“For Permanent Display: Panaramitee Crocodile Engraving”
By Steven & Evan Strong
Owing to our obsession in upholding rigour and the highest standards of scientific inquiry, coupled with the righteous indignation of critics when attacking any perceived fault or lapse in our research, we must begin this article with an admission of error. This is my fault alone not Evan’s, but in our defense of our lapse in standards at least we prepared to admit to our mistakes. In our last article which was a tribute to a rebellious act by staff of the South Australian Museum through their cryptic display of a chemical cast of the ancient engraving of salt-water crocodile, we made note that the original piece of rock this huge crocodile head was engraved was removed in the 1920’s. That is wrong, it was stolen in either 1938 or 1939.
We are aware that the person responsible would take umbrage at our deliberate use of the word stolen. But with the invaluable assistance of a very knowledge colleague who prefers to retain his anonymity, who send us a press clipping (The Advertiser, 29th July, 1938) were all the information and promises are clearly set out, this is not just a theft but an outrage to Original culture and sensibilities. C. P. Mountford was the “acting ethnologist at the South Australian Museum,”(1) and it was at his prompting and due to considerable public fund raising this engraving was removed. At the time of the article it states that he had obtained permission from the non-Original landholder, a “Mr. W. J. Wade,”(2) but as would be expected no mention is made of any Original consent, dissent or presence in this arrangement.
A Prescribed Condition in the Contract
Mountford was awestruck by the magnificence and antiquity of what had been found. The crocodile head was part of an ensemble Mountford regarded “as the most marvellous native gallery in Australia.”(3) This is a massive call to make, but he continued in his lavish praise when extolling the artistic virtues of “one of the most priceless examples of aboriginal (sic) art.”(4) From this huge collection his principle concern and prize catch was “a rock-carving of the head of a crocodile near Yunta.”(5) So valuable was this artefact, it was no more than what was expected when Mountford guaranteed to the public and Wade that it “will be brought to Adelaide for permanent display.”(6)
So important was this national treasure, it was Mountford’s intention that plaster casts of the head would be sent to museums all over the world. We suspect Mountford regarded this as the ultimate piece of archaeology which may win him global fame and notoriety. Ignoring the undoubted artistry involved, there is also the interesting question of size and proportion. Was this a life sized engraving? Because if it is, any crocodile with a head measuring 5 foot 6 inches by 3 feet adds up to one decidedly huge salt water crocodile. Even if the dimensions are exaggerated there is still the problem that the area where the engraving was found is very dry and arid, and it has been like that for a long, long time.
Seven Metre Salt Water Crocodiles in the Desert???
Mountford was acutely aware of this glaring irregularity and spent some time in reflection trying to understand how this could come about. He noted a “remarkable resemblance to the head of a large crocodile of the North Australian coast. As Yunta was about 1,000. miles to the south, one of those crocodiles could not have served as a subject for the native artist; therefore; it appears certain that the creature must have existed in water fairly close to the Yuntu district.”(7)
As an elementary beginning point Mountford was aware that crocodile bones were found near Lake Eyre, but they are fossilised and the dates associated with these remains are incredibly ancient, and some. According to his logic and that of his colleagues, such a date is pre-human anywhere and must be discounted. More definition is needed and if traveling any further down this ancient road, as Mountford did, there was a need to consult with Original Elders. He was familiar with “native legends”(8) of huge “animals that lived in the water”(9) and were so big they “ate ‘other legends.”(10) This is still not conclusive, if this watery habitat is freshwater, then the crocodile is much smaller with a narrower snout and incapable of swallowing anything much bigger than a duck. There has to be sea water flowing or this type of legend-eating salt water reptile cannot be present and engraved. If nothing else, after his initial desecration, Mountford was meticulous in his research of Original historical records in noting that there are “other legends”(11) describing a time when “parts of the interior were covered in salt water.”(12)
Enough, he has gone too far off centre! It is bad enough insisting Original people lived in this area when salt water crocodiles were part of the local fauna, then to add humans were living in this location when the sea water was ebbing and flowing at their campsite, is not only pushing boundaries but shattering conventional historical foundation-stones. After careful consideration and a great deal of on-site investigation and consultation, Mountford was absolute in declaring that “all these facts suggest man was living in Australia when the crocodile existed in the district near Yunta, for the natives could not have drawn the animal so faithfully if they had not known it intimately.”(13)
The rest is easy, as Josephine Flood correctly noted there have been no crocodiles in this region for 75,000 years. And that bare minimum date is where Flood and Mountford stand in accord, they are adamant that humans were living at a place that according to all accepted historical accounts, no humans walked upon for at least another 40,000 years.
According to the agreement between Mountford and the white occupier, when the rock platform was chiseled out (the holes dug in to assist the removal are still there) it was to be exhibited as a “permanent display”(14) with casts to be sent to the most important museums throughout the globe. Inconveniently ancient, “priceless”(15) and taken from “the most marvellous native gallery”(16) in the country, what was stolen without Original permission was supposed to be the star attraction at the South Australian Museum. That was a common expectation, which for reasons that need to be made clear, was thwarted. Suspended in a permanent eclipse this is an insult to culture, Mountford, the landholder Mr. W. J. Wade, all the well intentioned citizens who donated money in Mountford’s venture and above all else, the Original truth.
A Secret Message in Sliding Scales
And it gets worse, for those who think this engraving is solely a visual representation of a feared eater of “other legends,”(17) there is much more to all aspects of the Original First Language. As Ramindjeri Elder Karno Walker has reminded us on many occasions most Original symbols, angles and lines can have multiple meanings. The superficial, first level interpretation for the uninitiated is that this engraving is of a crocodile, but upon delving deeper other inspirations come to the fore. One of our most trusted advisers first alerted us to a deeper level in noting that Mountford had been told by Original Custodians that this is not a crocodile but some ‘type of message stick.’ He then quite rightly added, but it looks like a crocodile.
Then with a little more in time research our colleague was able to add some dimension and depth to this second-hand gossip. What was both confirming and more than a touch ironic is that this extension was supplied and published by the South Australia Museum. A commentary by R. M. Berndt in his Panaramitee Magic also carries the claim that the carving is not a crocodile but a “magic representation.”(18) Whichever of these two very similar Original explanations, and these are the only two we are aware of, is accepted as the final word, it is obvious there is so much more to this engraving than the head and scales of a big aquatic reptile with sharp teeth.
Reading Between the Lines
Superficially it looks so like the head of a crocodile, but reading between the lines we recognise a familiar pattern. Look within at the scales of the reptile, each line and shape is of differing length. There are two focal vertical lines, but the horizontal is fragmented and in total there cannot be less than one hundred lines and shapes, and the number of points of intersection is obviously far greater.
Does this sound familiar? Ros Rock 1 has over 200 lines, shapes and points of intersection, and both rocks have lines running off at all sorts of angles, many of which we suspect will be identical. We have been assured by many Elders that the lines and symbols on Ros’ Rock 1 are part of the First Language. If this is true, which it is, then the Panaramitee engraving is at least 75,000 years old and contains magic messages, it seems a simple matter of common sense in suggesting that the engraved lines, shapes and symbols within, along with at least 25 accompanying symbols are part of the very same Original First language.
To go any further requires the assistance of Original Elders knowledgeable in the land from where this sacred monument was stolen or Custodians of the First Language. Hopefully, since it was at their instigation this travesty was made known to us, that will occur. That is another story for another time, but there is something about this particular date of desecration that immediately set alarm bells ringing.
Same Academic Black Hole, Same Time
It would seem by 1939 a 5 foot six inch by 3 foot piece of rock was drilled out and removed to the South Australian Museum, then very soon after the whole event appears to have vanished down a black hole. The artefact is stored somewhere out of the public eye, there is no fanfare of publicity and expected outpouring of replica plaster casts to all points of the globe never came to fruition. Is it a coincidence that in 1939 the champion of an Original First Language and a site of greater importance than Stonehenge, who was also the President of the Australian Archaeology Society, was attacked mercilessly from all quarters and his papers and research was expunged from every academic record in the country? Why was it that Frederic Slater confided in personal correspondence in 1939 that he had “shipped a sea of troubles,”(19) and soon after reported that the entire site had been destroyed because of pressure from the government and opposing academics?
Same date, same fate. In both cases amazing archaeology was there for the taking and is now gone due to malicious interference, and if everything went to plan, neither would have resurfaced. If this precious secret piece of archaeology is to be stolen with a gaping hole left behind as payment in kind, with no-one even bothering to comply with conditions promised in displaying this amazing piece of archaeology, should this obvious insult to Original culture and morality be allowed to remain forgotten? If they obviously have no intentions of showcasing, displaying or publicising the original artefact, then put it back and keep the chemical cast wedged under the table legs. It is a win-win situation. The experts get to maintain their anonymous charade and the Original custodians can begin to mend the land and appease the spirits of that holy site, once the crocodile is secured where it should be, back home.
At this stage of proceedings here is what we know to be the only established facts. The engraving is a stunning piece of art and being dated at no less than 75,000 years old. The skills and technology exhibited have no parallel, and according to the resident expert this engraving is “priceless”(20) and was selected from “the most marvellous native gallery in Australia.”(21) Does it get any better than that? According to the selected representative from the South Australian Museum in 1939, it does not! According to the current spokespeople and decision makers from the presiding in the building, it is inconsequential and not worth showing, printing information about, speaking of or alerting any of the public to its actual existence.
If this isn’t a super-massive inconvenient historical truth denied for over three quarters of century, then what is? If this outrageous situation is allowed to conceal and fester a lie is perpetuated, our collective history is vandalised and a sacred piece of Original archaeology yearns to return to its home to reconnect and heal.
One signature, one truck, one day’s drive to the holes in the rock platform still waiting to be healed, that is what should happen. Or, keep the crocodile head hidden from the light of day and toss its ‘bastard’s son’ under the table and maintain the current status quo. There are only two choices, one is right and the other horrific. It is up to the appointed officials of the Museum to be held accountable for this tragedy and act with compassion and remorse. Make no mistake, there is no other course.
(1). 1938 ‘ROCK CARVING OF CROCODILE.’, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), 29 July, p. 27, viewed 28 May, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article74396837
(18). R. M. Berndt, Panaramitee Magic (Rec. South Aust. Museum, 1987, 20, 15-28).
(19). Frederic Slater, Personal Notes.
(20). “Rock Carvings of Crocodile”, The Advertiser, p. 27.