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Stars over Tyrrell: John’s story

Words, voices and images: Connecting to cultures around the world

“Everything in nature is represented in the soil and in the stars. Everything has two witnesses, one on earth and the other in the sky. Everything is represented in the ground and in the sky.” David Mowaljarli

Andrea and Peter Hylands

August 4, 2023
"I had been doing some field research on Aboriginal stone arrangements, which indicated good knowledge of the sun’s movement both daily and yearly. I wondered if therefore they also had any connections with the stars so I started reading articles on Aboriginal astronomy. When I came across the paper by William Stanbridge, which quoted the Boorong constellations and gave the European equivalents, I started to look at the night sky and realised that I knew nothing about astronomy". John Morieson

Stars over Tyrrell

Andrea and I met John and Kirsty Morieson in 2014 through an introduction by Niagara Galleries director Bill Nuttall. 

Sadly and by then, John was already ill from the disease which was to take his life. We publish this web version of Stars over Tyrrell: The night sky legacy of the Boorong to honour John for his detailed and long term investigations of the Boorong night sky and for his deep understanding of why the Boorong must be remembered in the stars and night sky that so shaped the lives of Victoria’s Aboriginal people. We would like to thank the astronomer and photographer, Alex Cherney, for his superb photos and time lapse movies of the Boorong night sky.

We thank Kirsty for her assistance and friendship.

John and Osker

John Morieson

“John Morieson was the only person I met at conferences in the 1970s who seemed to be interested in the night sky as Aboriginal people know it. I had begun to read the material, but he introduced me to Stanbridge when I went to see him in Melbourne in his Swinburne days; and those days were of immense value because he was so warm to people, and I was so lucky to meet him many times over the next years, and his family. As a colleague with a Melbourne academic and college background somewhat overlapping with mine, he began to reveal himself as someone in the social sciences who treated people as persons, always, never as statistics and numbers; and then, over the years, I began to know him as a man with deep respect for Indigenous men and women.
He was passionately involved with their well-being when there was not enough respect at that time for Aboriginal people in Australia. The often ignorant, negative judgements on these ancient people, leads to the whole nation being criticised globally for its moral ambivalences. These appear regularly, and John was ready to perceive them, and with head, heart and hand acted with real hope”. Dr Hugh Cairns

John Morieson: How i found the stars of the Boorong

I had been doing some field research on Aboriginal stone arrangements, which indicated good knowledge of the sun’s movement both daily and yearly.

I wondered if therefore they also had any connections with the stars so I started reading articles on Aboriginal astronomy. When I came across the paper by William Stanbridge, which quoted the Boorong constellations and gave the European equivalents, I started to look at the night sky and realised that I knew nothing about astronomy. 

I borrowed a copy of the Collins Guide to the stars and planets and began looking upwards. I soon found that the lights of the city made observation difficult so I visited Lake Tyrrell with Doug Nicholls, the cultural officer at Swan Hill District Aboriginal Cooperative.

He showed me the dark patch of the Emu in an otherwise brilliant night of stars. Then the moon came up, the Emu disappeared and much of the sky’s detail was lost. Nonetheless it was an inspiring beginning.

I turned my ignorance of European astronomy into an advantage. When I sought out Lyra I looked for a Mallee Fowl instead of a lyre. And I found it, looking just like the profile of the Mallee Fowl in the bird book.

In the research that followed I had cause to look at many bird books; to references on marsupials, reptiles and fish; to Aboriginal language vocabularies; to ethnographic texts; to local maps and to a series of astronomy references. I learned to use a planisphere, I took every opportunity to go camping on the Murray and in northern Victoria at various times of the year. I kept a fieldwork sketchbook and I swapped findings with the late Robert Mate Mate, initiated man and wonderful storyteller. 

Doug Nicholls gave me continual encouragement as did Alan Burnes, the cultural officer with the Goolum Goolum Cooperative at Horsham, which represents the descendants of the Wergaia, the language spoken by the Boorong.

I started out in 1993, found most of the creatures and the people within two years but took until last year to find Kulkunbulla. One of the Brothers Berm still eludes me.

Archaeological investigation at Lake Tyrrell (also spelt Tyrille), the Anglicised version of “direl”, lead us to accept an occupation date of 30,000 to 40,000 years. This means that there may have been over a thousand generations of people continuously using this country. Small wonder then that a giant text-book of the land was created in the sky to provide instruction in the law, morality, role models, seasonal food gathering and a multitude of other teachings and knowledge that are reflected in the rest of the Boorong celestial panoply.

Just a little over a hundred and fifty years ago an Australian Aboriginal family at Lake Tyrrell in northwest Victoria (Australia)told William Stanbridge, a newcomer from England, something of their stories relating to the night sky. Some forty stars, constellations and other celestial phenomena were named and located. Stanbridge later gave an address to the Philosophical Institute in Melbourne on this topic. After reading his account in the early 1990’s I looked for these celestial phenomena, found them, and have tried to ascertain the way the Aboriginal clan, the Boorong, may have seen them.

Thus in my exploration of the four pages of cryptic clues bequeathed firstly to William Stanbridge by the Boorong and from Stanbridge to us, I have sought explanation through western astronomy, ornithology and zoology, linguistics, anthropology and sociology, archaeology and geography, ethnology and ethnography, and human physiology. It has been, and continues to be, a very exciting and stimulating journey and I am very proud to be able to bring this insight into the intelligence and intellectual powers of a vanquished people who did not require literacy to transfer their knowledge from generation to generation, but instead used the stars and their superlative imagination to do so.

I realised then that even though the Boorong were no longer present and many creatures no longer lived in that country, it was possible to reconstruct some of their life on the ground by analysing what was in the sky. The four pages by William Stanbridge, unexamined for a century and a half, then became the source of great privilege and joy for me in finding the creatures and the people in the southern night sky. When I first saw the Ring-tailed Possum at the top of the Southern Cross, I realised how people could be excited by this discovery and I wondered how Aboriginal people would view the retrieval of this information.

I was also lucky that William Stanbridge was a keen observer, could name the European equivalents and wrote down these details as well as a cryptic explanation as to the meaning of each star or constellation. He wrote that the Boorong:

“Pride themselves upon knowing more of astronomy than any other tribe”.

It took a couple of years of searching to find most of the celestial panoply of the Boorong. There are still two items that elude me. As I had made an earlier study of anthropology it was not difficult to deduce some cultural meanings in these night sky images at the same time I was finding them. I have no way of verifying these deductions so my research is entirely hypothetical, though very satisfying all the same.

The invasion by the Anglos of that part of Australia, now called Victoria, was swift and decisive. The people were killed, diseased, removed or incarcerated at such a rate in the first two decades that by the mid 1850’s there was absolutely no future for their several languages, their cultural memories and their identity. Today there is almost no written record of those ancient local Aboriginal cultures on which to base a substantive indigenous studies curriculum. There are volumes of information from Central or Northern Australia but virtually nothing in comparison in my home state of Victoria. Thus the reconstruction of Stanbridge’s memory of what the Boorong told him, is, I believe, an important artefact that is yet to be fully realised.

They were here as recently as 150 years ago. They spoke about the main players in their celestial domain and pointed them out in the night sky. Today they are gone and the reconstruction of their cosmology has required the breadth of the nineteenth century natural philosopher, drawing on zoology, botany, and linguistics, ethnography, geography and anthropology, as well as patient, long-term naked eye observation. It has been an exciting and stimulating task to gradually unfold these stories of the Australian Aboriginal clan who were regarded by neighbouring clans as the best astronomers in the region.

I came across a paper by William Stanbridge who addressed the Philosophical Institute in Melbourne in 1857, one hundred and fifty years ago. Stanbridge was the first Englishman to take up residence in the country of the Boorong, which is in what we now call north-west Victoria. Often cloudless during the day, this dry country is a spectacular star-filled vista at night.

The nearby lake they called “direl” because even though most often dry, it is salt encrusted, absorbs moisture from the atmosphere, and in its few centimetres covering of water, provides a mirror image of the night sky. “Tyrille” in the local language means “night sky” or “space”.

In his notes, Stanbridge wrote down the name of the forty stars or constellations given to him by the Boorong, added the European equivalent, and wrote a cryptic clue for each celestial name. The first one looked for was ‘Neilloan’. Stanbridge wrote: “Neilloan (Lyra), (a Loan flying), the mother of Totyarguil and discoverer of the loan eggs, which knowledge she imparted to the Aborigines. When the Loan eggs are coming in to season on earth, they are going out of season with her. When she sits with the Sun the Loan eggs are in season”. (Stanbridge, 1857:138-39).

The first thing I had to do was learn about the Lowan, also called the Malleefowl. I found the authoritative text and commenced to read the ornithological account. At the same time I looked for Neilloan in the night sky. I found her by looking for Lyra, or by first finding Vega, courtesy of the European sourced astronomical manual. 

I started as an astronomical novice, but I turned this into an advantage. Instead of looking for a musical instrument I looked for a Malleefowl. And I noticed that the positioning of the stars seemed to resemble the outline of the bird in profile. I was astounded. But I was also dismayed because I could see only Vega unassisted. I had to use binoculars to see the other stars and I knew that these were not available to the thousand generations of the Boorong. However I learned from an eye specialist that Aborigines had significantly better eyesight than the mainstream population and can see these stars unassisted. Thus knowledge of human physiology was important.

And as I read more about the Malleefowl I became quite excited. There seemed to be a series of coincidences between the life of the Malleefowl on earth and with Neilloan in the night sky. The first is that the appearance of Neilloan in the Southern Hemisphere sky, from March to October, coincides with two significant occurrences on Earth. March is when the Malleefowl begins to refurbish its laying mound for the next season’s egg production. This continues off and on until October when the egg-laying season begins, as long as the weather has been propitious. This is when Neilloan leaves the sky. As Stanbridge puts it,

“When she sits with the sun the Loan eggs are in season”. 

Malleefowl do not sit on their eggs to incubate them. They use the warmth of the laying mound instead and have adopted all kinds of strategies to keep the temperature of the egg chamber at a constant 23 degrees Celsius. Early in the season, the organic matter, when wet, will rot and ferment and this process supplies sufficient heat to incubate the eggs. As summer arrives and the ground heats up, the Malleefowl will remove material to allow the sun’s rays to penetrate and will close the mound to retain the heat as the temperature drops.

The female lays eggs every few days, uses massive amounts of energy to do so and therefore spends most of her time feeding. The male tends the mound, keeping the temperature constant and keeping predators at bay.

Another coincidence relates to the Lyrid meteor showers in April, June and July. The Boorong people could have seen these as the stones and grains of sand kicked into the air by the Mallee Fowl as adjustments being made to the mound. The kicking foot of Neilloan is the major star in the constellation, being Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky. These are things I have learnt from astronomy and zoology that help build a case for a Malleefowl constellation as described by the Boorong.