Ngurunderi travelled down the Murray River in his canoe, in search of his two wives....

Bark Canoes | A Dinner Camp - 5 0000 years of History

The Ngarrindjeri used canoes for fishing, for transport and also in ceremonies. These canoes were made from the bark of the River red-gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

Making a canoe
Mature trees with slightly bent trunks were preferred. The bark had to be thick and free of holes.

Climbing the tree using foot holds cut with wooden chisels, men cut out the canoe's shape with chisels or stone axes. They prised the bark from the tree with wooden wedges and eased it to the ground with ropes. This job sometimes involved as many as eight men.

Shaping the canoe
To shape the canoe, the men put it on a low platform, weighted it with earth and rocks and lit small fires underneath. Wooden struts stopped the bark from curling too much. When dry, the canoe was waterproofed with grease or clay and was ready to launch.

An Aboriginal group on the River Darling at Avoca Station in 1904. The canoe in the photograph was acquired by the Museum in 1910. Collector : D.H. Cudmore

Sahping a bark canoe

A Ngarrindjeri man making a bark canoe. It is in the final stages, being shaped over a low fire. This rare photograph was taken in 1862 by George Burnell. Photographer : G Burnell, about 1862. Mortlock Library (B12659)

Funeral procession of canoes

A scene recorded on the Lower Murray in 1864, showing a funeral procession of canoes. "Illustrated Melbourne Post", July 18, 1864, p. 6.

Most bark canoes took several days to make and lasted about a year. Their low, flat shape suited navigation on the slowly flowing Murray and the lakes, but they capsized easily and required skilled handling.


The Devon Downs rock shelter.

Aboriginal people used this rock shelter for about 5 000 years, until European arrival. Archaeological work here has shown changes in local Aboriginal culture and technology during this period.

An archaeological first
The Devon Downs rock-shelter was the first site in Australia to be scientifically excavated, layer by layer. N.B. Tindale and H. Hale carried out the excavation in 1929. Their results challenged two theories of the time:

  • that Aborigines had not lived in Australia long enough to have affected the land or its ecology;
  • that Aboriginal culture was unchanging.


Lower Murray archaeology
The main archaeological sites of the Lower Murray Valley excavated since the Devon Downs dig of 1929.

The Upper Layers
Very few stone tools were found in these layers. This suggests that people may have been relying on wooden and bone tools during the last 2 000 years.
As in the lower layers, the bones of several mammal species were found.

The Middle Layers
The middle layers were richer in stone and bone tools, shellfish, bones and emu eggshell. Fish seems to have been the main food source in these layers.
This dense concentration of material suggests that Aborigines used the shelter mostly between 4 000 and 2 000 years ago.
Red ochre was present in most layers - people may have used this for ceremonial purposes.

The Lower Layers
The lower levels contain a distinctive stone tool type - the pirri point. These may have been used for woodworking. Bone implements also appear.
The river was less salty about 4 000 years ago and fresh water mussels were a reliable food source. The archaeologists found turtle bones and mammal bones, including the tooth of a Tasmanian Devil.
Evidence for the shelter's use disappears at the lowest level of excavation - about 5 000 years ago.

Total quantity of stone retrieved - a low 9.1 kg. Animal remains - 38 vertebrate species, 10 freshwater invertebrate species found Increase in volume of tools, bone, egg-shell, ochre, in middle layers. Large proportion of shellfish remains and few stone tools.
Confirms low usage of stone tools in the Murray Valley. Represents a very diverse diet of mostly modern species. Suggests increase in intensity of site use between 4000 and 2000 years ago. Shelter unlikely to have been a permanent camp. Was probably used as a "dinner camp" by people on their way to and from the river.

Rock art at the Devon Downs shelter
The walls and roof of the Devon Downs shelter are covered with three types of rock engravings. We can only guess at their meaning today.

Type A - Carved on the back wall of the shelter at least 3000 years ago. Type B - Associated with the upper layers of occupation.
The same carvings also appear on the underside of a large rock which fell from the roof onto tone of the middle layers between 2000 and 3000 years ago.
Type C- Associated with the top layer of occupation - the most recent in the shelter.