Set in Stone? Unearthing the Complex History of the Iron Cove Rock Carvings

In some places, the figurative rock face of this history is clear of detritus: we can see before us in striking detail the confusing muddle that is people living upon people living upon people — and so on until the dawn of time, or at least human habitation.

If we were to draw a metaphorical geological cross-section of Sydney, like any city, we would find layers upon layers of historical stratigraphy; lives lived and traces left of the millions of people across the thousands of years of human occupation of the site. In some places, the figurative rock face of this history is clear of detritus: we can see before us in striking detail the confusing muddle that is people living upon people living upon people — and so on until the dawn of time, or at least human habitation.

Iron Cove is one such place. Most residents of the Inner West may have some understanding of Iron Cove as a place of history; the former Callan Park Asylum is well-known as an eerily pretty site with a dark history, whilst the old Iron Cove bridge is a still-standing testament to the tail end of art-deco in Australia. But the Iron Cove Carvings — a NSW State Heritage site — remain relatively unknown and under-appreciated. 

Upon first stumbling across the forty-five carvings in fifteen separate clusters, many assume that they are First Nations carvings. Fish and nets mingle with nautical motifs and ghostly human forms. They possess an eerie resemblance to rock art of white men and guns at Ubirr, Kakadu, in the Northern Territory; the detailed carvings of European ships could tell a similar story of violence and dispossession. 

There would of course be precedence for the First Nations origins of the Iron Cove carvings. Eora and Dharug carvings can be seen on exposed sandstone across Sydney, and in Iron Cove — possibly known as Gomora to local Cadigal and Wangal people — there are a number of identified shell middens. The true origins of the carvings, however, are far more complex, and speak to the intricacies and infinite layerings characteristic of post-colonial places across Australia and the world.

As it turns out, most of the Iron Cove carvings are probably not of First Nations authorship. Marilyn Walters, author of one of the most extensive scholarly explorations of the site, notes a variety of skill types demonstrated across the artworks. These range from abstract human figures to incredibly detailed nautical drafts of sailing ships. To produce these carvings would have required extensive and intimate knowledge of maritime industries. Instead of a single author, Walters suggests the carvings were created by a number of individuals, especially given that the dates etched onto the pieces range from 1855 to 1919.

Some of these authors would have been Wangal or Cadigal people. Two fish carvings demonstrate motifs visible in other carvings of fish known to have been created by Eora artists. These are the only known carvings in Iron Cove confidently attributable to Eora artists pre-colonisation, the paucity in the area likely down to a lack of suitable, exposed sandstone. 

The larger of these fish, however, has the characters “BALENEDLAMR” etched across it — a post-colonial modification to original Eora art. 

But if only a handful of the carvings at Iron Cove are attributable to First Nations artists, then what of the rest? And who left their mark on the Eora carvings that had been there since before invasion?

A  key theory is that they are actually the work of a single artist. Part of Iron Cove’s folklore, it is said that this single artist was a reclusive man who was supposedly sighted around the area in the early 1900s. Interestingly, this is the only theory documented on the plaque dedicated to these carvings. In a bizarre act of historical remembrance, this plaque is displayed on a lookout underneath the bustling Iron Cove Bridge, some five hundred metres from the actual carvings themselves. 

Under the scarily bold heading of “CARVED”, this plaque notes that “in the 1970s, an eyewitness recalled that the engravings were likely made by an old French or German recluse who wore a seaman’s cap and lived on a houseboat near Callan Point around 1900.” This theory was championed by University of Sydney archaeologist John Clegg in the late 1990s. While discussing other possibilities as to the carving’s origin, Clegg largely grounded his theory in the aforementioned eyewitness account. Clegg posited that the presence of the term rather unusual phrase “JAMHAMBON” that is etched into the carvings may be because this “shy person with a European seafaring background…may have been fond of a woman by name, Josephefe Jamhambon, or he may have hated salt pork and complained to the authorities.” The uncertainty remains. Although a rather romantic solution to this historical uncertainty, Clegg’s theory has been disputed. As mentioned, Walter argues that being contrasting in style and subject matter, as well as being many in number, the rock carvings could not have been carved by one individual. Was it a group, then, that generated this art?        

If so, this group could have been the Freemasons. Known for their cultish behaviours and stately halls, the Freemasons had a large presence in Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Carol Powell in her study of the Parramatta River, there were Freemasons working in the Callan Park area in the 19th century. For example, masons were employed during the construction of Garry Owen House and Broughton House between 1840 and 1842, later working on the Kirkbride Block — this being Callan Park’s iconic sandstone tower building — between 1880 and 1885.  The year  written etched into the carvings — 1883 — matches up with the mason’s presence around this site.  

The  phrase of “JAMHAMBON” is seen as the primary clue for the possibility of the carving’s freemason origins. By comparing this term with Albert G Mackey’s 19th century publication, Lexicon of Freemasonry, Powell translated “JAMHAMBON” to the freemason phrase “GOD THE BUILDER”, suggesting the freemason’s involvement in these carvings. Yet, across several carvings, this term is prefaced with the letters MR, or “maritime reconnaissance”, or MS, meaning “merchant ship”. As Walters notes, the presence of “MR” and “MS” imply that the carvings may have instead been created by individuals working in nautical industries. Thus, while the freemason’s involvement in the Iron Cove Carvings is an interesting — and quite probable — theory, the origins of these artworks remain a mystery.       

Another claim regarding the authorship of the carvings involves a pair of Māori twins incarcerated at the Callan Park asylum in the early 20th century. Turikatuku III Gumada claims descent from the pair, and in 2014 asserted her “hereditary authority” over the site. In a lengthy wordpress report, she claims that the symbolism of the carvings demonstrates the twins’ status as Matakite — a Māori conception that identifies a person as possessing prophetic abilities. Turikatuku III Gumada asserts that it was this clairvoyance that led to the institutionalisation of her ancestors. 

The claim involves the assertion that the four-pointed compass roses identified by Clegg are actually Whetumarama Tohu — a five-pointed star-and-crescent symbol linked to Māori-Christian symbolism. Whetumarama Tohu is associated with T.W. Ratana, a-turn-of-the-century Māori spiritualist who, according to Turikatuku III Gumada, later visited the site after the symbols had been prophetically carved. In 2014, Turikatuku III Gumada began restoring the carvings without permission from Leichhardt Council or the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, leading to a fiery dispute. Despite the hostility involved, Turikatuku III Gumada expressed interest in working with local councils to build raised viewing platforms to protect the carvings from inadvertent damage from well-meaning visitors. 

 The claims made by Turikatuku III Gumada are dubious; being uncorroborated in other sources and involving a number of tenuous assertions regarding what the carvings represent. However, given the lack of agreement over any of the carvings’ origins, there certainly is space within the discourse for this hypothesis. 

More importantly, Turikatuku III Gumada’s attempts to restore and protect the carvings reveal significant failings on the part of State and Local governments, who have largely neglected the site. There is no clear signage at the actual physical location of the carvings, and certainly no attempt to physically protect the deteriorating carvings, which are constantly walked across and, in many cases, half-covered by soil. What does that say about our governments’ attitude to local history?

The Callan Park carvings are an excellent case study that showcase the complexities of Sydney’s local history. Even within this article, we haven’t had the space to cover every hypothesis regarding the carving’s creation, including links to traumatised WWI veterans or local children. As the uncertain origins of this historical artefact attests, our city’s history is layered with unknown stories, speculations, and conflicting interpretations. Every place we stumble across in this city holds a multitude of stories; only time will tell which of these stories will be unearthed.