacular examples may be seen throughout Sydney parks, reserves, and coastlines, for example at Middle Harbour (seen in this historic photograph here). Rock art scholar Jo McDonald has observed that there are differences in the method of macropod depiction suggestive of variation between Aboriginal groups across the region. Namely, that macropod engravings occurring north of the Georges River are depicted with only two legs, whereas south of the Georges River all four legs are represented (McDonald 2008, 54).
While we know that Aboriginal people occupied North Head there are several reasons why we would not attribute this kangaroo to an Aboriginal context of production. To begin with, the kangaroo at North Head is a demonstration of bas-relief, a technique that was not in use by Aboriginal people of the Sydney area. Another notable feature of this engraving is that the artist has used the natural banding of the sandstone to accentuate certain features of the kangaroo, such as its fulsome pouch. At the same time this approach has the effect of integrating the motif into the sandstone, so that the kangaroo’s long hind legs and tail flow into the bedding planes of the rock. The practice of incorporating natural surface features and geological attributes into the composition of paintings and engravings has occurred at various times in different cultures throughout the world. This is most famously recognised amidst the cracks and contours of Europe’s Paleolithic cave art but it is also a compelling feature of many Australian Aboriginal rock art sites.
Aboriginal engravings of macropods in the Sydney Basin are characteristically depicted in profile, but they are generally quite dynamic and often appear as though they are bounding rather than ‘standing’ upright. An active mode of representation has a counterpart in some 20th century non-Indigenous iconography, such as the kangaroo design on Australian coinage, airlines, or Royal Australian Navy insignia. However, there are other examples that more closely resemble the roo at North Head. The upright stance of the kangaroo on the Australian Government Coat of Arms is one example.
A final intriguing parallel lies with the stone kangaroo that has been a Manly resident for well over a century (Manly Council 2006, 22). Carved in the round and erected around 1856, this local landmark might better resemble the roo inscription we found at North Head, if only it had been carved with ears!