Bora Rings: Ancient Aboriginal Ceremonial Grounds

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Bora Rings

Bora Rings, or ceremonial grounds, were an ancient Aboriginal institution that held many functions, particularly for ceremonial purposes and as meeting places. They came in a variety of configurations depending on location and specific use, but most consisted of two circles, a large one and small one, made of stone or moulded earth with a connecting pathway which was hallowed out. Prior to European colonisation, they were distributed mainly across southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, but today have mostly been lost or are slowly fading into the surrounding landscape. However, some remain in a good state of repair in places including Samford, The Glasshouse Mountains, Nudgee, Camira and Toorbul.

This article explores the appearance, distribution, ceremonial use, and potential astrological meaning of the Bora Rings. It is intended as practical knowledge for a number of Odyssey Traveller small group tours in Australia, part of a continuing series of pieces on Aboriginal culture, history, art, trade, and settlement, and the ancient landscapes of the continent. An appreciation of Indigenous activity is recognised as an important facet of learning in our tours, a part of our commitment to understanding and sharing our knowledge of the history, culture, and landscapes of Australia. Our tours are for both the mature and senior traveller, as part of a couple or as a solo traveller.

Much of the information from this article is drawn from Dale Kerwin’s Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes and Robert Fuller, Duane Hamacher, and Ray Norris’s journal article ‘Astronomical Orientations of Bora Ceremonial Grounds’.

Ancient Australian aboriginal meeting place and ceremony site known as a Bora Ring at Tucki near Lismore, NSW.

Appearance & Distribution of the Bora Rings

Most Bora ceremonial grounds had a similar, distinct layout (Fuller et al. 2013: 30). They tended to consist of two rings of flattened earth of different sizes, connected by a pathway. In some places, however, bora sites may have comprised three or more rings, with several smaller ‘kuppa’ rings connected to the largest ring by a complex design of paths. Each ring was bordered by raised earth or stone of a height of 25-50 centimetres and had its centre cleared of debris and vegetable matter.

The larger ring was considered public and had a typical diameter of 20-30 metres. The smaller ring, or rings, were generally 10-15 metres in diameter and was considered the sacred area. The pathways connecting the rings ranged from tens to a few hundred metres in length.

The areas around the smaller rings were used as temporary campsites for any visiting groups joining the ceremonies. Surrounding trees were incised with lines and geometric shapes and wooden sculptured figures were stood near them (Kerwin 2010: 79).

Bora Rings were distributed widely throughout most of New South Wales and southern Queensland. In South-East Queensland alone there were 120 known Bora Rings. They may have also extended into South Australia and northern Queensland, and rings have also been found near Sunbury, Victoria, but it is unclear whether they served a ceremonial purpose similar to Bora Rings (Fuller et al. 2013: 30).

Upon observations of the Bora Rings in the early twentieth century, Howitt (1904: 512) proposed a western boundary running from the mouth of the Murray River to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Matthews (1897b: 114) meanwhile noted a boundary extending from Twofold Bay near Eden, NSW, in the south, to Moulamein, NSW, in the west, and Barringun, Queensland, in the north.

Ceremonial Use

Aboriginal bora ceremony, taken in 1898 by Charles Kerry

Bora Rings were significant areas for Aboriginal people used for ritual gatherings. Kerwin (2010: 71) explains “they were important Aboriginal institutional and ceremonial areas used up until the late 19th century” with various functions including “council and political deliberations, courts, judicial hearings and for trade”.

As meeting places they drew together people of all ages from different localities and diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, existing as sites of exchange of material items, to organise tribal diversions, and to settle differences. As such they were essential in renewing Aboriginal polities and maintaining social systems (Kenny 2012: 131).

Most commonly though they were associated with initiation ceremonies for boys, having reached puberty, to achieve the status of men.  These types of ceremonies were common across traditional Aboriginal cultures in Australia. Teenage boys would be taught the traditional songs, dances, secrets, laws, customs and traditions of their community, and become qualified to act as warriors, receive wives, and sit at the ordinary council of the tribe. Often the ceremonies also included some sort of physical rite of passage involving some form of body modification, typically scarification, circumcision, subincision and, in some regions, also the removal of a tooth.

This ceremony has many names, but in Eastern Australia, but is generally known as a ‘bora’, taken from the term used by the Kamilaroi of north-central NSW. The name also refers to the site on which the initiation is performed, hence ‘Bora Rings’.

Many different clans would assemble to participate in an initiation ceremony. In the large ring was a more public space for uninitiated men, women and children. This was the place the boys would start the ceremony. The smaller ring was considered the sacred and secret area restricted to the initiates and male Elders. This was where the final part of the initiation and body modifications took place.

Bora Rings’ Astronomical Connection to the Milky Way

It has been suggested amongst anthropologists that bora ceremonies are related to the Milky Way, with the rings representing the ‘Sky Bora, two dark spaces within the Milky Way that mimic the earthly rings  (Berndt 1974; Fuller et al. 2013; Love 1988; Winterbotham 1957).

The dark spaces of the Sky Bora are also within the celestial emu, an Aboriginal constellation that stretches from the Coalsack Nebula near the Southern Cross down the Milky Way to the centre of the galaxy in Scorpius. The larger space is the Coalsack (the Emu’s head) and other is down toward the Emu’s body. The dust lanes along the Milky Way represent the emu’s neck and legs. It has been suggested the emu is symbolic of the initiation of adolescent boys, since male emus brood and hatch the emu chicks and rear the young (Love 1987).

Celestial emu in the Milky Way / Alpha / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Bora is also often associated with creator-spirit Baiame, believed to live behind the Milky Way, and whose wife is an emu. Baiame is worshiped at the bora ceremony and his son, a being called Daramulan, is believed to come back to the earth by a pathway from the sky for the ceremony.

Although the ceremonies took place at various points each year, between August and the following March, it is believed that most occurred around August. This would have astronomical significance, aligning the Bora Rings with the ‘Sky Bora’.

According to Winterbotham (1957: 38), bora circles “were always oriented towards points of the compass, the larger one to the north, and the smaller to the south… They conformed in this rule to the position of two dark (black) spaces (circles).” August is believed to have been the prime time for the ceremonies because this is when the Sky Bora Rings are returned to the points of the compass and can be seen vertically aligned to the horizon in the south-southwest skies.

The anthropologists, Robert Fuller, Duane Hamacher and Ray Norris set out to test this hypothesis in 2013. They identified 68 Bora Rings that contained clear information about the site’s orientation from the large circle to small circle. Of these, a significant number were orientated to southerly directions, consisting with the hypothesis that they pointed towards the celestial emu in the Milky Way in the south-southwest skies in August.

Due to the sheer number, the colleagues concluded “that these orientations are not the result of chance, but are deliberate” (Fuller et al. 2013: 31). They admit there were many bora ceremonies across NSW and Queensland held at various times throughout the year, which do not correspond to any particular orientation of the Milky Way. However:

“…there is strong ethnographic evidence that the Milky Way is associated with the bora ceremony and we consider it likely that at least some ceremonies were timed, and bora sites oriented, such that the vertical Milky Way was visible above the path connecting the two circles.” (Fuller et al. 2013: 35).

More conclusive proof may still be needed but Fuller and colleague’s research has definitely taken us closer to discovering the mysteries of the Bora Rings and the practices of ancient Aboriginal Australia.

Milky Way viewed in Outback Queensland
Seen is the Milky Way stitching over the sky in outback Queensland

Tour of Aboriginal Australia

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various outback Australia tours.

These include visits to:

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

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