Jon Rhodes, Cage of Ghosts, Darkwood, NSW, 2018
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The majority of figures are … probably drawn by eye, and exhibit a considerable amount of ability, being either true to nature, or to some adopted design of a deity or spirit.
William Dugald Campbell, Government Surveyor,
Aboriginal Carvings of Port Jackson and Broken Bay, 1899

Aboriginal culture and spiritual life is most often revealed through history, anthropology and archaeology. In this inspirational book we learn through art and artefacts that survive in the landscape, principally engravings in sandstone, cave paintings and carved and scarred trees.

It is a novel and rewarding approach.

In Cage of Ghosts Jon Rhodes, highly regarded as a photographer, captures, connects and interprets the timeless Indigenous presence through his own eyes, his camera lens and in stories about the pioneer surveyors, anthropologists and historians who obsessively recorded these sites.

It is meticulously researched and compiled, with relevant images, some that crop up in the explicit and sometimes lengthy footnotes, often as absorbing as the text. In one footnote, correspondence by the late Spike Milligan tells us about his efforts to save rock art near Woy Woy, New South Wales, now the Bulgandry figures in Brisbane Waters National Park. 

Jon Rhodes probes the puzzle surrounding the red ochre and white pipeclay painting of Bunjil with his dogs (or dog!) in a granite shelter in the Black Range, near Stawell in central western Victoria, now protected from grafitti by a welded mesh cave. Has one dog been added or moved since the cave became known?

Bunjil, the Eaglehawk, a sky-hero of the Kulin, created mountains, rivers and people before he was swept into the sky with his sons in a whirlwind created when Bellin-bellin the Crow opened his sack. Now Bunjil is Altair, principal star in the constellation Aquila. The Wurunjeri gave the names of Bunjil’s sons to the fingers of the left hand.

I became familiar with Australian rock art and the better known rock engravings in the Sydney area through the works of Fred McCarthy in Australian Rock Art (Australian Museum, Sydney 1967) and Peter Stanbury and John Clegg, A Field Guide to Aboriginal Rock Engravings, (Sydney University Press, 1990).

Jon Rhodes examines sites like Bantry Bay, first seen by First Fleet Surgeon John White in April 1788; Gumbooya Reserve, Allambie Heights, once called ‘Flat Rocks’; regrooved images at Bondi Golf Course, and the sad disappearance of more than 80 art works that once covered the rocks at Willara / Point Piper. He reveals that the last remaining carving – a whale or sunfish – from the Point Piper group is now permanently protected under the immovable floorboards of a garage. See ‘Designs made by the Natives’ – my post for May 16, 2018.

Cage of Ghosts was deservedly winner of the 2019 New South Wales Regional and Community History Prize. The judges remarked:

Cage of Ghosts … is a subtle exploration of the way that thousands of years of Indigenous history are both visible, and hidden, in Australian landscapes. It is a formidably documented study with the power to reshape how we see the places where we live. Jon Rhodes evokes a multilayered country whose meanings have been shaped by the ancient cultures of First Nations peoples, but also by the complex, tragic history of settler colonialism.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020