South Australia publican and Marree Man restorer Phil Turner will be a featured speaker at Locate ’18 & GeoSmart Asia ’18. You can catch his presentation, The Marree Man and the Case of the Missing Genitals, in the afternoon on 11th April.
On June 26, 1998, Trec Smith, a charter pilot flying over a remote tract of South Australia made a startling discovery.
Carved into a remote desert plateau in the outback was an enormous figure. Measuring over four kilometres head to toe and 28 kilometres in circumference, a colossal geoglyph soon to be known as ‘Marree Man’ had seemingly appeared overnight.
His sudden appearance sparked an intense furor of speculation and debate, orientated around the tiny town of Marree, which sits at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks, around 685 kilometres north of Adelaide. Especially curious was its proximity to major military infrastructure in the enormous Woomera Prohibited Zone.
The geoglyph is thought to have been plowed by a bulldozer, and may have taken weeks to complete, yet no unauthorised activities in the area were officially reported, and a police investigation following Marree Man’s discovery found no actionable evidence on the lone track that gave access to the site.
Meticulously surveyed and scoured into the earth with incredible detail for its scale, Marree Man spurred anthropological debates as to his origin, with at least one voice arguing that the precise detail with which Marree Man’s features were rendered suggested a creator with intimate knowledge of fine detail of the Indigenous hunters of Central Australia — though they did not specifically reflect those of the local language groups.
Theories as to Marree Man’s origins bloomed and mutated. The most plausible attributed the glyph’s creation to Northern Territory artist Bardius Goldberg, who had aspired to create a work visible from space, and had allegedly come into some money around the time it was discovered. Goldberg neither confirmed nor denied the claim.
In January 1999, a plaque was discovered, buried in the earth close to the giant figure’s head. Embossed with an American flag and Olympic rings, it contained a passage from natural history photographer H.H Finlayson’s 1946 book The Red Centre, account of his time documenting the indigenous tribes and native animals of the Outback.
In honour of the land they once knew. His attainments in these pursuits are extraordinary; a constant source of wonderment and admiration.”
But a dispute over the very land into which Maree Man was carved may hold a more telling clue. In 1998, a native title battle over lands that contained the Marree Man site was raging between Indigenous language groups. The intensity of this dispute was so acute that it had been the trigger for a physical confrontation between the Arabana and Dieri groups. Dieri representatives initially denounced the giant figure, and in accordance with their wishes, the South Australia government closed public access to the site.
A mystery reborn
Following the flurry of reactions around Marree man’s discovery, the enormous geoglyph became a source of local mythology in the north of the state — and a major tourist attraction for the remote region. Phil Turner, publican of the Marree hotel and unofficial custodian of Marree Man, said that South Australian Tourism had valued its impact at up to 17 million “very much needed dollars.”
As the shifting sands and desert winds took their toll, the 70-metre outline of Marree Man began to fade back into the earth. Seeing an opportunity to prevent a local landmark and source of modern folklore from disappearing from view, Turner sprung into action.
“This was a bit of a no-brainer for those of us living and working, running tourism businesses in the far north. So, Trevor Wright [of local flight operator Wright Air] and myself teamed up, and had extensive consultation with the new native titleholders as to what they’d like to do with the Marree Man — and they said: ‘We’d like it restored’,” he said.
Turner took his proposal to the South Australian government, who sought a quote on the restoration — receiving one for the cool sum of $350,000, which precipitated a morass of indecision and debate within the government. Turner thought that something could be done to restore the desert attraction for a considerably lower fee.
“When we met again with the Arabana, they said they’d like to go ahead anyway. I thought: ‘The biggest problem we’ve got is — what do we use for a reference?’ There’s an image out there — we can see the photographs, but we had no GPS coordinates. We had no map, we had absolutely nothing apart from going out there to stand on the ground — and it’s 28 kilometres around the circumference, 70 odd metres wide each line,” he said.
“This was a massive undertaking for an accurate restoration if you’re going to be true to the original work of art.”
Employing a surveyor under condition of strict anonymity, an 18-month process to source coordinates began. Putting boots on the ground to test the measurements, they found that these coordinates were out by up to six metres.
“We’d pull up in the buggy and he’d say ‘this is where it should be,’ and I’d say ‘Well, it ain’t here.’ Then we’d walk around in ever increasing circles until eventually we’d found remnants of it. We needed to get some accurate coordinates,” Turner said.
Coordinates from on high
Whilst Turner’s surveyor consulted with colleagues and collaborators on how best to work up a more accurate set of points, Turner received a remarkable communication. It was the 15th of May, 2006.
I remember the date of it, like when President Kennedy was shot. These things stay in your mind — you know where you were and knew exactly what you were doing that day, because this turned up and I thought: ‘Holy Toledo.’ It was about half a dozen grid coordinates, with a sort of cryptic comment that said: ‘This may be what you’re looking for’.”
Turner and his collaborator returned to the site and tested the mystery coordinates, finding them accurate to 150mm — paving the way for a restoration process that Turner and his team were able to complete for $6,400.
To this day, the work’s creators and motivations remain officially unknown, but Turner knows more about Marree Man than most.
Without giving the game away, he has a hint for all those still nutting out the mystery of Marree Man.
“The truth to its origins can be found in the actual image itself,” Turner said.
“The Aboriginal hunter is not Arabana, he’s not a Dieri — he is not from the Marree area. He is actually from Central Australia. Others have been on the record to say that the bun at the back of the head is not Arabana, it’s not Dieri. I’ve been told that’s related to the Musgrave Ranges central Aboriginals of Australia,” he said.
“I mean, if it was done locally by an Arabana man or Dieri — do you really think they’d be drawing a Central Australian Aboriginal?”
For a more in-depth look at the mysteries surrounding the Marree Man, see the April/May issue of Position magazine. Phil Turner will present in more detail on some of the other mysteries surrounding Marree Man at the upcoming Locate ’18 – Geosmart Asia ’18 conference in Adelaide on 9-11 April.