Category Archives: Collection

Henry Lawson’s other skill

Henry Lawson remains one of Australia’s best known poets and authors a century after his death. Poems such as ‘The Lights of Cobb & Co’, ‘The Teams’ and ‘Andy’s Gone with Cattle’, and short stories like ‘Joe Wilson and his Mates’ flowed from his pen. His face has adorned banknotes and stamps.

Henry Lawson’s life was glorious and tragic in equal measure. At once blessed with insight and eloquence, humour and empathy, he was also cursed with melancholy loneliness and alcoholism. As a young man in the 1880s he struggled to overcome a limited education and the isolation of profound deafness. Yet, in the vernacular of the day, he was not without prospects. Henry Lawson was a skilled tradesman; a coach painter.

Henry became apprenticed as a 16-year-old in 1883 to Hudson Brothers, a large construction and railway engineering company with over 1000 staff. He learned his trade painting railway carriages and wagons at Hudson Brothers new workshops at Clyde (Granville) in Sydney, and for a time at their Newcastle works. Henry seems to have been at least proficient, as he considered Hudson Brothers good employers who ‘imported the best mechanics and treated and paid them well.’ [1] (However he may have had a rough time with his foreman at Newcastle.)

A railway carriage built by Hudson Bros. in the 1880s. Image State Library of New South Wales.
Hudon Bros. workshops at Clyde (Granville) in Sydney. Image State Library of New South Wales.

Henry subsequently worked for coachbuilder William Kerridge in Castlereagh Street Sydney, the home of ‘quality’ coachmakers such as Vial’s and Angus and Sons. Kerridge’s carriages regularly won prizes at the Sydney Show, and William Kerridge himself sometimes judged carriage classes. Indeed he was regarded highly enough to be made chairman of a coachbuilder’s conference in 1886. (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Dec 1886. p8).  Henry Lawson later described William Kerridge as ‘an old fashioned tradesman and gentleman’ who had some employees with him for over 30 years. And in return William Kerridge wrote Henry a reference describing him as ‘a steady, trustworthy, hardworking, young man.’ This was certainly a description at odds with Henry Lawson’s later decline into alcoholism and poor mental health.

Coach painting was quite an involved trade to learn. Paints did not come premixed. Painters ground coloured ochre, and blended white lead base powder with linseed oil, terebene hardener, varnish and other mysterious additives. The trade at the time seemed somewhere between science and alchemy. Coach painters painted, sanded and rubbed back coat after coat of paint to produce glossy finishes. It took over a week to properly paint a carriage. Painters could ‘pull’ fine straight lines, paint intricate scrolls, and even produce signage and lettering on trade vehicles. For this they were paid at the same rate as the blacksmiths, body makers, and upholstery trimmers, and even a little more in some shops than the wheelwrights, although apprentices were paid only a fraction of the tradesman’s rate. (SMH, 11 June 1884. p12.)

Paint recipes from The Coach Painter’s Handbook and Guide, Henry J Drane.
A popular brand of paint provided the inspiration for Arvie’s surname.

Unfortunately ill winds were blowing towards Henry Lawson, the carriage industry and the country. The carriage conference William Kerridge chaired in 1886 discussed the effects of drought and cheap imported components on the trade. And an economic depression which even consumed the huge Hudson Brothers business was just around the corner. In 1890 William Kerridge closed the doors of his Castlereagh Street workshop but Henry Lawson had already moved on. He had studied at night while an apprentice in the unsuccessful hope of matriculating to university. A life of letters called.

In the late 1880s he was house painting for money but also establishing his name as a poet. Poems such as ‘Faces in the Street’ (1888) and ‘Second Class Wait Here’ (1899) depict the circles Henry moved in at the time, amongst Sydney’s poor in tenement slums. (Today properties in Phillip Street where he lived for a time and Castlereagh Street are amongst the most expensive in Australia.)

Although he considered Hudson Brothers good and fair employers, Henry Lawson drew on his time as an apprentice coach painter as the setting for two of his darkest short stories; ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’’ and ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’. Arvie Aspinall, is a very young apprentice at Grinder Brothers’ Railway Coach Factory. He tries to help his widowed mother pay the bills, but they still struggle to make ends meet. Arvie has neither the time nor money for interests outside of work believing… ‘it would be better if young fellows of this country didn’t think so much about racin’ and fightin’.’[2] His subcontractor boss Collins underpays the underage apprentice ‘babies’ and works them beyond the standard hours. And he preaches in the park on Sunday.

Arvie is given an alarm clock by a benevolent society after it was reported in a local paper that he was found sleeping outside the factory, having arrived for work in the dark with no way of telling the time.[3] The benevolent society as it turns out is supported by the Grinder family, but their charity is paid for by the labour of those they purport to help, and only extends so far as to keep the workforce ‘grinding’ on in poverty.

On the face of Arvie’s clock are the words,

Early to bed and early to rise
Makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.

‘“Mother!” he said suddenly, “I think it lies.”’ Young Arvie, suffering from overwork, malnutrition and an untreated chest infection dies shortly after in his sleep.[4]

Henry Lawson was writing in the depths of the 1890s economic depression which exacerbated the plight of an already poor underclass. The stories are a reminder that ‘The Wonders of the Victorian Age’ in our museums, such as the railway rolling stock at the Workshops Rail Museum, were produced by a multitude of long forgotten Arvie Aspinalls working long hours, six days a week. And the urban coach painters, blacksmiths, coachbuilders and wheelwrights who built the carriages in Cobb + Co Museum almost never owned one themselves.

Jeff Powell
Curator, Cobb+Co Museum


[1] A Fragment of Autobiography

[2] Two Boys at Grinder Brothers

[3] Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock

[4] Ibid

References

Geoff Barker, 2018 ‘Hudson Brothers’ Building & Engineering Company’. State Library of NSW.

Henry J Drane, 1896 The Coach Painter’s Handbook and Guide, London. Reproduced in Harness, Vehicles, Timber and Coach-Painting, Dene Bindery, Liverpool NSW 1980.

Ross Edmonds, ‘Henry Lawson and the Wickham School of Arts’, Hunter Living Histories, University of Newcastle.

Peter FitzSimonds, ‘From the Archive’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Jan

Henry Lawson, ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’ first appeared in The Bulletin, 11 June 1892, page 11. Also 1896, While the Billy Boils. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Henry Lawson, A Fragment of Autobiography (vol 2) 1899. Angus & Robertson Manuscripts, State Library of NSW.

Henry Lawson, 1900 ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’, Over the Sliprails. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Mike Scanlon, ‘Henry Lawson link should be marked.’ Newscastle Herald, 14 March 2014.

What’s the oldest book in the Collection?

by Shannon Robinson, Queensland Museum Librarian

The Museum library has just over 2400 titles within the Rare Books Collection, spanning publication dates from the 16th century through to the 20th century. Over half, 1450 books to be precise, are from the 1800’s! Much of this material is irreplaceable and, being paper-based objects, in a fragile state. These factors contribute to placing these items in a climate-controlled, restricted access room to ensure their longevity and availability to future generations.

Seeing these items in their current locked up state, it’s easy to forget they initially were found in labs, offices and on shelves in libraries, being reference texts with the latest discoveries of their time. Nowadays they’re historical artefacts, valued for their hand coloured illustrations or being prized as the volume containing the first description of a species.

The oldest book in the collection, Libri de piscibus marinis (aka ‘Summary of Marine Fishes’) by Guillaume Rondelet published in France in 1554, is one of the earliest known undertakings in modern ichthyology to scientifically describe fish known to Europeans at the time using the physical specimen – common practice now, but ground-breaking at the time. Rondelet (1507-1566) is most widely known for this body of work today, but when published in the 16th century, he was renowned as an anatomist, botanist and science professor.

The author is responsible for both the Latin text and woodcut illustrations within the 600 pages. An impressive feat at any date in history! Before the advent of photography, naturalists such as Rondelet embraced printing techniques to include illustrative descriptions of species from woodblock prints to lithographs to engravings.

While this book features around 250 fish species, he extended his scope to include mammals and invertebrates, such as the lobster on page 583 (pictured)…as well as some fantastical beasts, such as the ‘Sea Lion’ and ‘Sea Bishop’ (pictured). These inclusions are exceptions to Rondelet sighting the specimen, so how did they make their way into the book? According to historians, Rondelet did rely on other physicians and their recounting of sightings or stories. It’s been recorded that Rondelet would neither confirm nor deny their actual existence – interpret that as you like!

image 1
De Astaco, lobster, Book XVIII, page 538, woodcut illustration from Guillaume Rondelet‘s “Libri de piscibus marinis”, published in LyonFrance in 1554. Queensland Museum Library rare book.

image 2
De pisce Episcopi habitu, sea bishop, Book XVI, page 494, woodcut illustration from Guillaume Rondelet‘s “Libri de piscibus marinis”, published in LyonFrance in 1554. Queensland Museum Library rare book.

image 3
De Monstro Leonino, sea lion, Book XVI, page 491, woodcut illustration from Guillaume Rondelet‘s “Libri de piscibus marinis”, published in LyonFrance in 1554. Queensland Museum Library rare book.

The Smithsonian Libraries have digitised their copy of this book, available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Grindstone – ancient multi-tools

Marisa Giorgi, Information Officer, Queensland Museum

Grindstones are a relatively common tool found across Australia. But did you know grindstones have many varied uses? Archaeological science is revealing the complex nature of these stone artefacts.

Introduction

At Queensland Museum, we have many of grindstones of different shapes and sizes, from across Queensland. These grindstones represent durable examples of everyday items used by Indigenous Australian people.  They are also integral components of the archaeological puzzle that helps us understand our past.

Grindstone, flat sedimentary rock with striations and polish on one side.

What’s a grindstone?

A grindstone is usually a large flat sandstone rock (abrasive rock) that is used with a suitable top stone, or muller. They form an efficient tool to grind or crush food to release nutrients. An important role was grinding of seeds to make flour for bread. This usually required a flatter top stone. There were many other uses which sometimes involved a smaller more rounded top stone called a pounder. This served to crack open seeds, break bones to extract the marrow, pound plant fibres to make string and grind ochre to create different pigment colours. Sometimes the process was dry grinding and other times using water. Essentially their main use of grindstones was for processing food.

Grindstones can be identified by their shape and wear patterns. Some are deeply abraded, with surfaces often worn smooth from extended use. They were mostly found where Aboriginal people lived and processed food. Grindstones were sometimes heavy (up to 14kg or more) so they were not always convenient to carry. The largest grindstones often remained at certain location for extended periods. Grindstones did wear out, and many areas lack suitable sandstone outcrops to create new ones. A grindstone trade network existed, and some of the recently located production areas are so large that they indicate an extensive and well-developed production for trade. Some areas, including parts of Victoria, seem to have fewer grindstones.

Grindstone – Muller, disc-shaped stone with polishing on one side.

What can they tell us?

We can analyse surfaces of grindstones for traces of plant matter. Because of limited resources this research is only carried out with community permission. Grindstones with a lot of contextual information are generally selected for this research. For this reason it is always important to leave artefacts in situ (In place) when possible. Record the location and report your discovery to the Department of Environment and Heritage so that archaeologists can get the full story behind an object. You can play an important part in preserving Australia’s history.

Grindstone – Muller, rectangular-shaped stone with polishing on multiple sides.

They are not all the same….

In the Museum we have some very specialised grinding stones such as the Morah grinding stone- only found in the Wet Tropics rainforests. This grindstone is made of slate with several parallel grooves incised on its surface to create a processing platform for seeds and nuts. Starch residue analysis on some of these Morahs for provides evidence that the stones are used to process toxic starchy nuts.

Some foods contain toxins which must be released before consumption.  Processing methods included water leeching or washing, and grinding or crushing. Grinding stones also processed plants for medicinal use. Smaller grinding stones were usually used in the production of pigments, crushing different colours of ochre to make a fine powder for the use in painting rock art, for painting on people’s bodies or on objects such as message sticks and shields.

Grindstone technology dates back thousands of years in Australia. Researching them provides us with clues about the food sources that were exploited across different climatic periods. Studies also shed light on the distribution of populations around Australia and how they traded and interacted. Some stones can even be traced to their origins before starting their life as a grindstone. One grindstone recently discovered in the Madjedbebe rock shelter, in Mirrarr Country, in northern Arnhem Land traces grindstone technology back over 60 000 years ago. That is the earliest evidence in the world for grindstones.

Grinding food, herbs and spices between two stones is still carried out today in many traditional communities. Indeed the mortar and pestle remains a popular tool in plenty of modern kitchens. Grindstones are still relevant to indigenous communities today, offering another connection to country and culture. At the Queensland Museum we have procedures in place to facilitate people visiting and reconnecting with their significant objects.

As we have many archaeological artefacts uploaded to our Collections Online web pages, you can start exploring some of the grindstones from the collection here.

Discovering the world’s largest kangaroo – Part 2: In the lab

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum 

The giant kangaroo tibia (shinbone) found at the megafauna fossil sites of South Walker Creek, travelled safely back to the Queensland Museum’s Geosciences collection. The specimen is treated like evidence for a case (fossil evidence!) and is processed through a series of stages from field collection (Part 1) and preparation, to research and conservation. The plaster jacket containing the kangaroo tibia was brought into the fossil preparation laboratory where it was prepared by specially trained fossil preparators, like Rochelle and Peter below. The aim of the preparator is to expose the bone while minimizing the loss of information and preserving the specimen for the future.

South Walker Creek’s senior preparator, Rochelle, using an air scribe to remove matrix away from the specimen.
Rochelle and technician, Peter, make sure to have the right protective equipment when cutting open the plaster jacket. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

To begin preparation, we cut off the lid of the jacket with a plaster saw. Once opened we started to prepare the underside of the kangaroo tibia, the side that was facing down in the ground in the field and couldn’t be seen. We use a range of tools and vibrational air scribes to remove the sediment or matrix surrounding the specimen. As the lab is a technical workspace using electrical tools, equipment and chemicals, we wear a range of safety gear like earmuffs, glasses, dust masks and lab coats. We look pretty cool!

Palaeontology is a little bit like forensic science except we are solving some very, very old cases that involve prehistoric victims. Can you think of the similarities between the two sciences?

Peter uses the plaster saw to cut the lid off the jacket.
Peter begins the bulk removal of matrix surrounding the specimen. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

We continued to remove the matrix in layers before exposing the kangaroo tibia. During this whole process we record, photograph and photogram any interesting features such as a change in the sediment colour or type, or if we come across any other bones and teeth that have been preserved next to the main specimen. This information can help us understand how the fossil site formed through the processes of sedimentology and stratigraphy (the way in which the sediment was deposited in layers) and taphonomy (how the animal decayed and fossilized) [Sketchfab 4]

The tibia is revealed in the matrix about half-way through preparation. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The final phase of preparation for this side of the kangaroo tibia is the surface cleaning and preservation treatment with chemical glues to consolidate [Sketchfab 3] the specimen, keeping it together. It’s during this stage that we see other interesting features on the surface of the bone. With our tibia we found a few pathologies (diseases or injuries). A deep groove [Sketchfab 1] within the shaft indicates an injury or bone disease. However, it also shows secondary bone growth indicating that the disease did not kill the animal because it had time to grow new bone. We then found two puncture marks [Sketchfab 2] which fit the form of crocodile teeth indicating the kangaroo was attacked by a crocodile and this is how the kangaroo died.

Are you starting to see how similar our science is to forensics? We now have an idea of who may have been involved in the death of our victim, the giant kangaroo.

Crocodile teeth of many shapes and sizes found within the South Walker Creek sediment. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The next phase involved the creation of a plaster cradle [Sketchfab 2] so that the specimen could be flipped over allowing us to complete the preparation of the other side. We have to make sure the cradle is just right to support the specimen, not grip it too tight, otherwise it may never be taken out without breaking it. We use plastic wrap to protect the bone and plasticine around the specimen to create a wall for the wet plaster mix (casting plaster and a polymer) to settle and dry into a strong cradle.

Rochelle stands next to the tibia which has completed the first stage of preparation.
The tibia is covered in plastic wrap which is tucked into the plasticine wall. The plaster mix is poured over the plastic wrap molding to the surface of the bone to create a form-fitted plaster cradle for the specimen to sit in. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Can you see the similarities and differences between the field plaster jacket from Part 1 and the collection plaster cradle here?

Once again, we have to undertake the tricky process of flipping the kangaroo tibia in one piece. If we have properly conserved the specimen it shouldn’t fall apart – which it didn’t! We took away the plasticine wall and cleared away any loose matrix to prepare the side we first saw in the field. When it was finished, we did some final photographs and photograms of the specimen, and completed the documentation of our preparation job. The specimen is now ready for further analyses and research!

The kangaroo tibia survived the flip and is ready for the final stage of preparation.
The tibia fully prepared and completed. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

A part of this stage involved the transportation of the kangaroo tibia to a hospital so it could be X-rayed (Computed Tomography scanned). Can you imagine what the other patients thought as we wheeled in a fossil leg bone of a giant kangaroo! A radiographer, like Nikki below, takes x-ray images of the bone from different angles to produce digital slices of the specimen [Sketchfab 1]. This allows us to see inside the bone [Sketchfab 4], like x-ray vision, and in this case to study the pathology [Sketchfab 2, 3] in greater detail. Once a specimen has gone through the research stage it is finally ready for conservation, which is the final treatment of the specimen into a safe environment where it is either stored within the collections or placed on display.

The kangaroo tibia is on its new plaster cradle ready to be CT scanned.
Nikki controls the scanner with her computer and uses special algorithms to process images of the fossil bones, which are denser than human bones. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

We use all of the data collected as evidence to form a profile on our victim. We have found some teeth and other limb bones representing a giant kangaroo that may be associated with our victim. Its unguals (claws) [Sketchfab 3] on its feet also have a unique morphology (form, shape) being long and hoof-like, similar to a deer. It may have used its strong unguals to tip toe, making itself taller, to reach food that was higher up in the trees.

Starting from the back, the white coloured tibia is from a modern kangaroo followed by two fossil tibiae from our giant kangaroo and finally the shinbone of a smaller species of kangaroo. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

In fact, what stands out about this giant kangaroo, is its size [Sketchfab 5] perhaps reaching up to 3 metres in height when on its toes. We compared it to other known extinct giant kangaroos and it didn’t fit these species. Its tibia [Sketchfab 1] is longer than these species even without the epiphyses (end caps) fused, meaning it wasn’t fully grown adult. We think our giant kangaroo might be a new species and it looks to be the biggest species ever found!

Reconstruction of the giant kangaroo with a joey in its pouch next to an adult human of average height. Image Credit: Vlad Konstantinov, Andrey Atuchin, Scott Hocknull, Rochelle Lawrence.

Make sure to check out Part 1: In the Field as we go behind the scenes to collect evidence of a giant kangaroo.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The stages our kangaroo tibia went through from being excavated in the field, documented through photogrammetry, CT scanned and finally reconstructed. Image Credit: Vlad Konstantinov, Andrey Atuchin, Scott Hocknull.

Discovering the world’s largest kangaroo- Part 1: In the field

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum 

As the weather begins to cool, the ‘dig’ season starts for us (palaeontologists) as we venture off along the coast and into the outback heart of Queensland. Over the last ten years we have been investigating a series of fossil sites at South Walker Creek located near the town of Nebo, west of Mackay. It is here that we are finding some of Australia’s last tropical ice age megafauna.

The dig team excavate megafauna bones at the main fossil site on an ancient floodplain. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Our dig team usually consists of palaeontologists, along with other scientists and specialists who contribute and volunteer their time. During the year of 2016 one of our volunteers, Noel Sands, who specializes in caving (and their fossil deposits!) called speleology, found a very large fossilized bone. Using an array of brushes and dig tools, Noel carefully excavated the sediment from around the bone to expose its shape and size. It was identified as a tibia (shinbone) [Sketchfab 1] from a kangaroo, but not just any kangaroo, the world’s largest species of kangaroo!

Using a palaeontologist’s tool kit to remove the sediment and find the extent of the bone. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Once the position of the bone was established, we trenched around the specimen to create a pedestal so it could be isolated, with its surrounding sediment, from the rest of the dig site. The bone was then recorded and photographed in situ (the original place of deposition). We also place a temporary paddle pop stick [Sketchfab 6, 7)] with an identifying field number on the bone so it can be plotted in 3-D using a process called photogrammetry.

Scott and Rochelle doing the ‘photogrammetry shuffle’ where they take overlapping photos at different heights and angles of the exposed bones across the entire dig site. These photos are uploaded to special software to reconstruct them in 3-D, kind of like a 3-D puzzle. Image Credit: Clare O’Bryen.

To begin the process of extraction, we first cover the bone and pedestal with foil to act as a protective layer. It is then covered with strips of wet newspaper, which provides cushioning for the jacket we are going to make to contain the bone. To make the jacket we use strips of hessian dipped in a plaster mix (casting plaster and water) and wrap them around the pedestal with the bone and wait for it dry. This is always the fun job!

The large tibia bone on the pedestal ready to be jacketed.
Scott, Christina and Natalia have fun plastering the specimen. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Once the plaster jacket is dry, the field number and a directional north arrow are written on it so we know which specimen it is and its position in the site. The next step of the process is always tricky and is about getting it just right to roll the jacket over with the specimen kept in one piece. We use a hammer to bang in chisels at the base of the pedestal to loosen it from the underlying sediment. When it becomes loose it is ready to be quickly rolled over. If we have made a good jacket the specimen should stay all in one piece. On rare occasions we are not so lucky, but this time it went without a hitch! You can see this whole process in the video below, check it out!

Scott using a hammer and chisel to slowly wedge the plaster jacket away from the ground.
Noel and Scott sit happy and proud with the successful roll over of the plaster jacket. Images Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Finally, the other side of the plaster jacket is sealed with the same plastering process to form a lid. Now the specimen is protected in a hard, egg-like shell to be transported back to the Queensland Museum and stored temporarily in the Geosciences collection with other unprocessed specimens awaiting preparation. There was also a distal tibia epiphyses (end cap) bone [Sketchfab 3] sitting on the shaft of the tibia and a bone shard [Sketchfab 4] nearby that were carefully collected so they were out of the way of extracting the tibia. We will be able to see if these bones are associated (connected) to the tibia.

Scott and Christina make the lid to the plaster jacket so it is sealed and protecting the specimen inside on its travels back to the museum. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Another challenge of the fieldwork is getting large jackets from the dig site back to the field vehicle. As the terrain is quite rough and our excavations occur in an eroded creek bed we cannot drive very close to the dig site. We have to use trollies, stretchers and manual handling to slowly walk the jackets with their specimens out of the dig site. Whilst excavating fossils by hand is exciting, it is also a lot of hard work. It involves good fitness, experience, precision, problem solving and most importantly team work.

Scott and Peter are tasked with transporting the large plaster jacket across the bumpy terrain to the field vehicle using a trolley. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Check out Part 2: In the Lab as we go behind the scenes to investigate the giant kangaroo leg further.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The dig team sit proudly around the tibia of the world’s largest species of kangaroo, all ready to be extracted. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

 

A Crime scene of the past – investigating tropical ice age megafauna

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum

In 2008, an extraordinary discovery was made at South Walker Creek, located near the town of Nebo, west of Mackay in Queensland, Australia. Traditional owners of the area, the Barada Barna people, were conducting a cultural heritage survey for the South Walker Creek Mine when they came across some interesting bones. These bones were not the usual white colour, like those of cows you find in the paddock, nor were they light in weight or becoming brittle from exposure to the sun. They were dark coloured, a little heavier than usual and quite solid in form.

We have found the white, brittle bones of modern cows and sheep on many of our fossil surveys. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.
 A fossil osteoderm (bone plate) from the scales along a crocodile’s back and a piece of bone below that was first found at South Walker Creek. Image Credit: Andrea Bull.

The bones were fossils! Fossils are the remains or traces of organisms (animals and plants) from a past geological age. Most fossils form from the bones and hard parts of animals and plants, but sometimes in rare conditions the soft parts, such as flesh and organs, can be preserved. The feathers, fur and stomach contents of animals have also been preserved, as well as small creatures, like insects, trapped in the sticky sap of trees, which has hardened into amber over millions of years. Trace fossils can include animal droppings, burrows, eggs or footprints, which can tell us a lot about the animal’s habits. They are all evidence of once-living things!

Brachiood fossil found at Homevale National Park on 29/09/2008 by Josh Moulds.

Fossils are found all over the world, but they only represent a few of the many organisms that have existed on the planet. Special conditions are required for an organism to become a fossil and survive the changes within the Earth’s sediment through time. Firstly, an organism has to be buried by sediment, such as mud and sand, which is usually washed in by water. The next stage of fossilisation depends on the organism itself and the environmental conditions. The bones from South Walker Creek have undergone a process called (per)mineralisation. Minerals from the soil and water in the creeks enter the cracks and pores of the bone making it harder over time and giving it a stony appearance.

White cards with field numberes were used to indicate the fossil bones found within the ancient creek. The one on the left is an arm bone (humerus) from a giant kangaroo, which has a whole other story – stay tuned with future blogs. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The environmental officers of the mine contacted the Queensland Museum where they were put in touch with palaeontologist, Dr. Scott Hocknull, who studies fossils of ancient life. Dr. Scott and his team worked with the traditional owners and mine officers to conduct natural heritage surveys, looking for more fossil remains and traces of past ecosystems within the geological landscape (geology) along the Walker Creek system.

The team surveys the ancient creeks and floodplains of the area looking for other fossil sites. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

On inspection of the fossils, Dr. Scott identified them belonging to extinct giant creatures, not dinosaurs, but megafauna! The megafauna we refer to here occurred during the ice ages of the Quaternary Period from 129,000 to 11,700 years ago. An exciting find was waiting for them in the form of a partial skull from the giant wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum.

The tooth rows from a skull of the giant wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum, were eroding out of the ground. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The megafauna fossils from South Walker Creek mostly represent †extinct species, some of which are new to science, along with a few extant (living) species that survive today. We have found predators such as crocodiles †Pallimnarchus (giant freshwater crocodile), † ‘Quinkana’ (terrestrial crocodile) and Crocodylus (saltwater crocodile), the giant goanna †Megalania (Varanus priscus) and the marsupial ‘lion’ †Thylacoleo.

A fossil tooth from a crocodile found while surveying. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

These predators would have preyed on the herbivores (plant eaters) that they lived with, such as the giant wombat-like marsupial, †Diprotodon optatum, giant wombats like †Phascolonus gigas, the strange giant sloth bear-like marsupial, †Palorchestes, and kangaroos, including the giant forest wallaby, †Protemnodon, a short-faced kangaroo (†Sthenurine), the red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus), a giant wallaby (†Notomacropus) and a giant deer-like kangaroo (†Macropus sp.). 00Rare fossils, including eggshell, of the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) have also been found.

Dr. Scott excavates the tooth rows and partial skull of the Diprotodon to carefully remove it from the ground. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

In among the megafauna bones we also find small fauna of both aquatic (water-dwelling) and terrestrial (land-dwelling) species, along with the fossil impressions of leaves and seeds from the plants that grew in the environment at the time of the megafauna. These delicate remains are rarely preserved in fossil sites of this age and are especially uncommon in the tropics making these sites extra special for palaeontologists. Since 2008, teams have undertaken fieldwork to survey, salvage and excavate fossil sites at South Walker Creek and this work continues today.

Dr. Scott and field volunteer, Noel Sands, carefully carry the partial skull of Diprotodon out of the site as if it were the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The fossil discoveries from South Walker Creek are exciting because little is known about the megafauna from the tropical northern regions of Australia compared to those that have been studied in southern Australia. The site is significant as it preserves fossil evidence that is very close to the time of the megafauna’s ultimate extinction in Australia. By studying the site, we are finding answers to our questions surrounding the evolution and extinction of megafauna. Documenting the responses of megafauna to past environmental change is important to better understand the impacts of future change on our living species.

The team celebrate their exciting fossil finds and Diprotodon treasure. Image Credit: Queensland Museum and BHP.

Stay tuned for future blogs on South Walker Creek fossils as we take you behind the scenes and delve deeper into the past of these tropical ice age megafauna.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The main site of the South Walker Creek megafauna fossils where we are excavating their remains within an ancient floodplain. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

What are megafauna?

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum.

Megafauna are giant animals usually weighing over 44 kilograms (kg). Most megafauna are now extinct (no longer exist) and were closely related to living species of animals we see today. You have probably heard of the more commonly known megafauna species, like the saber-toothed cat and woolly mammoth from North America.

Here is a cast of a saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, that I walk by in our Queensland Museum’s Geosciences collection. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

However, Australia is unique with its own megafauna ranging from huge and sometimes strange marsupials (mammals with a pouch), like the giant sloth bear-like Palorchestes to very large monitor lizards like the giant goanna, Megalania. There were giant wombat-like marsupials the size of a rhinoceros like Diprotodon, an array of giant kangaroos different to today’s species and a weird super-predator called Thylacoleo, which means pouched-lion. Australia even had giant, armoured tortoises with clubbed tails, land-dwelling crocodiles, giant constricting snakes and huge flightless birds.

Reconstruction of one of my favourite megafauna, Palorchestes. Image Credit: Andrey Atuchin, Rochelle Lawrence, Scott Hocknull © Queensland Museum.

Megafauna can also refer to species that weighed less than 44 kg, but resemble a giant version of a closely related living species. For example, the extinct ‘giant’ koala (Phascolarctos stirtoni) was larger than the living koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) and probably weighed under 15 kg. Others include a giant echidna, (Megalibgwilia), the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger and a larger relative of the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus laniarius. The term ‘megafauna’ is still used to refer to our largest living animals today such as the elephant.

Can you think of any other living megafauna or extinct?

A species of living megafauna, the elephant, we saw on safari in Namibia, Africa. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The megafauna arose well after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago. In Australia they reached their largest size during the Quaternary Period (2.58 million to 11,700 years ago). The rapidly changing climatic and environmental conditions created grasslands and open habitats favouring the worldwide evolution of gigantic animals. Towards the end of the Quaternary, extinctions of megafauna occurred with nearly two-thirds of Australia’s largest animals dying out, along with many smaller species.

Skeletons of extinct megafauna, including the woolly mammoth, we saw in the Palaeontological Museum of Liaoning in China. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

There is a great debate in palaeontology (study of ancient life) and archaeology (study of human history) surrounding the big questions of why and how did the megafauna go extinct? Answers revolve around an extended period of severe climate change or human activity, or a combination of both, resulting in extreme changes to the environment. To answer these questions, we have to keep searching for the evidence and investigate more megafauna fossil sites – if they have been lucky enough to be preserved and can be found! Each individual site is a reflection of the different creatures and environmental conditions that existed within the ecosystem of that region representing a small piece of a bigger puzzle involving the whole of Australia and even the world. 

Reconstruction of a Diprotodon who had met its fate. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Climate change here refers to the long-term, natural processes that can change the Earth’s climate such as its orbit around the Sun, changes in solar radiation, levels of greenhouse gases, and plate tectonics (movement of the Earth’s crust). These changes appear locally in the form of sustained changes in weather patterns, like decreases and increases in temperature, the frequency of droughts or flooding and overall intensifying aridity. Human activity during this time refers to hunting and disturbance patterns to the environment such as the burning of the landscape.

The drying and cracking of the earth I captured in outback Queensland. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Today climate change includes anthropogenic drivers, like pollution from increased industrial activities of humans. Some of these include the burning of fossil fuels that generate extra greenhouse gases, pollutants and deforestation. These influence how the temperatures across the globe are regulated and drive global warming, a rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system.

Smog from pollutants, such as cars, released into the atmosphere surrounding a bustling city in Asia. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Megafauna fossils have been found around Australia and throughout Queensland. Those from the Quaternary Period have been found within sites in southern Queensland like the Darling Downs and Eulo. These sites are well known for the world’s largest wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum. Diprotodon would have browsed and grazed through the open woodlands and grassy plains of the downs and around the mud springs of Eulo, where on occasion they got stuck, leaving their bones for us to find tens of thousands of years later.

During this excavation we used the numbers to show where the bones of Diprotodon are situated within the ancient mud spring near Eulo. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

As we head north into the subtropics of central eastern Queensland we find fossils of megafauna from The Caves region near Rockhampton. The fossil remains of these animals that lived around and inside the cave systems have accumulated in cave chamber deposits. These deposits are unique as they record fossil fauna from different environments that transitioned through time from wet rainforests to dry open-arid habitats and then to today’s special vine thicket refugia (habitat supporting refuge). Here we find fossils of the extinct giant tree-kangaroo, Bohra, who is a larger version of today’s living tree-kangaroo species found in Far North Queensland and New Guinea.

Reconstruction of Bohra from the rainforest deposits. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.
Dig pit in Colosseum Chamber of Capricorn Caves preserving fossils of animals from modern refugia. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Even further north in Queensland, west of Mackay, fossils of megafauna are being excavated from sites at South Walker Creek. These fossil deposits are rare because they preserve a tropical megafauna. Not many megafauna fossil sites have been found in northern Australia. Many of the fossil bones have puncture marks made by predatory crocodiles including the extinct giant freshwater crocodile, Pallimnarchus. These crocodiles would have inhabited the billabongs and creeks, hunting at their edge for unaware megafauna that would come to drink.

Reconstruction of Pallimnarchus. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Research into the megafauna is helping us understand their responses to environmental change during the Quaternary Period and hopefully it will answer the many questions surrounding their extinction. If we can track down our past, we can better understand how our present has been shaped by the extinction of the megafauna and hopefully use that knowledge to prepare for the future impacts of environmental change.

Can you think of any impacts to our environments today that affects our living species?

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – Reconstruction of megafauna from the Darling Downs. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.