Fossil Pine Forest, Lake Macquarie
Compiled by Michael Organ, with assistance from John Byrnes
14 April 2009
The fossil pine forest at Fennell Bay, Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia is a geological oddity which has been the subject of local Aboriginal mythology for thousands of years and, in more recent times, detailed scientific study. It is located within the north-western part of Lake Macquarie, at Fennell Bay, and was first referred to in print within a grammar of the local Aboriginal people published in Sydney during 1834 by missionary Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld. The scientific aspects of the site were first addressed in detail by the geologist Reverend W.B. Clarke (1798-1878), who visited the area in July 1842 and prepared a detailed report which was subsequently presented to the Geological Society of London and published in its Proceedings for 1843. Clarke’s paper appeared in a Sydney newspaper two years later, in a modified form catering to the local audience. It was not until 1884 that his original 1842 report was published in full, with illustrations, by the New South Wales Department of Mines. Since that time the site has been studied by geologists such as T.W. Edgeworth David, Tom Vallance and David Branagan, and registered with the Australian National Heritage List. It has also suffered from souvenir hunters and environmental degradation. Historical material relating to the site is reproduced below. See also John Bryne's web page for additional information: 'Kurrur Kurran' - Aspects connected with the Fennell Bay Fossil Forest.
Local Aboriginal Myth
L.E. Threlkeld, An Australian Grammar: comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c., New South Wales, Stephens & Stokes, Sydney, 1834, 131p. Reprinted in Threlkeld (1892). A brief description of the Aboriginal myth relating to the site was including in this work and is reproduced below:
Kurra-kurran, the name of a place in which there is almost a forest of petrifications of wood, of various sizes, extremely well defined. It is in a bay at the north-western extremity of Lake Macquarie. The tradition of the Aborigines is that formerly it was one large rock which fell from the heavens and killed a number of blacks who were assembled there; they had gathered themselves together in that spot by command of an immense iguana, which came down from heaven for that purpose; the iguana was angry at their having killed lice by roasting them in the fire; those who had killed the vermin by cracking them, had been previously speared to death by him with a long reed from Heaven! At that remote period, the moon was a man named Pontobug; and hence the moon is called he to the present day; but the sun, being formerly a woman, retains the feminine pronoun she. When the iguana saw all the men were killed by the fall of the stone, he ascended up into Heaven, where he is supposed to be now.
First Geological Investigaton
W.B. Clarke, On a Fossil Pine Forest at Kurrur-Kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba [Lake Macquarie], East Coast of Australia, manuscript notes, signed 'W.B. Clarke. Parramatta, 29th August 1842', W.B. Clarke Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. Clarke’s report was the first prepared on the geology of the site. It was written up at Parramatta following a visit to the area earlier that year. Clarke also sent a letter off on this date to Adam Sedgwick, his geological patron at Cambridge University in England, asking that the paper be presented to the Geological Society of London. It reads in part as follows:
“Paramatta 29 August 1842
My dear Sir,
I take the advantage of my friend Mr Arthur Westmacott’s return to Europe to convey to London for me a paper on a fossil forest at a place called Kurrur-Kurran in Port Macquarie. The details of the phenomena there exhibited are in the paper. I have caused it to be directed to you & I shall esteem it a great favor if you will have the kindness to see it put into train for being read on its arrival. Two large specimens of the fossils are to go on the same ship directed to the Society – one of them I presume will be sufficient for them – the other is for your lecture room at Cambridge. There are also some portions of the rock in which they grew. I think you will not be displeased with this my first contribution from Australia…. PSS On second thoughts I have directed the paper to Lonsdale or the Secretaries, the Fossils to you, at the Society’s apartments, & I have told them you are to have the choice of one of the specimens.”
The paper was subsequently read to the Geological Society of London on 22 February 1843 and a substantial abstract published in its Proceedings for 1843 and also the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. The paper first appeared in Sydney during 1845 within The Register, in a rewritten form. The original 1842 paper was eventually published within the 1884 Annual Reports of the New South Wales Department of Mines, accompanied by numerous illustrations. It is reproduced below:
On a Fossil Pine forest at Kurrur-kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba, on the Eastern Coast of Australia.
The Inlet of Awaaba, or, as it is called, Lake Macquarie, is the largest of the shore lakes or inlets between Port Stephens and Broken Bay. Others occur at intervals along the east coast of New South Wales.
The term lake is generally applied to them from their having a narrow opening seaward which is usually very blocked up by sand.
Awaaba is situate in the midst of the series of sandstones and conglomerates and lignite beds which supply the Australian coal, extending from the river Hunter along the coast southwards towards Brisbane Water.
Very recently coal works have been opened about 4 feet above the level of the water in Tirabeenbah Mountain, and it is about this level that immediately over and under the lignite occur the beds of fossilized wood.
Awaaba, or Lake Macquarie, consist of a series of bays running up amongst these beds, which being divided by nearly vertical joints afford regular longitudinal and transverse lines of coast. The water of the lake is very deep, and the cliffs are steep at the water's edge. Fine bays running out like fingers pass up the country, a low coast range of tho coal series, shutting out the sea, except at the before-mentioned entrance which may be considered as the wrist of the hand.
The new coal works are at the south end of Tirabeenbah; the part under discussion is at the north end. The general condition of the locality is this: The mountain of Tirabeenbah ends abruptly to the North-west, being cut off by a fault, and forming a lofty though not very abrupt escarpment, where the range turns round towards the west and south-west. A wide valley intervenes between it and the next range on the north-east, and the face of the mountain swells out into a hill of low elevation and abuts upon a bay of inconsiderable size.
Between the slope and the water occurs a level alluvial flat, about a foot above the lake, composed of black sandy vegetable mould, and detritus thickly interspersed with roots of plants and grasses; the length of this flat cannot be much less than half a mile, and its average breadth is 63 paces or about 50 yards. Trees of large growth, eucalypti and casuarinae, and some smaller shrubs stud this flat at intervals, and even grow close to the water. This flat is called by the Aborigines Kurrar Kurran. The lake here is very shallow, and it would appear as if the alluvial flat extended some distance further under the water. (See Fig. 1.)
Bounding the river to north-north-east a conical hill rises behind the forest that clothes a long point running out in front, and on the south-west the slopes of Tirabeenbah come down to the water, so that the bay is perfectly land-locked, having an opening only in front of the alluvial flat, and the quiet character of the place and the sombre wood-clad low lines of the coast do not of themselves lead to any idea of great geological interest. The whole is a pretty lake-like picture, whilst on points at the distance of from 80 to 200 feet from the shore numerous water birds, cranes, gulls, and pelicans, are often seen sitting and standing upon what appear at the distance to be points of a reef of rocks just peeping above the water. The black swan also occasionally sails across the bay, giving an idea of natural security to the inhabitants of this otherwise unoccupied and secluded spot. It is there that by far the most curious instance of the freaks of nature which have met my notice in this singular country is seen to occur. Throughout the whole of the flat, and for the distance named in the lake, and perhaps further, stumps and stools of fossilised pines stand out of the ground and water. If the present forest were cut down at a certain level nothing could give a better idea of the effect than this fossil forest presents. The trees are of various sizes, from 2 to 4 feet above the surface of the ground, but one stump in the lake must be at least 4 feet above the water and 5 or 6 feet in diameter.
The colour of the fossils varies from grayish white to clouded gray within, and sections of them have the identical appearance of slices of modern pine wood, the rings of growth being as distinctly marked and the fibrous transverse matter between seen under the microscope, and even without it, has the glossy appearance of the recent wood. Veins of chalcedony also traverse the fossils between the annular rings and also in the radial lines, in this respect, as in others, affording an instance perfectly analogous to that of the fossil trees of the Isle of Portland. Indeed, after comparison of the Australian with English specimens, I can see no material difference in their fossil structure, and it is evident that the two examples are but distinct proofs of the same kind of phenomenon.
The surfaces of the trees where they have been exposed to the air have acquired a yellowish hue, and lichens have grown over some of them, giving the wavy appearance which living trees now present in the bush.
These trees appear to have been fossilised whilst they were growing, since no process of fracture in the living state could have given such clear and horizontal sections. Moreover, in one or two instances a very large stem has been broken apparently by some recent cause, and two or three fragments all perfectly clear and horizontal in the fracture have fallen off from the stump and lie beside the lower part, whilst occasionally portions have been further removed and lie upon the surface of the alluvium or are entangled in it. The general direction of the fallen portions is from north-east. That this is the result of some modern cause is clear from the fact that the surfaces of the sections are clean, whereas the summit of the stump is overgrown and meteorologically affected. It is possible that some of the fractures may have originated in the blows they have received from the Blacks.
A few of the stumps have a hollow in the middle, but others are firm throughout. In several about the same diameter I counted 60, 70, 80, and 120 concentric rings of growth; and in one case the bark of the tree was about 3 inches thick.
At the distance of 3 feet from the shore I found one standing out of the water with portions of the root imbedded in the rock below; and of those on the flat many had remains of the roots still in the rock under the alluvial matter; and the greater part were all standing erect. Such too is the case with those in the lake, and their situation is marked by the birds before alluded to, which thus sit in the water on trees that once grew upon dry land, but now converted into stone, remain in situ as marine rocks. The modern casuarina is also seen occasionally to grow on the flat out of the spot where the fossil tree appears, and one large modern tree has actually by its roots upset the stool of a fossil tree which lies about the foot of the recent plant as if that had turned it out of its burial ground.
The train of thought which is excited by this scene is highly curious, and in few places in the world can the quiet and daily processes of natural growth and decay, the forms of living and dead things, and the successive changes and reproductions of matter, owing to the operations of most powerful though secretly evolving causes, be so prominently displayed, as in this singular picture of the past and the present.
The rock in which these trees are rooted is a sandstone of a compact and semi-crystalline character, approaching to flint or chert, and undoubtedly of the same level as that which may be noticed under Tirabeenba at the south head of Awaaba and Nobby's Island at the mouth of the Hunter. This case is but a larger expansion of what occurs there; and instead of a few we have here at least 500 trees exhibited in the character of fossils. We cannot doubt that such being the case this is the real geological horizon of that great silicified forest which has furnished the enormous quantities of fragments of similar fossil wood which are spread over the surface and embedded in the sandstones above and under the coal. Tasmania as well as Australia exhibits this abundance, and, so far as I can learn, it is a distinguishing characteristic of Australasia generally. In "The Tasmanian Journal," vol. I, p. 24, is an account of fossil wood from Macquarie Plains, Tasmania, by J. D. Hooker, M.D., assistant surgeon of H.M.S. “Erebus," from which it appears that Tasmania is in this respect in perfect agreement with Australia; and Flinders, writing of the islands in Bass’ Straits, says:- “Some of the trees on Preservation Island had partly undergone a peculiar transformation. The largest of them were not thicker than a man's leg, and the whole were decayed; but whilst the upper branches continued to be of wood the roots of the surface and the trunks up to a certain height were of a stony substance resembling chalk, on breaking these chalky trunks, which was easily done, rings of the brown wood sometimes appeared in them, but in the greater number nothing more than circular traces remained. The situation in which these trees were principally found is a sandy valley, near the middle of the island, which was likewise remarkable for the quantity of bones of birds and small quadrupeds with which it was strewed. The petrifactions were afterwards more particularly examined by Mr. Bass, who adopted the opinion that they had been caused by water." - Flinders' Voy. I, cxxxi.
A partial petrifaction of wood is not altogether unknown in other and more distant countries, and not to allude to Trajan's Bridge (already considered by Dr. Buckland), I may mention the occurrence of such examples in Antigua. I have seen a plant from that island having a stem of natural wood with an attached bulb converted into silica. A specimen of this kind was in the year 1833 in the collection of the late Rev. T. Barkett, Rector of Swanage, in the county of Dorset.
An interest is excited for the Australasian petrifactions by the circumstance of their being generally found associated with igneous rocks. Preservation Island, for instance, is composed of granite and plutonic schists, the latter traversed by granite veins and trap dykes; and Awaaba and its vicinity, especially Nobby's, and the cliffs near Newcastle, are also powerfully affected by intrusive rocks.
“Keignalan" also, according to Dr. M'Cormick, of the "Erebus" ("Tasmanian Journal," vol. I, p. 279), exhibits the phenomenon of silicified wood in association with, and imbedded in, trap rocks. But to return to Kurrar Kurran, the rock as before observed, as well as the trees is silicified; the conclusion therefore is, that the silex must have been held in suspension or solution in the original soil which was probably moist. That some change has been induced upon the rock is evident from the fact that where it lies round the roots, which is the case with that tree about 3 feet from the shore, piled up, exactly as the rocks at Portland described by Professor Henslow (see fig. 3), numerous white spots, so frequent as to give the stone a mottled character, containing powdery silex, present themselves.
I see no other solution for this phenomenon than the supposition that the specks mark the site and passage of the fibres of the roots and that the cavities have been filled by it, unless they represent points of imperfect silicification. The case is in some degree analogous with that of common chalk flint (to the white varieties of which the rock is not dissimilar) in which similar white patches of powder frequently appear. That this substance is more decomposable than the rest is evident from another fact that the surface of the rock above the water is worn into little holes by the decay of this powder presenting an appearance externally as if it had been pierced by lithophagous animals.
In one of the fragments I found the silicified impression of part of the leaf of a glossopteris, proving distinctly that the siliceous character is of posterior date to that of the deposit itself. How this flinty or cherty semi-crystalline action has taken place may not be easy to explain, but received in connection with the trap dykes at Nobby's (of which this rock is a continuation) and the singular markings of iron upon them there, may we hazard the conjecture, suggested by Dr. Buckland, as to the origin of flint from the water of hot springs, and suppose that after the growth of the trees in their natural soil they either descended to a lower level and into an ocean heated by plutonic fires, or an inundation of heated water enveloped them and saturated the earth to a great depth. Howsoever it may be explained the phenomenon is one which involves much conjecture, and as at the south head of Reid's Mistake, similar beds contain trunks of trees passing vertically through them and others lying horizontally in them at a higher level than the sea, the trunks probably rising from roots at that level, it is clear that whether the soil was heated or not the enveloping matter similar to that in which the roots are fixed, must have been almost as much charged with silex as true flint itself.
That the semi-crystalline action took place after the entanglement of the trees seems plain from a curious fact that lines of division, apparently contraction joints (see fig. 4) pass through both the fossils and their matrix, and must, therefore, have been subsequent to the latter occurrence.
At the same time it must be admitted that though my own impression is these trees grew where they now stand, their roots do not extend (so far as has been yet examined) very far into the rock, nor is there any appearance of a drift-bed as at Portland, though the roots evidently may run down to the bed of lignite immediately under the flinty strata. It is also true, that immense quantities of broken fragments (apparently of branches) are found embedded in the sandstone and conglomerates above this horizon, which were undoubtedly drifted; but a similar fact has been noticed by me at Lytchett and Longfleet in Dorsetshire, where, in the borough of Poole, amongst the diluvial chert that covers the chalk and plastic clay-beds, portions of Portland Island conifers lie loose in the surface soil. In the same way, whatever the real soil of these Lake Macquarie fossils may have been, portions may also have been drifted with the pebbles and sand comprising the upper beds.
Fragments lying in the sandstone over the fossiliferous rock at Munniwarrie and Wollongong, and at Mulibimba (Newcastle), as well as on the surface at Wollon Hills and at Holworthy Downs, River Clyde, and elsewhere in this Colony, are of precisely the same appearance and nature of those fragments which I have found in Dorset, and in both cases I do not remember to have seen any of such drifted fragments but those which had lost their bark, whereas many of the trunks and stools of trees at Kurrar Kurran have the bark fossilised, and one or two in such a way as to show that it was torn partly from the tree whilst it stood, as if the tree had been broken down and the bark rent by the fall. In general, however, the bark where it can be traced is firmly fixed upon the trunk (fig. 2).
If we might assume that the lower lignite bed represent the soil, and the trunks and boughs to have been gradually enveloped by sinking down, as the siliceous rock was poured in the condition of wet sand; then the upper lignite bed might be supposed to represent the level of the upper branches, and in that case if the trees grew near the edge of a lagoon, or on the banks of an estuary, it is clear that the phenomena of two lignite beds and the overlying conglomerates containing fragments of fossil boughs are capable of satisfactory explanation and their present position would result from vertical changes of level.
A similar explanation has been adopted by Mr. Witham (Observations of fossil vegetables, p. 7) quoted by De La Beche (Manual, p. 444) respecting the stem of erect sigillariae near Newcastle-on-Tyne, the roots being imbedded in a small seam of coal under the sandstone while they are all truncated on the line of the high main-coal bed to the formation of which their higher ends have in all probability partly contributed.
Respecting the true character of these trees reference may be made to the distinction pointed out by Dr. Buckland (B.T. Vol. I , p. 486) after Mr. Nichol, between the true pines and other coniferous trees. The structure of ordinary pines (he says) occurs in wood from the coal formation of New Holland; but in a note he adds, that a section of a tree from the same coal-field was like that of an Araucaria. Now if this distinction holds good, the Lake Macquarie trees are pines, exhibiting the concentric and radial and longitudinal structure with remarkable precision. As, however, it appears that both pines and araucarian trees occur both in the transitional coal and oolitic beds of Europe, no inference can be drawn as to the geological era of these Lake Macquarie trees. In Jamieson's Journal, January, 1833, p. 155, is given an analysis by Mr. W. Nichol of fossil woods from Newcastle Signal Hill, 200 (?)feet above the sea, to which are assigned the hardness of flint and specific gravity of 2.759. It is said to be of a coniferous tree.
This wood, I know, is like that of Lake Macquarie, and therefore the description and analysis of one may be assumed as that of the other. The colours are named as red, dark grey, and brown; there are also others composed of hydrated carbonate and red oxide of iron. Similar examples of these occur not far from the lake, but not at Kurrar Kurran. As this locality affords the greatest abundance of these fossils, so the history of it seems to offer the fittest occasion for observing how completely the occurrence of these trees exhibit an inference similar to that exhibited by the somewhat different features at the Isle of Portland - the alternate depression and elevation of a country.
If it be admitted that these trees grew where they are now rooted, it follows, of necessity, that notwithstanding there is no evidence of an alternation of fresh water and marine strata as at Portland, the dry land must have been submerged with its forests by a slow and gradual depression, till the siliceous bed had formed above it; and upon it not only had there accumulated a bed of vegetable matter (whether derived from drift or not), composing the upper lignite, but that the depression must have continued till the now partially denuded conglomerates and sandstones had been formed above them.
That they have arisen from that depression is proved by the fact that the upper bed of lignite is now at a considerable height above the level of the lower; and that the process of rising may still be going on is inferred from the fact that some of the fossil trees still remain in and under the water, and that the accumulation of alluvial soil is evenly spread over the edge of the lake by the action of the water under which it must more recently have been deposited.
Moreover, since very large eucalypti now grow upon this flat, and also large casuarinae at the very water's edge, it is clear that the flat is of a considerable age, and not altogether of yesterday’s formation. The usual occupier of new alluvial land - the mangrove tree - does not appear to be present, but on other hand there is no visible proof of modern trees of previous growth, and these facts in connection with the fossil trees being partly in the water and partly out, point to a graduate and programmic change of level. The trees could not have grown in the water where they now appear, and admitting that the alluvial flat does not prove what has been supposed just before, still, though lignite might have been deposited in a lake far above the sea, the trees proving the site of the dry land, even if never elevated, establish the fact of a deposition. Viewed, however, in connection with the dislocations and faults all round them, and with numerous other well-established phenomena of that class, which cannot here be further alluded to, these trees distinctly establish the inference of which, however, I posses even stronger evidence, that numerous alternations of level arid mutual risings and fallings have taken place to a great extent in New South Wales.
The argument is not much strengthened by the occurrence of the glossopteris in the sandstone surrounding the roots of the trees, for if the one was drifted so might the other have been, and if the one had grown there so might the other; but if in the case of the fossil trees near Manchester, described by Mr. Hawshaw (G.T. VI, p. 177), it be considered difficult to suppose how six trees could have been drifted vertically with their roots downwards, how much greater is the difficulty in supposing, perhaps, 60,000 (for along the coast of New South Wales they are innumerable) to have undergone a similar process of transportation in Australia!
Surrounded, as the roots are in some instances by an undoubted collection of the sandy matter, which has remained higher than the rest of the surface of the stratum, this could not have been so accumulated by the action of drifting. Moreover, there, as under the cliff at the South Head, we see similar examples with stems lying beside the stumps, and nearly all pointing the same way, the difficulty which was great before becomes incapable of any other solution than that the bed in which they occur was that in which they grew.
Though not necessarily connected with the preceding remarks, it may be observed here that about the same geological horizon, large stools, and stems and branches of trees occur both at Nirritimbah (Mutton-bird Island) off the sea entrance of Awaaba Inlet, and also along the beach at Newcastle and Red Head, and in Nobby's Island close to the coal or lignite beds. In the former case they are mineralized by a puddingstone (which lies immediately over the coal in Australia), and the fossils are, therefore, casts of trees in conglomerate. In the latter they are imbedded in a very pebbly grit passing into a puddingstone, and are mineralized by hydrate of iron. Trees of this mineral are there seen from 10 to 150 feet in length; and one remarkable example occurs of what is by some persons called a boat converted into iron, being the bark of an enormous tree so fossilized. It is 16 feet long, and in the widest part 6 feet 5 inches across.
At the time I inspected the last-named example, there lay a large pile of eucalypti and other trees upon the shore, the products of a violent flood in the Hunter; they had been washed out to sea and thrown up 5or 6 miles to the southward by the current and tides; and amongst them was a mass of bark of about the same size and general features, stripped from a tree. I cannot doubt, therefore, that some of our Australian fossils are drifted.
W.B. Clarke. Parramatta, 29th August, 1842.
W. B. Clarke, On a Fossil Pine Forest at Kurrur-Kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba [Lake Macquarie], East Coast of Australia, Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, 1843, IV(I), 161-4. Abstract only of Clarke’s 1842 manuscript report. Read to the Society on 22 February 1843.
W. B. Clarke, On a Fossil Pine Forest at Kurrur-Kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba [Lake Macquarie], East Coast of Australia, Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 1843, First Series, 472-476. Reproduced from the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London.
W.B. Clarke,On a Fossil Pine Forest at Kurrur-Kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba [Lake Macquarie], East Coast of Australia, Weekly Register of Politics, Facts, and General Literature, Sydney, 9 August 1845, V(107), 68-9. This version of the paper varies somewhat from the manuscript report of August 1842, both in regards to grammar and Clarke’s removal of English references in an effort at catering to the local audience:
From the Proceedings of the Geological Society in London.
On a Fossil Pine forest at Kurrur-kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba, on the Eastern Coast of Australia. By the Rev. W.B. Clarke, A.M., F.G.S. – Abstract of a paper read the 22nd February, 1843.
Awaaba is one of those inlets which occur at frequent intervals along the eastern coast of New South Wales, and which, from their sea-entrance being usually narrow and blocked up with drifted sands, are by the colonists termed “Lakes.” Awaaba is called Lake Macquarie, and is the largest of the inlets of that description between Port Stephens and Broken Bay. Its sea-entrance lies fourteen miles to the south of the mouth of the Hunter River, nearly in 33o south latitude.
This inlet occupies a portion of conglomerate and sandstone, with subordinate beds of lignite and coal, which extends from the Hunter River southwards towards Brisbane Water. The lignite constitutes a considerable part of the Australian coal. This formation, owing to its beds along the shores of the inlet being placed horizontally, and being divided by nearly vertical joints, gives rise to regular lines of coast, both in a longitudinal and transverse direction. It forms along the coast a low range, which, except at the entrance, divides the lake from the sea. Within the lake a series of extensive bays, bounded on the water’s edge by steep cliffs, run out like fingers, far up into the country. The water of the inlet is for the most part very deep.
On the western side of the lake, and nearly opposite its sea-entrance, a promontory, bounded on either side by a bay, is formed by the Tibareenba mountain, which stretches from S.E. to the N.W., and in the latter direction ends abruptly in a lofty but not very precipitous escarpment; this sudden termination is occasioned by a fault. This mountain range then turns to the W. and afterwards to the S.W.; between it and the next range a wide valley intervenes.
The north-eastern flank of the north-western extremity of this range swells out into a hill of low elevation, from the base of which to the water's edge a flat is about fifty yards broad, and is, in point of level, within a foot of the surface of the water; it continues along the base of the slope for the space of about half a mile, and is called by the Aborigines Kurrur-kurran. To the south and west of this flat the slopes of the mountain come down to the margin of the lake. The surface of the flat is composed of black sandy vegetable mould, and of detritus thickly interspersed with the roots of plants and grasses; trees of large growth, which are principally eucalypti and casuarinae, together with some others of smaller dimensions, stand at intervals upon it, and grow even close to the water. Beneath the alluvial matter the rock occurs in situ: this is a sandstone, which is for the most part of a compact and semi-crystalline texture, approaching to chert; its strata run out to some distance, at a small depth below the surface of the water, and render the lake in that part very shallow.
Throughout the whole of the alluvial flat, stumps and stools of fossilized trees are seen standing out of the ground, and one can form no better notion of their aspect, than by imagining what the appearance of the existing living forests would be if the trees were all cut down to a certain level. In the lake also where it adjoins the flat, to the distance of from 80 to 200 feet from the shore, numerous points are seen, like those of a reef of rocks just peeping above the surface of the water. These points are the fossilized stools and stumps of trees, similar to those which are found on shore. The greater part of these stems, both of those on land and in water, stand vertically. Many of those on shore have remains of their roots in the sandstone rock beneath the alluvial matter; and of those which stand in the water, one at the distance of three feet from the shore has portions of its roots inbedded in the sandstone on which it rests. The rock immediately round the roots is not of so harsh a texture as it is in other parts; in it, in the neighbourhood of the roots which are in the water, there appear numerous white spots, which give the stone a mottled appearance; this arises from a multitude of small cavities which contain powdery silex, similar to what is often found in the cavities of chalk-flints. On the shore the surface of the rock near the stems is worn into a number of little holes, which are owing to the decay and removal of this powder.
Mr. Clarke sees no other explanation of these specks, than that they mark the situation of the fibres which proceeded from the roots. The roots of the trees are in some instances surrounded by an accumulation of sandy rock, which forms a mould of a higher level than the rest of the stratum. The roots do not descend, so far as has been ascertained, very far into the substance of the rock, nor is there any appearance of a dirt-bed. The stools stand from two to three feet above the surface of the ground, and vary from two to four feet in diameter; but one in the lake is at least four feet above the level of the water, and five or six in diameter.
In several of the stumps from 60 to 120 concentric rings of growth may be counted; a few of the stools are hollow in the centre, but others are solid throughout; the wood appears to be coniferous. Veins of chalcedony traverse the substance of the trunks between the concentric rings, and also in the direction of the radial lines.
Many of the stems at Kurrur-kurran have the bark adhering firmly to the trunk, and the bark in one instance was of the thickness of three inches. Its appearance in one or two cases is such as to show that it had been partly torn from the tree while yet standing, as if it had been broken down and the bark had been rent by the fall.
The colour of the substance of the stems within varies from a greyish white to a clouded grey, but their surfaces, when exposed to the air, have become yellowish by weathering; many are overgrown by lichens, and have then exactly the appearance of the stumps of recent trees. The upper extremities of the fossil stumps present clean horizontal sections, which shows that they were not broken off while recent, since no mode of fracturing recent pinewood could have occasioned such neat, plain, and parallel sections as the summits of these stumps exhibit.
In a fragment of the sandstone from the base of one of the fossil stumps, the silicified impression of part of the leaf of a Glossopteris was found.
Immediately below the flinty stratum in which the trees are found is a bed of lignite; above the level at which the trees occur, there are found imbedded in the sandstones and conglomerates, immense quantities of broken fragments of trees, apparently stripped of their boughs and branches. These fragments are generally divested of their bark, and appear to have been drifted.
Fossil trees are found in this formation at other places, and sometimes nearly at the same level above the sea at Kurrur-kurran; they occur in sandstone similar to that of Kurrur-kurran, at the southern extremity of the Tirabeenba mountain, immediately above and below a bed of lignite. At the spot referred to, pits have very recently been opened for working the lignite, at the level of about four feet above the surface of the lake. At the south head of Reid's Mistake, which is the name for the sea entrance to the inlet of Awaaba, similar beds of sandstone occur, and these are traversed vertically by the trunks of trees, while other trees lie horizontally in the same beds. Lines of division, which appear to be owing to the contradiction of the whole mass, intersect both the trees and their matrix: these trees are found at a somewhat higher level in Nirritimbi (or Mutton-bird Island), off the entrance to Awaaba. Large stools and stem of trees occur in conglomerate reposing on lignite on the coast north of the entrance to Awaaba, at Redhead, Newcastle, and at Nobby's Island, and under the Beacon cliff, the trees lie in a pebbly grit, passing into conglomerate, and mineralized by hydrate of iron; they are from 10 to 150 feet long. At none of the above places however, do the trees occur in such profusion as at Kurrur-kurran.
Fragments of roots and of the boughs of trees divested of their bark, are found at Munniwarree, Wollongong, and Mulibinba, imbedded in beds of sandstone at higher level than the beds which contains the fossil trees. Similar fragments are found spread over the surface at Wollon Hills, at Merton, at Holworthy Downs, Gummum, &c, and elsewhere in the colony; it is probable therefore that the bed of sandstone containing trees in a vertical position, which is found nearly at the same level above the sea at Kurrur-kurran and the other places above mentioned, is the geological position of those ancient forests from which the enormous quantities of fragments of wood which occur either spread over the surface, or imbedded in the sandstones above and below the lignite have been derived.
The sandstones of this formation, and in this vicinity, have been powerfully affected by the action of intrusive rocks; they are traversed, at Nobby's Island and on the coast of Newcastle, by green-stone dykes, having a S.E. and N.W. direction. The author refers to the “Voyage” of Flinders, page 131, for an account of mineralized fossil wood found in Bass's Straits, at Preservation Island, which is composed of granite and schist, traversed by granite veins and trap dykes. He also refers to the “Tasmanian Journal," vol. i., p. 27, for an account by the surgeon of H.M.S. Erebus, Dr. M’Cormick, of silicified wood found is association with trap rocks in Kerguelens's Land; and to the same volume, p. 21, for an account by Dr. T. D. Hooker, assistant-surgeon to H.M.S. Erebus, of fossil wood found at Macquarie-plains, in Tasmania.
The author infers from the present position of the fossil trees at Kurrur-kurran, that the land must have been alternately depressed and elevated. He makes mention in the course of his paper of two beds of lignite, one above the bed of fossil trees and one below it; but he does not describe the relative position and distance of these two beds.
W.B. Clarke, On a Fossil Pine Forest at Kurrur-Kurran, in the inlet of Awaaba [Lake Macquarie], East Coast of Australia, Annual Report of the Department of Mines of N.S.W. for the Year 1884, Sydney, 1885, 156-9 plus map and figures. Original article signed and dated 'W.B. Clarke. Parramatta, 29th August 1842.' This represents the first publication in full of Clarke’s original geological report on the site, along with lithographed copies of his original illustrations. It is reproduced above. Clarke died in 1878.
L.E. Threlkeld, An Australian language as spoken by the Awabakal: the people of Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an account of their language, traditions, and customs: by L.E. Threlkeld. Re-arranged, condensed, and edited, with an appendix, by John Fraser, Government Printer, Sydney, 1892. This volume reproduces material compiled and published by Threlkeld between 1827-1959, including his 1834 note on the mythological background to the Fennel Bay fossil tree forest (reproduced above). Threlkeld died in 1859 after operating the Ebenezer coal mine at Lake Macquarie during the early 1840s.
The fossil pine forest at Lake Macquarie becomes the first site of geological significance to be declared a reserve in the state of New South Wales. No action is taken at the time to ensure the physical preservation of the site.
T.W. Edgeworth David, The Geology of the Hunter Rive Coal Measures, New South Wales, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, Geology, Number 4, 1907, 372p. This publication includes a description of the fossil pine forests at Lake Macquarie, located within the Permo-Carboniferous cherts of the Newcastle Series. Two photographs of specimens are reproduced (plate XXX) opposite page 289, along with various drawings of geological sections featuring the fossil trees at Lake Macquarie and nearby. The following photographs and section are from the memoir:
T.W. Edgeworth David, Maitland Handbook, Maitland District Scientific and Historical Research Association, 1914. The author makes reference to the fossil forest items as follows:
Awaba Tuff 42 ft thick of cherts and cherty shales with fossil forest of Dadoxylon trees 2-3 feet in diameter and about 120 feet high.” The Awaba Fennell Bay fossil forest is located by him 10-40 feet below the coal seam known as the Great Northern Seam. The trees are allied to the modern Araucaria or Norfolk Island Pine.
Mr Hubert James Bear collects specimens of the fossil trees from Lake Macquarie and uses them to erect a fence in front of his house. He also collects fossil wood from the general area and displays specimens in his garden, suitably labelled as to their origin. Some of the Fennel Bay fossil tree segments are eventually acquired by the local Council following Mr Bear’s death.
T.G. Vallance and D. Branagan, ’New South Wales Geology – Its Origins and Growth’, in A Century of Scientific Progress, Royal Society of New South Wales, Sydney, 1968, 265-279.
Neil Gunson, Australian Reminiscences of L.E. Threlkeld, missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1974.
David Branagan, ‘Samuel Stutchbury and Reverend W.B. Clarke – not quite equal and opposite’, in Peter Stanbury (editor), 100 Years of Australian Scientific Exploration, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, Artarmon, 1975, 89-98. Contains reproduction of part of W.B. Clarke’s manuscript notes of 1842 re the fossil pine forest at Kurrur-Kurran, along with his annotated map. See also Branagan's publication of 2008 for more detail.
Fossil pine forest at Lake Macquarie nominated for listing on the Australian Heritage Register.
G. Ray, Lake's secret heritage a rare geological phenomenon, Newcastle Herald, Monday, 1 March 1992, 1.
Lake Macquarie Council business paper of 19 September 2005 discusses the Fennel Bay fossil forest and the collection of Mr Bear. It also make reference to the Aboriginal connection with the site.
Mike Scanlon article on the Fennel Bay fossil pine forest and the collections of Mr. Bear, Newcastle Herald, March 2007.
David Branagan and Tom Vallance (deceased), Some Unpublished Correspondence of the Rev. W.B. Clarke, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 141(3-4), 1-31. Includes Clarke's first mention of his discovery of the Lake Macquarie fossil forest.
Last updated: 14 April 2009.