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Indigenous archaeology & cultural heritage management

Woolgar Massacre

Investigating the Woolgar Aboriginal Massacre Site, northwest QLD

The interaction between early European settlers and Indigenous inhabitants is an important part of the Australian national story. People have begun to acknowledge that this interaction was often violent, resulting in many deaths on both sides of the conflict, but particularly of Indigenous people. Numerous books have now been written on the topic [e.g. Foster (2003) Elder (2003), Reynolds (1975, 1978, 1982) and McGrath (1995)]. However, some people doubt the stories, claiming that the so called ‘massacres’ are simply ‘myths’. It is important that such claims are examined and refuted, for fear that this long-hidden part of Australia’s national story will be swept aside and Indigenous experiences of such conflict overlooked. It is also important that Indigenous people take a more active role in telling this story; to date it has been largely told by white historians, with little consultation or involvement of the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors were affected.

The Woolgar Massacre Project involves a community-based investigation conducted in collaboration by Aboriginal people and researchers of one such massacre. During 1881, a white Sub-Inspector of the Native Mounted Police was fatally speared on Middle Park Station near the Woolgar goldfield in northwest Queensland. What happened next is not clear, as there was never any detailed investigation of the event. Loos (1982) and Authurs (1995) make mention of a retaliatory massacre of the local Aborigines, a claim which contemporary Wanamara people believe, and local genealogies (whereby most people claim descent through a sole survivor of the massacre, Maggie Woolgar) support. Anecdotal evidence suggested the massacre location was well known amongst locals, with the area being referred to as ‘Skull Camp’. Furthermore, there was recovery of skeletal material potentially associated with the massacre during the construction of a fence line in 1952; the bones had been reburied immediately adjacent to a fencepost by the pastoralist who found them and were potentially still there today.

The Woolgar Massacre Project aimed to interweave the results from a number of different lines of evidence (oral history, documentary sources, geophysics and archaeology) in order to reconstruct what happened at Middle Park andconsider the relevance of the event for Aboriginal people and the local community of Richmond today. It was developed at the request of members of the WVAC and with their full co-operation and involvement.


The Woolgar Aboriginal Massacre Site project was carried out over two field seasons. The first investigation took place in mid-2005 and a subsequent follow up season was conducted in 2006.

During the 2005 field season, the field work team comprised the following people:

• Dr Lynley Wallis, archaeologist (Flinders University),
• Dr Kate Domett, physical anthropologist (James Cook University),
• Emeritus Professor Richard Wright, physical anthropologist (Sydney University),
• Ian Moffat, geophysicist (Ecophyte Technologies),
• Sonia Wright, volunteer
• Alice Beale,archaeology student volunteer, and, (Flinders University)
• Darren Kynuna, Ken Keyes and Lavin Keyes, community representatives (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation).

During the 2006 field season, the field work team comprised the following people:

• Dr Lynley Wallis, archaeologist (Flinders University),
• Ian Moffat, geophysicist (Ecophyte Technologies),
• Alice Beale, Toni Massey, Jane Simons, Kelly Wiltshire, archaeology student volunteers (Flinders University),
• Anthony Timms, archaeology student volunteer (James Cook University), and,
• Darren Kynuna, Helen Smith, Mick Keyes and Malcolm Keyes, community representatives (Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation).


The 2005 field season involved the extensive use of geophysical prospection (including: ground penetrating radar, direct current resistivity, electromagnetic induction and single sensor magnetometer) focussing on the “Skull Camp” area where remains had been uncovered in 1952. This geophysical survey programme aimed to ascertain the location of any skeletal material, changes in soil stratigraphy, and artefacts that could be associated with the massacre event (e.g. metal artefacts, such as bullets). This survey yielded anomalies along approximately 300 m of fence line. This was investigated through the digging of a 1 m wide trench to a depth of 1.5m. These excavations revealed no evidence of the massacre. Unfortunately since 1952 flooding has destroyed a section of the fence measuring approximately 250 m. Interviews were also conducted with local residents Arthur Barnes and Frank Crapp regarding the massacres. In addition to this, informal conversations with various individuals from the local white pastoralist and Indigenous communities were undertaken.

The 2006 field season incorporated more geophysical survey, however the focus was on the broader Skull Camp area, extant beyond the 1952 fence line. This included sweeping single sensor and multiple sensor magnetometer and electromagnetic induction surveys. A few minor anomalies were investigated but these yielded no skeletal remains, and all were associated with phenomena such as sediment changes and the presence of tree roots. The field season also focused on an evident Aboriginal camping area in the bed of the Norman River adjacent to Skull Camp flat. Hundreds of axe grinding grooves (created by the shaping and sharpening of stone axe heads) are preserved in the sandstone pavement of the riverbed. This provides evidence that Aboriginal people used the area for camping, although there is no way of dating the grooves to determine if they were created during the ‘contact’ period, or if they are much older.

The 2006 field season also examined an area of burnt, fragmented, exposed bone on the ground surface on the adjacent Middle Park station that may have been related to the massacre. The widespread practise of ‘massacre site cleanup’ evident in much frontier conflict history involved the burning of bodies, therefore a 1 x 1 m sample area of bone was excavated. Subsequent analysis of this material revealed bovine teeth, which would suggest that the bone is most likely not human; the presence of several standing posts nearby lends supported to an alternative hypothesis which is that the fragmented and burnt bones were related to a cattle killing yard.


This project has resulted in the recording of oral histories and systematic archival research related to the Woolgar massacre, producing a more detailed view of the 1881 events that previously known. Unfortunately the archaeological and geophysical components of the fieldwork produced no evidence to shed further light on what happened after Sub-Inspector Kaye was killed. It needs to be emphasised, however, that given the manner in which the Native Mounted Police carried out their ‘dispersals’ of Aboriginal people in Queensland during the late nineteenth century the chances of finding archaeological evidence for such events is typically going to be slight. In this circumstance, the absence of tangible material associated with the Woolgar massacre is unsurprising and does not in any way indicate that Aboriginal people were not killed in reprisal for the death of Kaye; in fact, the oral histories of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people indicate very strongly that such killings did take place, with the official inquiry into Kaye’s death reporting that there were ‘collisions’ with local Aboriginal people in the weeks after the death. The most parsimonious explanation for the absence of skeletal material in the Skull Camp location (given that skeletal material was definitely present during the 1952 fence line construction) is that the bones have been eroded in the past 50 years as a result of the shifting river course. However, there remains the further question over whether or not these skeletal remains were from victims of the 1881 Woolgar massacre, or if they were from an Aboriginal burial ground. Unless further physical evidence is forthcoming, we shall never know the answer.


Moffat, I. and L.A. Wallis. 2005. Application of multi-technique geophysical survey to sites of frontier conflict. Paper presented at the Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference, Fremantle (December 2005).

Moffat, I. and L.A. Wallis. 2006. Applications of Archaeological Geophysics to Australian Indigenous Archaeology. Paper presented to the Australian Society of Exploration Geophysics (Queensland Chapter), Brisbane (October 2006).

Moffat, I., L.A. Wallis, P. Mill, B. Keane and the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation. 2006. Geophysical Investigations at the alleged Woolgar massacre site, NW Queensland. Paper presented to the 18th International Symposium on the Forensic Sciences, Perth (8-9 April 2006).

Wallis, L.A., R. Wright, I. Moffat, K. Domett and the Wooglar Valley Aboriginal Corporation. 2005. Investigating the Woolgar Aboriginal Massacre, Northwest Queensland: A preliminary report. Paper presented at the Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference, Fremantle (December 2005).

Wallis, L.A. 2006. An overview of archaeological fieldwork in Northwest Queensland, June 2006. Unpublished report prepared for the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation.

Other papers from this project are currently in preparation and will be added to this page as they become available.


Ethics approval for this project has been given by the Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research and Ethics Committee.


The Woolgar Aboriginal Massacre Site project was generously funded through an AIATSIS Research Grant; both James Cook University and Flinders University have provided logistical support.

WHC Research Projects