The earliest methodological surveys and recordings of Aboriginal rock art was in the 1890s, by R.H. Mathews (a surveyor and self-taught anthropologist) and W.D. Campbell (a licensed surveyor).

By the mid 20th century, Fred McCarthy and Ian Sim emerged as the most prolific and dedicated recorders and researchers of Aboriginal rock art in the Sydney Basin. Other notable people who contributed to our understanding of rock art sites were Peter Stanbury (an academic at Queensland University and the University of Sydney), Warren Bluff (a train driver) and Michael Guider (gardener and later a convicted child molestor). Until the 1960s, members of the public and NPWS staff were a significant source of information on sites.

Towards the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century came renewed interest in Australian archaeology combined with a more scientific approach to anthropology. The protection of Aboriginal heritage sites by law (the Environment Planning and Assessment Act 1979 required Aboriginal heritage to be assessed as part of an environmental impact assessment prior to any development) resulted in many archaeological consulting projects. Considerable research was done by Jo McDonald (who analysed and interpreted images within the Sydney Basin), Vincent Megaw (who directed a research program excavating multiple Aboriginal sites) and Val Attenbrow (who focused on the subsistence patterns, resource use and stone tool technology of Australian Aboriginal people). Other individuals who continued to update records and identify new sites over last 20-30 years include Eric Keidge, Bob Conroy and Steven Chappel (who all worked in the NPWS) and Collette Douchkov.

William Dugald Campbell 1841-1938)

CampbellCover Australian Aboriginal anthropologists

There’s surprisingly little information on W.D. Campbell. Born in Argylshire (Scotland) and trained as a geologist, Campbell migrated from the UK to New Zealand in 1876, where he worked on a variety of geological problems. He moved to NSW in 1885, where he worked as a surveyor and began to to take an an interest in Aboriginal rock art and culture. Campbell then moved again in 1896, this time to WA where he acted as surveyor in the Menzies area as one of the first members of the Geological Survey of WA before retiring in 1909.

Campbell published numerous papers on the ethnology of Australian Aborigines, many with a focus on Western Australia. In 1899 the Department of Mines and Agriculture published Memoirs of the Geological Survey of NSW, Ethnological Series 1, Aboriginal Carvings of Port Jackson and Broken Bay. This was a comprehensive collection of about 250 Aboriginal engraving sites across nine parishes, measured and described by W.D. Campbell – and the first major publication of systematic rock art recordings in the Sydney region.

  • W.D. Campbell, Aboriginal Carvings of Port Jackson and Broken Bay. Download PDF.

Robert Hamilton Mathews (1841–1918)

RHMathews Australian Aboriginal anthropologists

Becoming a licensed surveyor in July 1870, Mathews began taking an interest in traditional Aboriginal customs while working in northern NSW in the 1870s and 1880s. Self-taught in anthropology, his first paper discussing art sites in the southern part of the Hunter Valley was well received by the Royal Society of New South Wales. Encouraged by Campbell, Mathews submitted a paper on Aboriginal rock art which was awarded the Bronze medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1894. (Although he won a prize, the Royal Society of NSW refused to publish his essay as a condensed form of the same paper has been published in the rival Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria. As a result, Mathews sought other avenues for publication and ended up being published in journals in France, Britain and the USA).

Following these early successes, Mathews retired from surveying in the early 1890s and devoted his time to anthropology. Where Campbell focused on Aboriginal engravings, Mathews was intrigued by cave paintings and hand stencil sites, which he covered in great detail. He was very meticulous in his sketches, noting in one paper: “A very disappointing reproduction of this drawing appeared in the Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, vol. 3, p. 80, table 15, fig. 12. The observer missed many of the lines engraved on
the rock, and others were reproduced inexactly, the outcome being that this native drawing of a man was taken to be a drawing of a fish.
” As well as rock art, Mathews also documented the Aboriginal people’s ceremonial life, social structure, descent systems, marriage laws and and language. Between 1893 and 1912, Mathews published 23 articles on Aboriginal rock art, and 171 articles and approximately 2200 pages in total on anthropology.

  • R.H. Mathews, Aboriginal Rock Paintings and Carvings in NSW (1894). Download PDF.
  • R.H. Mathews, Australian Rock Pictures in American Anthropologist, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1895)
  • R.H. Mathews, Aboriginal Rock Paintings and Carvings in NSW in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 25 (1896). Download PDF.
  • R.H. Mathews, Australian Ground and Tree Drawings in The American Anthropologist, Vol 9, No. 2 (1896)
  • R.H. Mathews, Carvings and Paintings of the Australian Aborigines in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 36, No. 156, p.466-478 (1897)

Fred David McCarthy (1905–1997)

Starting his career at the young age of 14 when he got a job as a library clerk at the Australian Museum, McCarthy moved from the library to the Department of Birds and Reptiles and then took a role as an assistant in the Department of Ethnography. McCarthy then enrolled in at the University of Sydney in the newly formed Anthropology Department, gaining his thesis in 1935. In 1941 he was promoted to First Class Scientific Assistant and appointed curator of the anthropological collections. In 1964 McCarthy left the Australian Museum to become the Foundation Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal studies, until his retirement in 1971.

As well as lobbying for state legislation to protect and preserve Aboriginal sites (which he finally achieved in the 1970), McCarthy published over 300 papers during his career. His published works include the most comprehensive catalogue of Aboriginal rock engravings ever produced, which consolidates recordings from Campbell and Sim, as well as his own research. The two-volume Catalogue of Rock Engravings has over 1200 pages, covering over 500 Aboriginal sites from the south of Sydney up to the Hunter Valley.

  • F.D McCarthy, Catalogue of Rock Engravings in the Sydney-Hawkesbury District, NPWS (1983). Volume 1 and 2.
  • F.D McCarthy, Rock engravings of the Sydney-Hawkesbury District, Part 1 (1959) Download PDF.
  • F.D McCarthy, Rock engravings of the Sydney-Hawkesbury District, Part 2 (1959) Download PDF
  • Kate Khan, Frederick David McCarthy: a Bibliography. Download PDF.

John Clegg (1935–2015)

John Clegg was born in Nottingham (England) and grew up in Cambridge, where he studied archaeology. After working as a teacher in the UK, Clegg travelled to Australia in 1963 where he participated in an excavation as a contract archaeologist. In 1964 he took up a position in archaeology at Queensland University, moving to Sydney in the 1980s where he was a lecturer in the Archaeology Department of the University of Sydney.

Clegg published over 60 archaeological papers and books, including a popular Field Guide that made Aboriginal rock art more accessible to the general public by explaining their historical and cultural significance and “how to interpret and appreciate them”.

  • Peter Stanbury and John Clegg, A Field Guide to Aboriginal Rock Engravings (1990). Out of print.

Ian McHutchison Sim (1931-2021)

Ian Sim started his career as a trainee surveyor, working as a trainee in Bangate (in the Goodooga area in central NSW) where he notated the Euahlayi language. Sim eventually become an officer of the State Planning Authority. Between 1960 and 1983, Sim recorded a large number of Aboriginal sites in and around the Sydney basin.

Sim was awarded an Order of Australia for service to community history, in particular the preservation and recording of Aboriginal rock art and engraving sites in NSW, as well as recording material in Yuwaalayaay and other languages. A prolific recorder, by 2016 Sim had recorded 264 sites, with his unpublished material now archived by the AHIMS as the ‘Sim Collection’.

  • I.M. Sim, Records of the Rock Engravings of the Sydney District in Mankind. Groups 103-174 (Feb 1962, May 1963, Nov 1963, Nov 1965, Nov 1966, Jun 1969)

Dr Val Attenbrow (1942– )

After completing a three-year diploma course in archaeology, Attenbrow completed an Honours degree in the University of Sydney’s Department of Anthropology. Shen then worked as a consultant archaeologist and in the Cultural Heritage Division of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, before completing a PhD at the University of Sydney. Since 1989 Attenbrow has been a Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum.

Attenbrow published over 50 papers, including a comprehensive study of the Aboriginal prehistory of the Sydney area, ehich won the inaugural (2004) John Mulvaney Book Award from the Australian Archaeological Association .

  • Sydney’s Aboriginal Past: Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records (2010). Purchase.

Dr Josephine McDonald

Jo McDonald studied archaeology at the University of Sydney before gaining her PhD from the Australian National University. Her PhD research was completed in 1994 and updated in 2008 as the very detailed and comprehensive Dreamtime Superhighway: An analysis of Sydney Basin rock art and prehistoric information exchange. McDonald’s research demonstrated the cultural and social influence of rock art in the Sydney Basin, and pioneered the use in Australia of radiocarbon dating of pigment rock art. Her later research looked at the rock art of people living in deserts and arid regions (in Australia and the US) and the relationship between rock art and social networks in the Pilbara and Western Desert.

Following a career as a cultural heritage consultant, McDonald was appointed Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research + Management at the University of Western Australia.

  • J McDonald, Dreamtime Superhighway: An Analysis of Sydney Basin Rock Art and Prehistoric Information Exchange (2008). Download PDF.
  • J McDonald and P Veth, A Companion to Rock Art (2012)