The Ploughed Ground – 2

August 12, 2012

For the historical context to this story please go back to The Ploughed Ground – Part 1.

The Ploughed Ground – 2

In 2007 I had the opportunity to examine the Ploughed Ground with Dr Roy Lawrie, then a soil scientist with the NSW Department of Agriculture.  Roy has worked closely with many archaeologists and I’ve known him since the dig of the First Government House site in Sydney in 1983.  I had called Roy up to discuss another site I was planning to work on a bit further south, but as we chatted I thought I’d ask him whether he had any idea of what this plough marking may be and I described Mason’s and others’ descriptions of it.  Without any hesitation he suggested ‘linear gilgai’, an unusual but by no means rare phenomenon that is found around the world.

Linear gilgai is a version of the more general landform gilgai, which refers to any sort of repetitive ditch and mound formed naturally within soils.  The name itself comes from the Wiradjuri language, which ties it nicely into the centre of NSW, and has been adopted around the world.  Its modern known distribution  is from the Hunter Valley, but mainly from northern NSW and southeastern Queensland [Beckmann et al 1973].  There has been much speculation among soil scientists on the precise factors that generate gilgai, but a substantial depth of igneous-derived soil on slopes seems to be necessary.  Blackburn [1974] noted that the known distribution proposed by Beckmann had to be extended further south.  He had come across Wells’s [1848] description of the Ploughed Ground and recognised it as a linear gilgai.  He further noted some of the landscape descriptions by Howitt which were possibly of linear or mounded gilgai in northern Victoria.

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The Ploughed Ground – 1

August 12, 2012

One of the earliest speculations about unrecorded voyages to Australia comes from the memoirs of Joseph Mason, a convict who served his sentence in NSW in the 1830s.  Mason’s handwritten memoirs remained almost unknown, but were finally edited and published in 1996 [Kent and Townsend 1996] and are an important source for Australian convict history as seen from the inside.

Mason was transported for participation in unrest arising from the social dislocations accompanying industrialisation in Britain.  Perhaps because of his status as a political prisoner he reveals himself to be a thoughtful chronicler whose memoirs are quite different from the normal convict fare.  He was assigned as a convict servant to Hannibal Macarthur at his Vineyard estate near Parramatta in 1831.  Macarthur also had another grazing estate called Arthursleigh on the banks of the Wollondilly, south of Sydney, which had been established before official settlement was permitted within this area [Fletcher 2002].

In a section of his memoirs where he speculates about previous history of Australia, and whether the Aboriginal people were its sole former occupants, Mason says:

There is two spots of ground one about 30 miles to the south of any residence and the other on the bank of the Hunters River which I was informed by creditable witnesses as well as having seen the same in a book bear marks as if it had once undergone the operation of ploughing. The first of these lies in the road leading to the south of the colony and is always called the ploughed grounds. The blacks have been asked if they know what occasioned these spots [of] land to Assume their present shape but their are quite ignorant as to the cause Had any of their ancestors been acquainted with husbandry there certainly would have been more extensive marks of it remaining than these two spots of ground nor is it likely that the present race or rather generation should have been so retrograded from the path of industry as to possess not a single grain of corn an agricultural impliment, or the slightest notion of cultivating land.  [Kent and Townsend 1996: pp. 121-2]

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