Secrets of Koonalda Caves


Archaeologists examining Koonalda Cave.

Dr Keryn Walshe, Senior Research Scientist in Archaeology at the South Australian Museum wanted to revive “lost research projects”. One of these was exploration of Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain of South Australia.

The caves were originally excavated by Alexander Gallus in the 1960-70s. He found that the cave was used by Aboriginal people as a flint mine, but rather unusually, not for occupation.

He had also discovered finger markings on the “moonmilk” (calcium carbonate) of the soft cave walls, believed to date back to more than 20,000 years ago. Gallus was one of Australia’s most experienced cave archaeologists at the time, and without his familiarity of palaeolithic caves in Europe, Keryn believes the significance of Koonalda Cave would have been missed.

She decided the project needed to be reinvigorated with new methodology.

The CSIRO had just developed some new 3D mapping equipment they wanted to test. They, along with Keryn and several others, travelled to the remote cave where the 3D modeling was put to the test.

A 3D map of the cave, when integrated with photogrammetry, will allow Keryn to research the cave in a digital environment. She is particularly interested in the finger flutings; the soft nature of the walls means they cannot be touched or measured without destroying them. In the digital environment, this information can be extracted and calibrated to determine the dimensions of the flutes. This will allow further research on who made the markings, and why.

Similar finger flutings are well known in southern Europe and there are also reports from Papua New Guinea and northern Asia.

This 3D modeling technology will allow researchers and communities to access these sites more readily, cheaply, and without any further destruction of the sites.

Keryn is also measuring the light trapped in sand grains found in the cave. By using optical stimulated luminescence, she will be able to determine when activity last occurred in the cave.

This research was funded to June 2013 by an Inspiring Australia grant.