Summary: A significant Aboriginal rock art site in the MacDonald River district, Spirits Cave was extensively documented by Ian Sim. The shelter contains 186 motifs, including multiple deity figures and what was thought to be a Rainbow Serpent.

A large sandstone shelter in the Macdonald River district of Yengo National Park, Spirits Cave (as it’s informally called) was known to the local white settlers since the 1860s. One of the earliest settlers in the district was James Jurd, who used the valley to graze stock in the alley; his initials can be seen in the shelter, but he never disclosed the existence of the rock art.

In 1962, Mr E. M. Jurd, the grandson of James Jurd, showed the shelter to Ian Sim, who spent eight days recording the site.

The shelter itself has no signs of occupation, but contains 186 motifs and some shallow axe grinding grooves. It’s thought that the site was a ritual centre, and probably one of very considerable significance to the Aboriginal people.

The figures vary significantly in their state of preservation, suggesting a large variation in their age (with some of them being of considerable age), and some figures appear to have been redrawn many times, while others are superimposed on each other. The figures also include a broad range of motifs, including some figures not usually seen in this area:

The drawings in the shelter also cover an unusually wide range of subjects, including, in addition to the more usual ones, such as anthropomorphs and macropods, species such as tortoise, lyre bird, eagle, wading bird and owl, subjects which are generally rare in the rock art of the New South Wales Central Coast region. Of the few figures in the series which are not readily identifiable, the two white paintings in Section 1 are notable, one of a seven rayed “sun” figure of the type found in a few sites, mainly in areas north of the Hawkesbury River, and the other of an oval shape with a long narrow projection on either side.

Ian Sim, A Gallery of Cave Art in the Macdonald River District NSW

Sim describes the complex site in six sections.

Section 1

This section includes a seven rayed “sun” figure, which is found in a few sites, mainly in areas north of the Hawkesbury River, an infilled figure of a standing owl which has large white eyes, and an indeterminate object painted in solid white which is “suggestive of the head and long horizontal horns of a bullock”.

Sim notes the absence of an emu being unusual (especially since kangaroo and emu tracks are one of the most common motifs in the Macdonald River area); one of the charcoal figures in this section looks like an emu figure, but is an owl.

1X3A1558 LR Spirits Cave in Yengo NP1X3A1558 LR lbk Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

A large anthropomorph is also in Section 1, which is “drawn in a hocker pose”, with upraised arms and appears to have been re-drawn several times, the outlines being extensively duplicated in white, black and red.” Within its body is what may be a koala (deity figure), drawn in white outline, with two large eyes and a single upraised arm.

SpiritsCave Section1 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

Section 2

The charcoal motifs in this section are very hard to distinguish, with the multiple hand stencils the most prominent figures.

Section 2 contains a snake, and on the roof, a kangaroo with two heads both in black infill with a white outline.

SpiritsCave Section2 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

Section 3

This section has a group of three large anthropomorphs next to each other, and contains the only boomerang stencil on the panel (a shallow curved hunting boomerang).

The easternmost [figure] 125cm long has a white outline, infilled with black, white and red, together. It has a series of black rays on its head, two infilled white eyes and three fingers on its right hand. Both arms are extended outward, but the left arm has been duplicated in a vertical raised position. The second figure 115 cm long, has a white and black re-drawn outline, infilled with black and, in parts, black and red together. It has three infilled white eyes and its hands clasped above its head. The third figure 100cm long, has a black and white re-drawn outline, infilled with black and red together. It has a series of thick black rays on its head.

1X3A1586 LR Spirits Cave in Yengo NP1X3A1586 LR ywe Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

SpiritsCave Section3 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

Section 4

Section 4 is above Section 3, and contains a number of anthropomorphs drawn in charcoal (anthropomorphic figures account for 51 of the 85 identifiable figures.)

Next to a large male figure (above right) are “two particularly artistic figures of a tortoise” – one of them drawn in a small recess in the ceiling of the shelter.

There are two fairly distinct wallabies or kangaroos – kangaroos /wallabies are most the numerous animal, with eleven in total.

1X3A1611 LR Spirits Cave in Yengo NP1X3A1611 LR lbk Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

1X3A1657 LR 2 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP1X3A1657 LR yrd 2 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

This section also has a lyre bird with “a long, thin arched neck and a long arched tail which terminates in a pyriform mass representing the lyre formation”.

SpiritsCave Section4 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

Section 5

This is the most complex section, with a large eel-like figure that spans the entire width of this group of figures: “Figures like these, of super normal proportions, have only been recorded from a few sites in the cave art of the region”. McCarthy hypothesized that these eel-like figures were representations of the mythical Rainbow Serpent, a giant water-dwelling deity figure. (Large eels engravings can be found at Mooney Mooney and the Howe Aboriginal Area, both on the Central Coast, and at Cordeaux in Sydney’s south.)

It’s hard to see the entire outline of the eel but the head is fairly distinct.

Superimposed on the eel are three anthropomorphic figures, over which a number of hand stencils have been superimposed. (Some of the anthropomorphs have three or four eyes, which may indicate omniescent power; Sim explains that the Gumbainggar of the North Coast believed in three equivalent spirit beings who had several eyes in its head and could see in all directions.)

The most impressive figures in the series are several large anthropomorphs and a large eel-like figure. The anthropomorphs are presumably male since they lack breasts. Except in one case the sex is indistinguishable, the lower parts of the figures having weathered away or not been drawn. The main focus of the series lies near the middle of its length, in the concentration of large figures in Section 5. At the western end of this group is a faded figure of the head and outstretched arms of an anthropomorph (Fig. 48) in red infill with a white outline. It has two large eyes in solid white and its massive flat-topped head, 75 cm. across, carries six vertical rays, also in red with a white outline. Each hand has four fingers.

Ian Sim, A Gallery of Cave Art in the Macdonald River District NSW
1X3A1624 LR Spirits Cave in Yengo NP1X3A1624 LR ywe Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

This section contains the only two fish on the panel, one held in the beak of a long-legged bird (in black infill with a white outline). Below these is a well-preserved stencil of a hafted axe.

SpiritsCave Section5 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP

Section 6

Most of the charcoal figures in this section at the far end of the shelter are weathered, and difficult (or impossible) to discern.

The most distinct figure is a lizard, in red-orange infill.

The last section contains “the only eel in the series” (presumably Sim considers the eel-like reature in Section 5 not to be an acuat eel), a large kangaroo, and a “very artistically drawn life-sized eagle in a perched position”).

SpiritsCave Section6 Spirits Cave in Yengo NP


There are a total of 55 stencilled figures, of which 47 are hands (20 left hands and 14 right hands), with all the stencils being adult hands.

It is also open to speculation as to whether any of the groups incorporating
natural species in intimate association with anthropomorphic figures or stencilled
hands are intended as expressions of totemic relationship. In Section i, figures of
owl and koala (?) drawn on large anthropomorphic figures, and in Section 5, the
complex of the large eel-like creature and large animal (?) and anthropomorphic
figures, are at least suggestive of such an expression. As McCarthy comments
(66, P. 117), there are several figures among the known rock engravings of the Sydney
district which appear to combine human and animal features, and which he identifies
as representations of totemic ancestral beings, but only one such composite figure is
known among the rock sh

Axe Grinding Grooves (AGG)

At the western end of the shelter is are four axe grinding groove, and nearby is a sloping depression in the floor of the shelter, which may Sim documents was used as a mortar. Sim also noted “a group of seventeen vertical holes, apparently mortar holes”.

Stone Arrangement (STA)

Not documented by Sim, and perhaps a European addition to the landscape, is a stacked line of stones which points directly to the shelter.

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Aboriginal Sites by National Park

A review of different techniques for photographing Aboriginal rock art. This includdes oblique flash, chain and planar mosaic imaging which combines hundreds of overlapping photos.
Located to the north-west of Sydney, just south of the Dharug and Yengo National Parks, Maroota has a high concentration of (known) Aboriginal sites. Many more Aboriginal heritage sites are located in the Marramarra National Park. The original inhabitants of the area were the Darug people.
Over 40 sites have been recorded within the park; many were located along the river bank and were flooded by the building of the weir in 1938.