Australian Archaeology: The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape

I would like to acknowledge the Gunditjmara as the Traditional Owners of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, and the Dharawal people of the Eora nation as the Custodians of the Land on which this article was written.

Lake Condah. Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. (2019).

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is located in South West Victoria, Australia. The traditional owners of the land are the Gunditjmara people. In the local Dhauwurd Wurrung language, ‘Budj Bim’ means ‘high head’ or ‘forehead’, and is the name given to the Gunditjmara Creation Ancestor who is recognised in the landforms of the site, such as the site’s namesake, the Budj Bim (Mount Eccles) volcano. The impressive aquaculture systems at the site (Lake Condah) have been the interest of archaeological excavations since the 1800s. Excavations at the site have contributed to our understanding of Holocene societies and settlement patterns in Australia. Most notably, the intensification hypothesis put forward by Harry Lourandos in the 1970s changed the way the archaeological community viewed Holocene societies in Australia, breaking down the dichotomies between hunter-gatherer societies and ‘complex’ societies.

Some twenty to thirty thousand years ago, the Mount Eccles and Mount Napier volcanoes erupted and created the ‘Tyrendarra flow’ of basalt lava that extends more than 50 km into the ocean, spreading across 165 km of the Budj Bim landscape (Builth et al. 2008, p. 414; Rose 2016, p. 590). From the basalt rocks that formed after these eruptions, stone houses were built and “inhabited on a permanent to semi-permanent basis” (Rose et al. 2016, pp. 590-591). These houses, also known as ‘stony rises’, along with the aquaculture systems used for catching eels at Lake Condah, led to new interpretations of Holocene societies and settlement patterns in Australia.

Kurtonitj (n.d.). Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

The Budj Bim lava flows allowed the Gunditjmara people to build an extensive network of aquaculture systems along Lake Condah that are still in use today. These systems are used to catch and store eel (kooyang). These fish traps facilitated a surplus of resources, which allowed the Gunditjmara to settle in the area and engage in trade, particularly of the highly valuable oil that was collected from smoking the eel (Builth et al. 2008, p. 414 and Parks Victoria n.d.). The fish traps and channel systems of Lake Condah date back to at least 6,600 years ago (McNiven 2017).

The topography of the landscape at Lake Condah is influenced by the Budj Bim lava flows. The Gunditjmara skilfully followed and/or modified the topography of the landscape to construct the trap and channel systems used to catch eel (Coutts et al. 1978, pp. 24-25). This meant that the traps could be set at different heights so that eel could be caught regardless of the fluvial activity, meaning there would always be a reliable food source for people in the area (Coutts et al. 1978, pp. 24-25). The channel systems, some extending for more than 400 km, were designed for the “local hydrological regimes rather than to the seasonality of eels”, demonstrating the highly sophisticated engineering and effective land management of the Gunditjmara people (Coutts et al. 1978, p. 25; Rose et al. 2016, p. 592). To use the systems, water would be diverted through the channel systems and the eel would be harvested either on spears or with woven baskets (Rose et al. 2016, p. 592). Although there is a high labour cost required to first construct the systems, only two people would be needed to operate one trap, meaning the traps are less labour intensive once in operation, which suggests that these systems were designed for repeated use, indicating at least a semi-permanent settlement in the area (Coutts et al. 1978, p. 31-33). The ‘stony rises’ on the landscape also indicate a semi-permanent settlement. Sixteen of these stone houses on the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape have been subjects of archaeological excavation (McNiven et al. 2017, p. 173).

A channel with reconstructed stake, branch and weir in the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

The first survey of the aquaculture systems at Lake Condah was conducted by George Augustus Robinson in 1841, who was the Chief Protector for Aborigines at the time (McNiven 2017). In Robinson’s time, the ingenuity of the engineering of the eel traps at Lake Condah were dismissed under the prejudice of European settlers, and the paradigm that Aboriginal people were savages rather than civilised people capable of such skill (McNiven 2017). Breaking down this paradigm would not come until the 1970s, when Harry Lourandos conducted an extensive study of the area, using the region of South West Victoria as an example of his ‘intensification’ hypothesis (Builth et al. 2008, p. 414).

The 'intensification' hypothesis focuses on the mid-late-Holoence record in Australia and is aimed to explain changes in social structure as a trend towards socio-economic intensification. Intensification can be explained as a historical process by which social, economic, and political relations become more structurally complex. Examples of intensification could include: reorganisation of labour, new technologies, mass harvesting of resources, specialisation of technology and economy, etc. The 'intensification' hypothesis was received as a change in the archaeological perspective on Australian prehistory, as it privileged social and political forces over other forces such as environmental productivity or economic motivations.

The aquaculture systems at Budj Bim are a perfect illustration of the ‘intensification’ hypothesis. Lourandos’ studies changed the discursive representation of Aboriginal Australian societies in the Holocene. The “large-scale fishing facilities and associated aquaculture ponds rupture traditional representations of Aboriginal people as simply hunter gatherers”, encouraging us to reshape our understanding of societies during the Holocene (McNiven 2017). Richards (2011, p. 65) has proposed to nominate these societies as ‘transegalitarian’, stating that an economic surplus (such as that provided by the fish traps) is a “precondition for the emergence of socio-economic complexity”. Transegalitarian societies are societies which sit on the border of egalitarian, hunter-gatherer societies, and politically stratified societies (Richards 2011, p. 65). As such, transegalitarian societies challenge traditional paradigms of the dichotomy between hunter-gatherer and 'complex' societies.

Investigations at Budj Bim are therefore essential to how we continue to develop our understanding of settlement patterns in Australia. The impressive aquaculture systems at Lake Condah represent Holocene societies as not only hunter-gatherer societies, but societies that were adopting a more sedentary lifestyle after being successful at exploiting local resources.


Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. (2019). Lake Condah [Photograph]. UNESCO.

Kurtonitj (n.d.). [Photograph]. Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

SBS News. (n.d.). A channel with reconstructed stake, branch and weir in the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape[Photograph]. Deadly Story.


Builth, H. et al. (2008). Environmental and cultural change on the Mt Eccles lava-flow landscapes of southwest Victoria, Australia. The Holocene 18(3), 413-424.

Coutts, P.J.F. et al. (1978) Aboriginal Engineers of the Western District, Victoria. Melbourne: Division of Prehistory, La Trove University, Victorian Archaeological Survey. Canberra: Human Science Program, Australian National University.

McNiven, I.J. et al. (2017) Kurtonitj stone house: Excavation of a mid-nineteenth century Aboriginal frontier site from Gunditjmara country, south west Victoria. Archaeology in Oceania 52, 171-197.

McNiven, Ian J 2017, ‘The detective work behind the Budj Bim eel traps World Heritage bid’, The Conversation, 8 February, accessed 29 April 2021,

Ngootyoong Gunditj Ngootyoong Mara South West Management Plan 2015, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, and Gunditj Mirriing Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, (, accessed 01 May 2021.

Richards, T. (2011) A late nineteenth-century map of an Australian Aboriginal fishery at Lake Condah. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2, p. 64-87.

Rose, D. et al. (2016) Restoring habitat and cultural practice in Australia’s oldest and largest traditional aquaculture system. Reviews in fish biology and fisheries 26(3), p. 589-600.

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Amy Mogensen

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