Archaeology in 5 pictures, no. 2: Markings on the soft limestone wall of Koongine Cave, South Australia

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Archaeology in 5 pictures, no. 2: Markings on the soft limestone wall of Koongine Cave, South Australia

From Between the Murray and the Sea: Aboriginal Archaeology of Southeastern Australia by David Frankel, part of the Tom Austen Brown Studies in Australasian Archaeology series.


Markings on the stone wall of a cave.

“Koongine Cave is in a low limestone ridge which runs parallel to the coast, some 4 kilometres away. Before recent field drainage the land between the ridge and the present beach dunes and flint pebble beaches was swampy, if not flooded. Today the cave is 10 metres wide and 25 centimetres deep, and the entrance too low to walk into with comfort. In earlier times, before the sediments filled the cave, it would have been wider, more open and with much greater headroom, making it a sizeable, even attractive place to shelter or to camp.

“We know from the emu egg shell found throughout the deposit that people were certainly making use of the cave in the winter, if not during other seasons. Bones of a wide array of animals, including kangaroo, wombat, wallaby, pademelon, possum, potoroo, bandicoot, reptiles and aquatic rats, show that hunters worked across all the different nearby environments: open grassland, woodland and wetlands. There were also a very few fragments of marine shell.

“These rich archaeological deposits provide insights into what people were doing at Koongine. But they also throw up two related, more general questions: why was the cave used at all, and why just for this relatively short period, from 11,000 years ago? The answers may lie in seeing the way in which the cave changed its place as the environment changed around it. Location, as the real estate agents say, is everything. But for us it is not a constant. At the time people began to make use of the cave the sea was about 15 kilometres away, with extensive wetlands in between. The marine shells in the lower layers of the site show that the coast formed part of the overall range of those who used the cave, and that there was some direct movement across the intervening wetlands. We may then imagine that people set up home in or behind the coastal dunes, where they could easily access the resources of both sea and the adjacent wetlands. Sometimes, perhaps regularly, perhaps seasonally, people went inland, where different animals and raw material, like flint, were to be found.

“Koongine, when it was more open and spacious, was a ready-made shelter for occasional use, conveniently situated on the edge of wetlands to the south and woodland and more open country to the north. As the sea level rose and the coast moved northward closer to the cave, the wetlands between contracted so that anyone living behind the dunes could make easy use of its entire extent. When people moved, perhaps seasonally, away from the coast, it would have been more efficient to be based further inland, at locations from which they could easily reach a variety of environments. Koongine was then no longer located in quite so convenient a place and was neglected for many thousands of years.

“A local Aboriginal legend, included by Christina Smith in her little book The Booandik Tribe of South Australian Aborigines, tells how:

At one time, it is said, the land extended southward as far as the eye could carry from the spot where the township of Port MacDonnell now stands. A splendid forest of evergreen trees, including a wattle out of which grew a profusion of delicious gum, and a rich carpet of grass grew upon it. A man of great height, fearful in his anger and a terror to trespassers on this favoured ground, was the owner. One hot summer’s day, whilst taking a walk through his land, he saw at the foot of the wattle-tree a basket of gum. His anger rose, and with a voice like thunder, he cried, ‘Who is robbing me of my food?’ Looking up he saw a woman concealed among the boughs, and in a loud voice commanded the thief to come down. Trembling, she obeyed, and pleaded for her life. He was relentless, and told her he would drown her for robbing him. Filled with rage he seated himself on the grass, extended his right leg toward Cape Northumberland (Kinneang) and his left toward Green Point, raised his arms above his head, and in a giant voice called on the sea to come and drown the woman. The sea advanced, covering his beautiful land, and destroyed the offending woman. It returned no more to its former bed, and thus formed the present cast of MacDonnell Bay. (Smith 1880: 22–23)

“Could this Buandik legend have at its core an ancient oral tradition stretching back 7000 years to the time when these changes were taking place (Nunn and Reid 2015)? Other local legends have also been taken to reflect geological events. The volcanic eruptions of Mount Schank and perhaps Mount Gambier, about 5000 years ago (Smith and Prescott, 1987; Sherwood et al. 2004), may have been incorporated into creation stories as earth ovens used by the ancestral being Craitbul (Smith 1880: 14–15). If so, they demonstrate both the great longevity of traditions over thousands of years and a continuity of culture outlasting innovations in mundane techniques, fashions or local patterns of land use.”