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Bora Rings

Bora Rings

 

www.arts.uwa.edu.au/Archaeology/Lismorepaper.htm
 
"With respect to terminology,  I generally use the term “Bora Ring” for a single ring, and “Bora Ground” for a complex which might include up to three rings.  I also use “Bora site” as a general term, and sometimes to indicate a wider area than just the ring itself.
 
 
 
The earthen rings known as “Bora” are usually part of a complex of two or three rings, linked by a path or paths.  They were used in what Sutton calls “man-making ceremonies”, that is, male initiation ceremonies.  In the literature, we find that the large ring in the complex was usually part of  a relatively public ceremony, with women looking on;  the smaller ring was the site of the major initiation rites, for initiated men and initiates only.  The purpose of the third ring is not as well documented in the literature.  It has been suggested that these are  women’s rings, but it is not clear to me that this was always the case.  Bora sites were often (always?) associated with carved trees.
 
 
 
The average size of a large ring is about 25 - 30 m across, and a small ring 10-12 m.  There is a wide range of variation however.  The earth is mounded up to a height of c.25-50 cms.  Usually there is a path, often to the south-west from the large ring,  connecting to smaller ring.
 
 
 
The distribution of Bora sites is  limited to NSW and southern Queensland.  A possible extension of this range to Victoria has been noted.  Earthen rings have been reported at Sunbury near Melbourne, but there is no historical documentation or other reference to support their being Aboriginal ceremonial sites (Frankel 1982).
 
 
 
Bora rings occur in a number of different environmental situations.  The information can be subjected to further analysis in different ways.  In many situations, they are found on sloping hills, or spurs of ridges.  They are also found in low-lying areas, often close to swamps.  One informant said that the Lennox Head ring was near a swamp as that provided food during ceremonies.  Locational analysis might tell us more about the relationships between bora sites and environmental parameters, and some work has been carried out in this vein (Heather 1983, Satterthwait and Heather 1987).  Equally interesting is their relationship with defined social units.  The Tucki Tucki ring, I was told, was one where people came from far and wide.  Other rings in the Lismore area however were for more localised social groups.  There seems to be a sense of hierarchy of rings which echo social relationships.
 
 
 
Aboriginal Views

 
 
 
An important aspect of the project is to ascertain Aboriginal views.  I need to summarise some of these at this point, as they have impressed themselves upon me.
 
 
 
I have found that Aboriginal people do not think Bora rings can be destroyed, but they can certainly be vandalised (subjected to physical damage) and also desecrated (treated without respect).  Some would be considered by an archaeologist to have been destroyed, for example, lying beneath a European structure or ploughed into the ground.  I will use the term “obliterated” to mean a site can no longer be discerned.
 
 
 
No Aboriginal people are indifferent to bora rings, wherever they occur, and whether they are in their own country or not.  I find it hard to over-emphasise the continued significance, sacredness and relevance of these sites to Aboriginal people in the area in which they occur.  
 
 
 
There is a widespread view that they are entirely men’s business, and while this may be to some extent at odds with the historical literature, it is now a widely and strongly held view.  While it is now seen as inevitable that women may see Bora sites in public places (e.g. Tucki Tucki, Jebbribillum), they should at least refrain from entering the rings.  One of my informants, a male elder whom I have come to know well, loves to tell the well-known (indeed published) story of the (Aboriginal) woman who hid up a tree to watch a ceremony, and came to a Bad End (Norledge 1958) [2] .
 
.
 
A senior Aboriginal woman told me the following personal story.  When she was a young woman, she was told by her grandfather never to go near a Bora ring.  By a combination of circumstances, she was taken to one by a white man;  she forgot her grandfather’s warning, and saw the Bora ring:  “it was the prettiest thing I ever saw”.  She sat down and could not move, and has never been well since.  Women should not go there, she said.  Later in the conversation, she asked me if I wanted a male elder present during the conversation to take me to see any Bora sites.  I said, “but I thought women couldn’t go there”.  She said, “well, a white woman .. .I don’t know ...”    I said I certainly did not want to go anywhere unless it was appropriate.  The male elder indicated he thought it  wouldnot be.
 
 
 
I should say I have made it a policy in pursuing this project only to go to sites which are clearly open to the public (Tucki Tucki, Minjungbal, Lennox Head, Jebbribillum) and/or to which Aboriginal people have said I could go, and preferably only with them.
 
 
 
My view is that it would be at this time quite unthinkable to carry out any sort of physical archaeological investigation of a Bora ring.
 
 
 
Attrition of Bora Rings
 
 
 
The rate of obliteration has been enormous.  It is not possible to give an accurate figure of attrition at the present time, and may not ever be, but here is a rough attempt.  By my count, some 426 bora rings were to be found in NSW and Qld.  Of these, maybe 94 are still perceptible to some extent, that is, less than a quarter, and this is a generous estimate.
 
 
 
Obliteration and desecration continue.  For instance, a well known site in Queensland had been obliterated in the 1950s.  The area of this site was proposed for a housing development in the 1990s, and considerable disturbance was inflicted on it.  Development was only halted in 1997, due to an anthropological report which described the continuing significance of the site to the Aboriginal community.  The main reason why the development was halted seems to have been due to the production of aerial photographs from the 1940s, clearly depicting the ring.
 
 
 
Protection/Management Strategies
 
 
 
Bora rings have been listed on state registers of Aboriginal sites, and many have been afforded a measure of protection.  Some have been subject to some kind of  on-going management strategy.  These have not however always been appropriate.  
 
 
 
24 Bora sites are listed on the Register of the National Estate, 14 in NSW and 10 in Queensland [3] . This seems to have proceeded in a haphazard fashion, to say the least.  The statements of significance and recommendations for management are in many cases clearly inappropriate (listed in Appendix One).  There has been a clear lack of consultation with Aboriginal people.  
 
 
 
Most of the sites are described in terms of their preservation:  
 
“one of the best preserved sites of this type in NSW”:
 
“few such examples of well preserved bora rings remain in NSW”
 
“the Samford Bora Rings are considered to be the most complete and best preserved ceremonial ground known in southern Queensland”
 
“represents one of the most complete Bora grounds known to exist in this area”
 
 
 
They are also valued as representing a “type”:  
 
“represents an increasingly rare site type”  
 
“this type of site, which is becoming increasingly rare ...”
 
“probably the most well defined and best preserved of its type”
 
 
 
Bora rings are described as significant because they represent a past way of life:   
 
“provides evidence of past Aboriginal ceremonial practices in south-eastern Australia”;  
 
“this site is of educational value to the history of Aborigines in the New England District because it could have been the last initiations held in the New England district”
 
“the circle was used by Aborigines for ceremonies”    (total statement of significance)
 
 
 
Some Bora sites are seen as significant because they have been historically documented by Europeans:
 
“the ring is also rare having associated literature on its actual ceremonial use by
 
Aboriginals”
 
“the site is also one of the few known examples of a Bora ground with records existing of associated activities (i.e., ceremonies) being witnessed by Europeans”
 
 
 
And not just any old Europeans:  one site has as part of its statement of significance the fact that it is “referred to in a poem by Judith Wright”.
 
 
 
They are also seen as of potential scientific and/or educational significance to the wider community:
 
“scientific research into their form and distribution will contribute to an understanding of their function in traditional Aboriginal society”
 
“these features of the site, coupled with its fair level of morphological integrity, and association with the scenic Nudgee waterhole/swampland reserve, gives the Bora Ring aesthetic, educational, historical, social and scientific significance”
 
 
 .......
 
 
 
“Public Education ”

 
 
 
In my view bora sites should not be managed on the basis of their public educational potential.  On the other hand, there is a clear need for wider public education in this matter.  
 
 
 
When I have told white people I am doing this project, some of them have replied, “what’s a Bora ring?”  And I am talking about academics in universities, not anthropologists or archaeologists it is true, but highly educated and socially responsible white Australians.  When they do know what they are, there is not necessarily much understanding of the importance of these sites to the Aboriginal community, and here I could include archaeologists.  So there is a definite need for a wider education of the non-Indigenous population with respect to Bora sites and their significance.
 
 
 
Interim Conclusions

 
I began this project with, it must be admitted, a degree of naiveté.  Firstly, as to scope:  I have had to limit the area of close attention to the coastal area between Brisbane and the border in SE Qld, and to the Bandjalung speaking area of north-east NSW.  I have carried out background/archival work on the overall resource.  There is a considerable amount of somewhat scattered literature, but, together with the information available from state authorities, enough to draw together an overall picture of the distribution of Bora sites and their general condition.
 
 
 
With respect to the views of Aboriginal people, there is a general consensus that these are men’s sites, and should only be visited by Aboriginal men.  There is a general view that they should not be generally accessible, that they should not be “educational” sites. The usual preferred option, when asked what the ideal option would be, is to register it, then leave it alone.  Where public visitation is inevitable, there should be a sign to elicit respect.  
 
 
 
The earthen structures are not the only location of significance:  the site itself is the location of spiritual energy, and they are parts of significant landscapes.  The best approach to managing these sites is as significant nodes within a perceived spiritual and real landscape.  Preserving an earthen ring within an area only slightly larger than itself is undesirable on several counts.  It draws attention to the site;  it ignores the fact that it was part of a ceremonial complex;  it ignores the fact that it was part of a wider social, economic and spiritual landscape.  At the other end of the scale, the entire area within which bora sites occurred could be seen as a continuous spiritual landscape, and conserving it in its entirety is hardly feasible.  So clearly some compromises must be sought.  
 
 
 
There is probably not much that can now be done about Jebbribillum and Lennox Head, apart from what has already been done, no matter how appropriate.  Most Aboriginal people accept Tucki Tucki as part of a European cemetery site because (a) that is  what saved it from vandalism and desecration, and (b) it is within an area where all people will behave with respect.
 
 
 
The issues of ownership, land tenure and land status are complex, and I will not go into here.  I will just concern myself with management, and assume that intelligent and informed management strategies are possible.
 
 
 
These sites are of the highest significance to Aboriginal people in eastern Australia.  Management strategies MUST be developed in consultation with traditional owners/custodians, and these MUST prioritise their spiritual significance to Aboriginal people.  Statements of significance should not be built around physical attributes nor supposed “educational” potential.  Management plans must consider the widest possible environmental context.  Managers must be prepared to consider that Bora sites will not be accessible to the wider public.  The Quandamooka people of Stradbroke Island have built one specifically for the tourists, and keep the real one for the owners/custodians.  
 
 
 
In dealing with traditional owners and custodians, local protocols must be developed and observed.  It is essential that issues relating to intellectual cultural property rights and access to traditional knowledge as well as places be properly understood and the custodial responsibility of the elders observed.
 
 
 
Placement on register such as the National Estate and the World Heritage list might be desirable, but it must allow for management plans which preserve significance by restricting activities such as public visitation.  But all strategies must be developed in close consultation with the traditional owners/custodians, and it is quite possible that they will have different views from group to group, and include options not mentioned here.

 
 
 
Acknowledgements

 
 
 
I would like to thank the Bandjalung Elders for their gracious welcome, acknowledge their traditional ownership of this country, and thank them for allowing me to present this paper.  I would especially like to thank some individual Bandjalung people for their assistance with my project:  Lawrence Williams, John Roberts, Linky Gordon, Margaret Charles, Lorna Kelly and Kevin and Julie Slab.  I would also like to thank the following Elders from southern Queensland who have been helpful to me:  Harry Jackey, Alex Davidson, Paddy Jerome, Reg Knox, Selina Costelloe.  Thanks are also due to Ken Markwell, Leif Shipway, Alex Bond, Shane and Brian Coghill, Dale Ruska, Ysola Best and Pat O’Connor, and to my professional colleagues Annie Ross, Harry Lourandos, Jacques Bierling and Inge Riebe.
 
 
 
 
 
 
References
 
 
 
Frankel, David  1982  Earth rings at Sunbury, Victoria.  Archaeology in Oceania 17:  83-89.
 
 
 
Heather, Andrew  1983  Running rings around Moreton.  Towards an understanding of the location of earth circle sites in the Moreton region, south-east Queensland.  BA (Honours) thesis, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Queensland.
 
 
 
Norledge, Mildred  1958  The woman and the sacred bora ring.  Dawn 7(4):  11.
 
 
 
Satterthwait, L. and A. Heather 1987  Determinants of earth circle site location in the Moreton region, Southeast Queensland.  Queensland Archaeological Research 4:  5-53.
 
 
 
Sutton, Peter  1985  Aboriginal ceremonial sites of New South Wales.  Report to National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales, Sydney.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Appendix I . Bora Sites on the Register of the National Estate
 
 
 
This appendix lists Bora sites listed on the Register of the National Estate, with the information accompanying each site on the Register.  This information consists of a description of the site, its condition (presumably at the time of nomination), and a statement of significance.  There is an “official statement of significance”, given here in bold print, but this is not provided for all sites.  Some sites contain instead, or additionally, a statement of significance which is not “official”, but which in most cases was probably provided by the nominator;  this information is given in italics.  Some sites lack one or two of these categories of information.
 
 
 
 
 

 
 Two descriptions of Bora rings from twenty or thirty. JWatson
 
Nudgee Bora Ring
 
Description.  The site consists of an oval mound approximately 0.5m high with diameters of 21m and 17m. Two large depressions exist in the mound, one of which may represent the gap for the pathway which previously led off from the ring. The site is surrounded by a sturdy wire fence and vegetated by tall eucalypt trees and grass. The ring abuts onto playing fields to the north and Tea Tree Swamp for the remainder
 
of its perimeter. A report published in 1895 suggests that the site was
 
last used for ceremonial purposes about 1860.  
 
Condition.  Although numerous undulations exist in the mound, the
 
ring is relatively intact, with the oval mound being easily recognisable.
 
Some minor depressions appear to be the result of erosion, a larger one to
 
the north is more likely European disturbance. The wire fence surrounding
 
the ring appears to be adequate, although it is unfortunate that it sits in
 
places on the outer edge of the mound.  
 
Statement of significance.  This site appears to be the only extant Bora Ring within the city of Brisbane. The ring is also rare having associated literature on its actual ceremonial use by Aboriginals. These features of the site, coupled with its fair level of morphological integrity, and association with the scenic Nudgee
 
waterhole/swampland reserve, gives the Bora Ring aesthetic, educational,
 
historical, social and scientific significance.
 
 
 
Tamborine Bora Rings

 
Description.  Prior to European interference, the site consisted of three earth circles (ie, raised embankments of soil) connected by a straight pathway (ie, linear depression), oriented in a line on a north-north-west - south-south-east axis. The rings are oval or circular ranging from 12m to 47m in diameter, joined by 400m-500m long pathways. The entire site is located on a ridge in open Eucalypt forest. At present only
 
the first ring is reasonably intact, with possible traces of the second
 
ring and the pathways. Early records suggest such places were used for
 
ceremonies (eg, initiations, ritual fights, etc).  
 
Condition.  Since European contact, the site has slowly deteriorated, with no part of the Bora Ring site being fully intact. Presently, only the first ring is relatively
 
intact, showing a raised embankment with an opening for the pathway.
 
Sections of both pathways and part of the second ring may still exist. The
 
third ring appears to have been totally destroyed.
 
Statement of significance.  This site represents the only known example of a Bora Ring complex consisting of three circles joined by a pathway in south-east Queensland. Available data suggests that Bora grounds consisted either of two rings joined by a path or one ring joined by a path. The site is also one of the few known examples of a Bora ground with records existing of associated activities (ie, ceremonies) being witnessed by Europeans. The site is also referred to in a poem by Judith Wright.

 
 
 

 

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