Summary: A spectacular Aboriginal rock art site, The Tombs in the Mount Moffat section of Carnarvon National Park has over 400 stencils. The site has the only full adult body stencil known to exist in the world.

The Tombs Aboriginal site in the Mount Moffat section of Carnarvon National Park is a significant rock art site, and possibly also a burial ground for the Aboriginal people. The site contains over 400 stencil motifs across the wall of the shelter, which are often quite complex.

One of the most prominent figures is the outline of a human figure – the only full adult body stencil known to exist in the world – who is perhaps guarding the site. (A stencil of the whole upper torso of an adult was recorded in 1987 at a Cape York site in northern Queensland.)

To the left of the human stencil is a full human arm and hand, and a couple of hand stencils in yellow ochre.

1X3A8198 LR The Tombs Aboriginal rock art site1X3A8198 LR yre The Tombs Aboriginal rock art site

To the right of the human stencil are two oval-shaped figures, originally thought to be stencils of eggs or zamia (cycad) seeds. More recently they have been described as stencilled shell pendants called “che-ka-ra”, probably made by the coastal Aboriginal people of Cape York and traded over 1,300km to reach Central Queensland.

Some of the more unusual stencils include what may be a womera (spear thrower), traded from people in northern Australia. The “net” or grid motif is formed by overlapping white lines (there are many of these motifs at the Art Gallery site in Carnarvon Gorge), and they are often associated with mortuary ceremonies and found near burial tunnels.

There’s a single boomerang stencil.

The stencils include kangaroo feet – and The Tombs is the only site in the Central Queensland Highlands where the lower leg of the kangaroo has been included in the stencil.

Stencils of full length ‘hoppers’ are rare, and may depict a sitting marsupial rather than one in motion as indicated by the not uncommon ‘half-hoppers’ stencils in Kenniff Cave.

Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage

There a few stencils which seem to be of feet.

Hand stencils are the most common motifs.

There are also a set of hand stencils in a low cave at the foot of the shelter.

Aboriginal occupation of The Tombs

The Tombs was one of two sites in Carnarvon National Parl excavated by John Mulvaney, who is sometimes referred to as the “father of Australian archaeology”. His archaeological excavations at The Tombs art site revealed Aboriginal occupation deposits extending two metres below the present ground level, covering a time span of at least 9,400 years and far back as 19,000 years. 

John Mulvaney’s excavations at Kenniff Cave and The Tombs had produced a chronostratigraphic record which provided a basic culture-historical record for the region, and was highlighted by Australia’s first firm Pleistocene date for human occupation… On the basis of their excavations at Kenniff cave and the Tombs, Mulvaney and Joyce were able to describe a long sequence, spanning some 19,000 years.

Beaton, Cathedral Cave: A rockshelter in Carnarvon Gorge

Was The Tombs a Burial Ground?

The many natural tunnels in the sandstone formation were believed to have been used as burial chambers by the local Aboriginal people. Skeletons were wrapped and bound in ornately decorated bark burial cylinders, which by the early 1900s had been raided or stolen.

Local Europeans knew it as ‘The Tombs’, for it had once been a burial chamber. Over many generations people had come here to farewell their dead. The bodies, wrapped in bark, bound with hides and decorated with ochre, were carefully placed in the natural tunnels in the rock. But by the time Mulvaney visited in 1960, little evidence remained of this elaborate mortuary culture. The graves had been plundered, the bodies souvenired or sold

Billy Griffiths, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia

This commonly documented is not universally accepted; Andrée Rosenfeld, a world renowned rock art researcher, dimissed the use of the sandstone bluff as a burial site.

Unlike many rock shelters in the Central Highlands of Queensland, there is no evidence at The Tombs that the shelter was ever used for burials; instead the paintings are apparently associated with habitation debris.

Andrée Rosenfeld, A, The Tombs (2003).

Getting to The Tombs site

A signposted bushwalking track goes to the The Tombs site, which has a timber walkway with some benches. It’s 4.2km return walk, or part of the 5.8km Maranoa River circuit track. The trail is near the entrance of the Mount Moffatt section of Carnarvon National Park, which is 220km north of Mitchell, and 460km (5:30min drive) from Emerald.

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