Frequently asked questions:
The engravings were made by the Aboriginal people who have lived in the Sydney region from about 25000 years ago (see below) until the present day. Amazingly, we know very little about the Indigenous people who were here when the British arrived in 1788. None of the British seems to have been very interested in the local culture, and that culture was subsequently badly damaged by the death (largely due to smallpox, but also because of the loss of food resources, and some massacres) of most of the Indigenous Australians within a few years of the British arrival.
There were several different language groups in the Sydney region, shown in the map below. Sydney itself was home to the Eora people, and most of the engravings we see today were made by the Eora, Darug, and Darkinjung peoples. From the similarity of their engravings, it is clear that at least part of their culture was similar (in the same way that the British, French, and Germans have cultural similarities, even though they speak different languages).
There are also other groups such as the Guringai, who occupied the present site of Kuringai National Park, and clans such as the Bidgigal, who were based around the Hills District in North-West Sydney. Perhaps the most famous Bidgigal person was Pemulwuy, who led the indigenous resistance forces against the British settlers around 1800, at one point capturing Parramatta, but who was eventually defeated and beheaded by the British army.
It should be noted that there is considerable confusion about these names. For example, it is not even clear that there were people who regarded themselves as "Eora". They may have been Darug people who, when asked, were from "this place", which is "Eora" in the Darug language.
The engravings cannot be dated directly with current archaeological techniques. Instead, we must rely on indirect dating techniques.
The Aboriginal Australians arrived in the North of Australia around 50000 years ago, but the earliest evidence in the Sydney region is dated to about 10000 BC, in the Bidgigal Reserve in the Hills district of North-West Sydney. However, dates of over 20000 years have been found in the Blue Mountains, and so it is reasonable to suppose that Aboriginal people were also in the Sydney region around then: we just haven't come across their settlements.
The Sydney engravings are of a style known as "simple figurative", which conventional archaeological thinking dates to the last 5000 years. Other engravings show European sailing ships, and so cannot be more than about 200 years old. Thus we are left with a date range of 5000-200 years ago. It is likely that some of the freshest engravings represent the later part of that time range, whilst the most worn represent the earliest part. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that we know the engravings were sometimes "re-grooved" during ceremonies.
It has been claimed that some engravings appear to show Thylacines and other mammals which have been extinct in the Sydney region for many thousands of years, and so are presumably that old. In support of this, it is certainly true that rock art elsewhere (e.g. Kakadu National Park) does show extinct animals, and so must be tens of thousands of years old. However, at the moment there is no cast-iron evidence to support these claims for Sydney rock art.
From examining the grooves we can see that they were made in several stages as follows:
This results in a U-shaped groove which is typically about 2 centimetres deep and 2 centimetres wide. It is easily distinguished from natural grooves in the sandstone, which are usually V-shaped, and modern grooves made with steel tools, which are usually narrower and deeper, or those made by bulldozers, which usually have a square section.
The grooves were often maintained by "re-grooving" during ceremonies, which complicates attempts at dating them.
The short answer is: we don't know. However, by analogy with the culture of other indigenous groups who survived into modern times, we can make some educated guesses.
Some sites may have been "increase sites", where a ceremony would be held to increase the availability of a food source such as kangaroos or fish. It is thought that most of the sites depicting animals are of this type.
Another group of sites may have been where initiation ceremonies were held, to celebrate and facilitate the transition of a young boy into manhood. In other parts of Australia, we know that an initiation ceremony often involves a ceremonial path from childhood into manhood, and so the lines of steps, or "mundoes", may indicate initiation sites.
Other sites show "Culture Heroes" or "Ancestral Beings" such as Baime, who has a striped head-dress and often a striped body, and Daramulan who has a large club foot and may have been part-emu.
It has also been claimed that some sites show evidence of astronomical associations. This is an area of active research, and is the driver for the project that (as a by-product) spawned this web site! See the Aboriginal Astronomy link for more information.
It should also be recognised that increase sites, initiation sites, culture-hero sites, and astronomical sites are not necessarily distinct, and one site may fall into any or all of these categories.
For more information than can be covered in this web site, I recommend Stanbury & Clegg (1990). See "Further Reading" for details.
All material on this page © Ray Norris 2007 except where otherwise indicated.