Sunday, December 9, 2012

Night Sky Dreaming - An Indigenous Astronomy Tour

Discover the wonders of Indigenous Astronomy on a 9 day tour with CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris and well-respected Astronomer Fred Watson.

Image by Renee Nowytarger.

Event Type:
Special event
18 March 2013 to 26 March 2013
$3280 per person twin share (Single supplement:$450)

About the trip

Join CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris and well-respected Astronomer Fred Watson on a 9 day tour through areas of Aboriginal astronomical interest. Meeting in Melbourne, you will then journey to Mildura and enjoy a cruise on the Murray River by Paddle Steamer, discover the histories and walking tracks of the Mungo National Park, enjoy a stop-over in Menindee, before taking some time to explore Kinchega National Park’s abundant bird and wildlife and this is just the beginning.

For the second half of the trip you will head to the character filled opal-mining town of White Cliffs, before entering Mutawintji National Park’s Historic Site where you will embark on an interpretive bush walk, followed by a day spent exploring the Sculpture Symposium and the Royal Flying Doctors, before visiting Coonabarabran - the home of Australia’s largest optical telescope.
Finishing in Sydney, the tour includes comfortable country accommodation, the majority of meals and entry fees as noted on the itinerary. Come along and discover the wonders of Indigenous astronomy and enjoy a little of your own night sky dreaming.

About your leaders

Dr Ray Norris is an Adjunct Professor in the Dept. of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University and studies the astronomy of Aboriginal Australians. Ray is an astrophysicist at CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science (CASS).  He received an Honours Degree in Theoretical Physics from Cambridge University and a PhD from Manchester University.
Fred Watson is Astronomer-in-Charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Coonabarabran, and is well known for his astronomy slots on ABC radio, and on Network Ten’s ‘The Project’. His books include “Stargazer - the Life and Times of the Telescope”, and “Why is Uranus Upside Down?”. In January 2010, Fred was awarded Member of the Order of Australia for service to astronomy, particularly the promotion and popularisation of space science through public outreach.

Trip Highlights

  • An after dinner talk by Ray Norris
  • A cruise on the Murray River by Paddle Steamer
  • A tour of the ‘Walls of China’ lunette system with Indigenous guide Harry Nanya
  • A river cruise on the Menindee Lakes
  • Exploring Kinchega National Park’s abundant bird and wildlife
  • Discovering Mutawintji National Park’s Historic Site
  • Visiting the Sculpture Symposium and the Royal Flying Doctors
  • A special dinner with a local, NASA-employed, amateur astronomer Trevor Barry
  • Visiting Siding Spring Observatory and the UK Schmidt Telescope

What’s included

  • Special guest astronomers Ray Norris and Fred Watson
  • Professional Tour Director
  • 9 nights, comfortable country accommodation
  • Breakfasts, lunches and dinners as per itinerary (B = Breakfast, L = Lunch, D = Dinner)
  • Entrance fees as note on the itinerary
  • Private air-conditioned coach
  • Australian Museum tour host

How to book

Please download your copy of the itinerary.
To secure your place, please email your intention to join us with the completed booking form to or write to:
Fred Watson Tours
PO Box 973
Newport NSW 2106
Your option is held for seven days secured by receipt of a non-refundable deposit. Reservations are confirmed with a $300 deposit with final payment due prior to 18 January 2013.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rare Aboriginal Rock Art Under Threat

On Thursday, 30 November 2012, the 7.30 show on ABC featured a piece about threats to Aboriginal rock art, especially in the Sydney region.  With damage by developers and tourists, Aboriginal sites are being damaged and destroyed at a crippling rate.  The following clip features Duane Hamacher of the Aboriginal Astronomy Project at UNSW showing damage that has recently been done to rock art in Kuringai Chase National Park, home of the famous Emu in the Sky engraving.


Click here to watch the episode.

Special thanks to Greg Miskelly, the Senior Producer for the NSW 7.30 show.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pleiades Visions - Music and Aboriginal Astronomy

Dr. Matthew Whitehouse is an organist, composer, and astronomy educator in the U.S.  He completed undergraduate studies in organ performance at the University of South Carolina, followed by a Master of Music degree in organ performance and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Arizona. One of his major artistic interests is exploring connections between music and astronomy, an interest frequently reflected in his work as a composer and performer.

Dr Matthew Whitehouse

His solo organ work Nebulae, a musical narrative on the process of star formation, has been performed in such venues as Notre Dame Cathedral and St. Sulpice in Paris.  In February 2010, Whitehouse was a featured performer and presenter at a music/astronomy outreach event at Biosphere 2, located just outside of Tucson, Arizona.  Pleiades Visions (2012), his most recent organ work, is inspired by traditional music and mythology associated with the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster.  Improvisation is another of Whitehouse’s specialties, and his organ recitals frequently include improvisations inspired by astronomical images.

Whitehouse's work as an astronomy outreach educator is multifaceted, with a particular emphasis on children, youth, and schools. He is an astronomer partner and teacher workshop leader for Project ASTRO, a nationwide program developed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which pairs astronomers with classroom teachers.  Since 2006 he has served on the instructional staff of The University of Arizona Astronomy Camp (hosted at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona), for which he has developed a series of guided listening experiences highlighting connections between music and science. He has given presentations and participated on panels at conferences of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the American Astronomical Society, and is published in ASP’s Mercury magazine. In October 2010, he was a speaker at the VII Conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena in Bath, UK.  Finally, Whitehouse has served on the staff of evening public outreach programs at Kitt Peak. 

Pleiades Visions (2012) takes inspiration from traditional lore and music associated with the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster from Australian Aboriginal, Native American, and Native Hawaiian cultures. It is based on research by the composer incorporating techniques from the fields of ethnomusicology and cultural astronomy. This large-scale work employs the organ’s vast sonic resources to evoke the majesty of the night sky and the expansive landscapes associated with the homelands of the cultures mentioned above. Other important themes in Pleiades Visions are those of place, origins, cosmology, and the creation of the world.

Infrared view of the Pleiades from the Spitzer Space Telescope. 
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Movement 1: Uluru (Pitjantjatjara) 

The opening movement of Pleiades Visions situates the listener in the landscape surrounding Uluru (Ayers Rock), a large sandstone rock formation located in the central desert of Australia. It can be understood as a reflection on the experience of observing the Pleiades – and the spectacular Southern Hemisphere night sky - from the vast and remote landscape of the Australian Outback. The musical materials comprising “Uluru” arise indirectly from a melody associated with the Pleiades from the Pitjantjatjara people, an Aboriginal group native to the area surrounding Uluru. Like other Aboriginal peoples, the Pitjantjatjara believe that the world was created in the Dreamtime: a time-before-time in which totemic ancestors wandered the landscape, creating animals, natural features, and all aspects of human society. In the Pitjantjatjara culture, the Seven Sisters are considered to be Dreamtime heroes. 

Click here to hear the performance on Whitehouse's Website.

Uluru” opens with a passage reflecting the vastness of the Australian central desert and the mystical nature of the Dreamtime.  Following this expansive opening passage is a colorful section calling to mind images of the Pleiades themselves and the brilliant Southern Hemisphere night sky. This section leads into a large toccata comprising the bulk of the movement; this toccata evokes the majestic rise of Uluru over the surrounding landscape.  The conclusion of “Uluru” reprises the opening material, now using full organ, reinforcing the movement’s depiction of the endless Outback landscape and brilliant desert night sky.


Dr. Matthew Whitehouse is available for concerts, lectures, composition commissions, and education/outreach events.   



            whitehouse.matthew -at- 

            731 W. Bougainvillea Dr.
            Oro Valley, AZ, 85755
            United States

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Total Solar Eclipse 2012 - Cairns, Australia

My wife, astrophysicist Tui Britton, and I were fortunate enough to be with friends in Cairns during the total solar eclipse on 14 November 2012.  It was a great week, in which we visited several rainforest reserves, beaches, and waterfalls.  I gave a talk on Aboriginal views of eclipses while Prof Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize in Physics, 2011) talked about the mechanics of eclipses and cosmology for Small World Journeys, which was well received.

On the morning of the eclipse, clouds in Cairns threatened our view, but Tui and I decided to jump in the car to find a better spot, just minutes before totality (we had nothing to lose!).  We stopped by a row of shops near the airport and managed to film part of the ingress.  But just before totality, the clouds rolled in.  While we were frustrated that we were missing totality, it was still an amazing experience.  The 120 km wide shadow, travelling at 1,000 km per hour, rushed over.  The sky went dark, dogs started barking, the birds went silent, the temperature dropped, and Venus (which was the only planet that wasn't obscured by clouds) shone brightly overhead.  It was my first total eclipse and an emotional experience.

Fortunately, the clouds cleared just enough for us to see the black disc of the moon surrounded by the corona of the sun (below) for about 15 seconds before the sun popped out again, forming the diamond ring.  The sky (still largely obscured by clouds) shone a brilliant orange as the sun peeked out from behind the disc of the moon - we just managed to see it!

The total solar eclipse as seen from Cairns - just before moving out of totality.
Image by Duane Hamacher.

In the Aboriginal traditions of Arnhem Land, we just witnessed the moon man making love to the sun woman.  It was a nail-biting experience, but one I will always remember.  As an astronomer, it was a real tear-jerker moment - one I plan on experiencing again and again!  Later in the week, I was grateful to have a lovely chat with Paul Curnow and Gail Glasper.  Gail is an artist and Paul (BEd) is school teacher and amateur astronomer who has been lecturing at the Adelaide Planetarium for nearly 20 years.  Paul has researched the astronomy of several local Aboriginal groups, such as the Kaurna of Adelaide anAdnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges.

With a few media interviews to get the word of Aboriginal astronomy out to the public, it was a fun, exciting, and productive week.  I made a short video of our experience, which I share below.  Read more about solar and lunar eclipses in Aboriginal traditions or Torres Strait traditions).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wurdi Youang - the latest research

Recently, our paper on the alignments of the stones at Wurdi Youang was published in the journal Rock Art Research.  You can read the paper here.

Ray P. Norris,  Priscilla M. Norris, Duane W. Hamacher, and Reg Abrahams
Wurdi Youang - an Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications
Rock Art Research, 2013, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 55-65.

In this paper, we present a detailed survey of the arrangement, testing the hypothesis that the stones have two sets of orientations tot he setting position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes.  We have published a previous post describing Wurdi Youang, but this paper presents the details of the survey and statistical analysis.

Wurdi Youang has featured prominently in many media programs about Aboriginal astronomy, but some of the reported facts are in error. I would like to clarify these errors here for our readers.

1) We do not know the age of the stone arrangement. The family that owns the property on which the arrangement sits are the same family that settled the area upon colonisation. They claim the stones have always been there, rejecting a European-origin. Sites in the area have been dated to 20,000 years BP, but that does not mean Wurdi Youang is that old. Quotes in the media about this arrangement being 10,000 years old have no basis in fact. That was merely a hypothetical date used to give context to the oldest astronomically related sites we know about.

2) We do not know the purpose or use of this site. It seems to be some sort of ceremonial site, but the astronomical alignments may be peripheral to its main purpose. For this reason, we are careful not to label it an "observatory".

3) Some have suggested that the arrangement is not Aboriginal in origin, pointing out that no ethnographic data supports this claim. They also suggest that we not speculate about the origin of this arrangement until we learn more from our "Aboriginal brothers and sisters." We are still searching for Aboriginal elders who can tell us about the site, but the local Aboriginal land councils have informed us that almost nothing is known about it. But since the family that owns the land say it has been there since their ancestors colonised Australia, we can say that it is not European in origin. And we should be clear that we are testing a particular hypothesis, which does not include speculation.

4) Some people also claim that the stones could have been moved into these positions by humans and we cannot rule out that these alignments are the result of this action. We completely support this notion - that is the whole crux of our argument!  It is obvious someone moved these stones into their current positions for this purpose (it is not a natural feature). However, I believe the comment indicates that this was done by non-Aboriginal people after colonisation. While some of the outlier stones are relatively small and easily moveable, most of the basalt stones forming the main arrangement are quite large and heavy (some exceed 500 kg). Without an archaeological survey, there is no way to be certain who built it. But, again, the owners of the site have claimed the stones were there when the first colonists came to Australia. No other European arrangement resembles Wurdi Youang and it would have made a relatively poor "goat paddock".

The only facts we have are from the archaeological record. We are working closely with the traditional owners and submitting the appropriate permission forms in hopes to date the site and help restore some of the fallen and damaged stones (in some places, large bushes are growing between the stones, dislodging them). Dating the site will conclusively show whether the arrangement was built pre- or post-colonisation. Hopefully, we will be able to determine how old the site is and help the local community piece back together knowledge that has been lost or damaged by colonisation.

Friday, October 5, 2012

In Celebration of Dianne Johnson (1947-2012)

It is with much sadness that I report on the passing of Dr Dianne Johnson (1947-2012).  Dianne was a staunch advocate for Aboriginal rights and wrote the definitive book on Aboriginal Astronomy in 1998, entitled "Nights Skies of Aboriginal Australia: a Noctuary".

I first met Dianne at the AIATSIS Symposium on Australian Indigenous Astronomy in Canberra on 27 November 2009.  She gave a phenomenal talk on the Pleiades in Aboriginal cultures and we had a nice chat.  We met again at the Oxford IX symposium on Archaeoastronomy & Astronomy in Culture in Lima, Peru in January 2011.  Over coffees, cooked llama, and the occasional deep-fried guinea pig, we chatted about cultural astronomy, her experiences writing her book, and her ideas about forming dark-sky reserves in Australia.  She was enthusiastic and engaging.  It was a shock when I heard she passed, but I feel we should celebrate her life and her efforts to improve the state of Aboriginal affairs in Australia and for her amazing contribution to the field of Aboriginal Astronomy.

RIP Dianne - you will be missed but your legacy lives on.

The following is an obituary written by Malcolm Brown for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Dianne Johnson's restless intellect could have taken her anywhere, but so did her social conscience and her inclination to draw closer to indigenous people.

A social anthropologist by training, a world traveller, an educator, artist and writer, Johnson drew close to the history and culture of the Aboriginal people, especially of the Blue Mountains where she spent the latter period of her life. It was not just about justice and land rights, though she contributed to that debate, but quite unusual aspects, such as Aboriginal astronomy, in the publication Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia: A Noctuary. She wrote critically about injustice to the indigenous people in the law, and a historical work about the French explorer Bruny d'Entrecasteaux and his encounters with the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Cultural Campaigner
Dianne Johnson fought for the rights of Indigenous Australians

Dianne Dorothy Johnson was born on January 11, 1947, daughter of an agronomist, Austin Johnson, and Margery (nee Ashton), the eldest of three daughters. She attended Newcastle Girls High and the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College, and decided then, in 1968, to take up a position as the director of a preschool in Port Moresby. That began a love affair with Papua New Guinea and inspired her to enrol in anthropology at Sydney University.

She did archaeological fieldwork on the Murray and the Nullarbor, and for a time was torn between anthropology and social archaeology. Completing her honours year in anthropology in 1971, she met an up-and-coming lawyer, George Zdenkowski. Graduating with first-class honours, she and Zdenkowski went to Paris in 1973 and returned the following year to take up residence in inner Sydney. She resumed her connection with PNG, choosing as her PhD the role of powerful women in government in that country after it gained independence.

Johnson went with Zdenkowski to England, where he was doing six months' study leave at the University of Sheffield. She gave birth to a son, Sasha, in 1977, went to PNG in 1980-81 to do fieldwork for her thesis, and had a daughter, Sophie, in 1983, marrying the next year. Despite her heavy workload, which included lecturing in anthropology at Sydney University, and at the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College, as well as home duties, she completed her thesis and in 1988 moved to the Blue Mountains.

Johnson became a director of Katoomba-Leura PreSchool. She joined the staff of the Blue Mountains TAFE and the CWA evening group. But she also resumed her interest in indigenous affairs and worked with members of the Darug and Gundungurra Nations, the traditional landowners in the mountains. She wrote a volume of poetry, The Jewel Box.

With Bob Brown in early 2012

She criss-crossed the nation to write Lighting the Way: Reconciliation Stories. Johnson also wrote an extensive report for the Gundungurra native title claim, and another that led to part of the Blue Mountains being declared "The Gully", as an Aboriginal Place, the largest such area in NSW. Her biography of Darug nation elder, the late Aunty Joan Cooper, Through the Front Door  helped in Aunty Joan being made an officer of the Order of Australia. With Zdenkowski, she wrote a book on the injustice of mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory. She was also a book reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald. She wrote about tenosynovitis and, for the Journal of Garden History, an article on geraniums, and became involved in the Azaria Chamberlain case.

Johnson's landmark book, Sacred Waters: The Story of the Blue Mountains Gully Traditional Owners won the NSW Premier's History Prize in 2008. But she was not prepared to rest on accolades. Zdenkowski said: ''When she was writing a book on indigenous astronomies - inspired by her encounter with Halley's Comet - she decided to immerse herself in an astrophysics course at Sydney University and casually considered doing a post-doc on the subject until wiser counsel, being myself, prevailed. For her article on geraniums - and her determination to ensure once and for all that the confusion with pelargoniums must cease - she travelled widely. I think it is the only article that links, in a footnote, the bad press that geraniums have had over the years with the scene in the woodshed in D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.''

Dianne in Tasmania

Johnson's penultimate book, Hut in the Wild, included for research purposes a trip to Dixon's Hut in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania. The book spoke powerfully and lyrically about her love of huts and the wilderness. In her last years, though suffering serious health problems, Johnson completed the study of Bruny d'Entrecasteaux, the book launched in Hobart by Bob Brown and by former minister Neal Blewett earlier this year. Dianne Johnson died of a heart attack on May 3. Her funeral was at Leura on May 9. She is survived by her husband, George Zdenkowski, son Sasha, daughter Sophie, son-in-law Fotis and sister Barbara. Her youngest sister, Helen, predeceased her.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tour in the Central Desert & Other News

I do apologise for the sparse posts over the last few months.  The Aboriginal astronomy project has expanded to the Nura Gili Centre for Indigenous Programs at the University of New South Wales, where I have been awarded a Lectureship.  The university is supportive of our research and included an article on the project in the magazine Uniken.  We are busy with new research, but I will be producing a series of short films on various aspects of Aboriginal astronomy, which I plan to put up here soon.

The film below was made by Dr. Craig O'Neill, a geologist and planetary scientist at Macquarie University.  It consists of a few short clips from a recent trip to the Central Desert with 25 members of the Meteoritics Society (nothing fancy, just a few clips of places we visited).  I am writing a new paper on Aboriginal oral traditions of impact craters, which will include some new material.  I am co-authoring the paper with John Goldsmith from Curtin University, who has spent a good deal of time with Aboriginal custodians at Wolfe Creek crater (Kandimalal) in Western Australia.  We hope to submit the paper soon and will provide the final results here once it is accepted.

In the meantime, we have many more papers coming soon and the blog will pick up shortly!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Dhinawan" (Emu In The Sky) with Ben Flick

Ben Flick, an Aboriginal man from the Kamilaroi language group of north-western NSW, explains a creation story passed down to him regarding 'the emu in the sky''.  Astronomy is used to identify the correct time of the year to collect emu eggs. This documentary is one of nineteen that comprises the Through Our Eyes series features Aboriginal Elders and knowledge-holders from the Ngemba, Kamilaroi and Euahlayi language groups in north-western NSW (Brewarrina, Walgett and Lightning Ridge) describing the land management practices and social, spiritual and cultural knowledge that enabled their people to care for the country for tens of thousands of years.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Dhui Dhui story

The Dhui Dhui (pronounced Doo-ee Doo-ee) Story appears courtesy of Russell Butler, of the Bandjin People.  The sea country belonging to the Bandjin (‘Saltwater’) people includes Hinchinbrook Island and Lucinda Point on the adjoining mainland of north Queensland, as well as Gould and Garden Islands and part of Dunk Island.

Long ago, two boys paddled out in a canoe south of Dunk Island (Coonangalbah) and dropped their stone anchor to fish.  The elders had warned them not to fish on that sand spit because there was a big dangerous shovelnose ray (Dhui Dhui) that lived there.  But the boys were defiant and fished there anyway.  As they fished, the ray bit their line and started to tow them around in the canoe, but the boys wouldn't let go of the line. It towed them around the ocean for a while before going down the Hinchinbrook channel. They disappeared into the horizon.  By then, it was getting dark and everyone was worried about the boys. As the people looked south after sunset, they saw the Southern Cross rising, which was Dhui Dhui (the shovelnose ray), followed by the two Pointer stars (the two boys in their canoe).
Dhui Dhui (the Southern Cross) and the two fisherman.

From far northern Queensland, you can see Dhui Dhui rising in the southeastern sky after sunset in early February.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Merlpal Maru Pathanu - Eclipse artwork in the Torres Strait

Artwork and story by David Bosun

Merlpal Maru Pathanu is the terminology most often used by our ancestors to describe either a solar eclipse or a lunar eclipse. Merlpal Mari Pathanu in the Maluililgal language (a western Torres Strait dialect) means "the ghost has taken the spirit of the moon." During this period, the head hunters prepared themselves for battle against their enemies, while the women in the other villages took their children and hid themselves in the bush away from their camps, safe from the attacking raiders.

This artwork is currently for sale.

David Bosun (b. 1973) is a Torres Strait Islander of the Kal-lagaw-ya language group.  He has been an active artist since 1997 through the Mualgau Minneral Art Centre in Queensland.

“Merlpal Mari Pathanu” (AAPN id DB011)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

When Giant Fish Leaves the Sky

I would like to introduce our readers to a video presentation made by John Morieson and Alex Cherney about the astronomy of the Boorong clan (of the Wergaia language in northwest Victoria).

John Morieson is an historian in Victoria who has spent many years researching the astronomy of the Boorong and other Victorian Aboriginal groups.  He completed an MA thesis at the University of Melbourne in 1996, where he reanalysed the work of William Edward Stanbridge regarding Boorong astronomy.

Alex Cherney is an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer in Melbourne.  He has produced amazingly beautiful photography of the sky and has won several awards and honourable mentions in astrophotography competitions, including the STARMUS astrophotography contest, the David Malin awards, and several NASA "Astronomy Picture of the Day" posts.

This video was presented at the 2011 SEAC conference in Portugal.  It was developed using the Stellarium software package, which is freely available.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sky-Shaping (A Poem by Michele Bannister)

28 May 2012

In this way come the names. The kete of knowledge, grasp them, word-woven.
The stars were not spilled from them to scatter—
they are taonga, treasured
a sorrowed son's gift to his father the Sky.
In the spaces between the great river of the goddess of the north,
cloud-shadow, counter-clear, in the south strides the Emu.
Rifted, reflected—
the same place holds the great waka, star-spanned
and the leaping maw of hammer-headed mangō-pare
earnest enemies of fishes.
Some names are found from the quickness of birds
(all the kindness of Tāne; leaf-shadow and branch-shiver, fern-frond unfolded),
even in the tired patience of the frigatebird's long arc, soaring the Pacific,
once seen from a small bark off the isles called Galapagos;
and some from the long slow vastnesses
the patience of ice, the presence of the All-Frozen, seal-teared
children of unknowing oceans.

Michele Bannister was born in the year of Halley's Comet, and retains an uncommon fondness for distant worlds both small and icy. She lives in Australia, where she is working towards her doctorate in astronomy. Her poetry has appeared in Strange HorizonsStone Telling, the Cascadia Subduction Zone and Jabberwocky, and is forthcoming in Ideomancer and Inkscrawl.