Lake Macquarie History

Jewells Swamp - Aboriginal heritage

Professor John Maynard has compiled this research on behalf of the Lake Macquarie City Council for use on the proposed Fernleigh Track interpretative panels. Professor Maynard has generously granted permission to share his research with the community on Lake Macquarie History Online.

Jewells Swamp

The area known today as Jewells Swamp was called Ngor-rion-bah (Nor-ron-baa) by the Awabakal people translating as 'where the emu breeds'. The area was a rich and varied source of food. On climbing the mountain known as Redhead Threlkeld stated:

We saw a large lagoon, which was literally covered with wild geese and waterfowl called redbills. The natives took our guns and shot swan, three of which they secured; when the flock arose, the place had the appearance, as to numbers, of a well-stocked rookery. We returned in the evening completely wet being overtaken by the rain, which fell in torrents. Kangaroos were very abundant from the numberless tracks we saw of them. (Gunson, 1974:86)

There remain numerous sites of Aboriginal axe grinding grooves in the area. The Jewells Swamp holds deep cultural significance and the swamp at one time held a remarkable feature, a floating island; that 'disappeared with the inrush of sand processing':

The island was very sacred to the Aborigines... It was explained to boys that particular area had special significance; that Koe-in, the supreme sky spirit, had left it behind as example to show how he could move parts of the earth around. (Percy Haslam Collection – Archives University of Newcastle):

Len Dyall has referenced a number of major Aboriginal camp-sites in close proximity to Jewells Swamp. As he states at some of these locations, the burrawang palm or 'Macrozamia is plentiful and its fruit would have been a staple carbohydrate. This fruit is poisonous but was rendered safe to eat by some process which may have been roasting'. Making the plant digestible needed to be precise as even small doses can cause violent retching and dizziness. James Backhouse noted:

They roasted and ate the flower stems of the gigantic lily when they were but about 1 and a half feet (45cm) high. The roots of this plant, which forms a sort of large bulb, were eaten by them; being first roasted, and then pounded into a sort of cake. This is the process which the seeds of Tamia spiralis (burrawang) undergo; but here the cakes are soaked for two or three weeks in water to take out the bitter principle.

Archeological work in and around this area reveals the large middens in the vicinity of the Track. Dyall expressed that the sheer size of some middens in the Newcastle area suggest a native population of some thousands. (Dyall, 1971: 156) These middens evidence thousands of years of Aboriginal occupation and contain fragments of the Aboriginal food sources including shells, fish and animal bone. These sites are very significant, fragile, irreplaceable and protected by government legislation.

Fire was extensively used by Awabakal groups in managing their land and environment. The practice of fire stick farming kept the landscape always regenerating so as to attract game and lessen the opportunity for uncontrolled and destructive bush fires to ignite. The bush we see today is not the same as it was before the European arrival. It has been drastically altered by introduced plants, animals and pests. The impact is immeasurable. It also includes the wholesale destruction of the majestic cedar forests, which proliferated around south eastern Australia.

Professor Len Dyall who conducted a number of archeological studies within the Newcastle area during the 1970s revealed some of the uses of fire:

in view of the dense and often prickly scrub which covers the sandy slopes from the sea cliff westwards to the margins of Jewells Swamp, one marvels that naked hunters were ever able to move through the area. The answer of course is fire; early navigators from Captain Cook onwards noted large fires along the coast. Some large fires were deliberate, such as those on coastal heaths around Brisbane Waters in winter, while others might have started through smoking possums from trees or game from scrub. After each fire, it would be possible to hunt across these heaths for a month or so, and no doubt tracks were developed and kept passable. (Dyall, 1972:171)

The use and occupation of the Jewells Swamp area both as a source of food and as a means of sanctuary was utilized by Aboriginal people even into the twentieth century:

Another interesting character was also a woman - Lily Belingen, who lived in a bark lean-to in the Belmont area. She is best remembered as an independent lady, smoking a clay pipe, and carrying a shotgun escorted by her dogs. She did much of her shooting around Jewells Swamp. (Haslam, 1984: 11-12)