In the remote desert northwest of Adelaide you can find Marree Man: a giant glyph of unknown origin and purpose.
Marree is a tiny outback town, 700km northwest of Adelaide.
The traditional owners are the Arabana people, the first European to explore the area was John Eyre, in 1840. In 1859 another famed explorer, John McDouall Stuart, also visited, and his party found a small natural spring; this was named after Stuart’s German botanist Joseph Hergott.
The spring provided a supply of fresh water which allowed a small settlement to be founded, the town was originally known as ‘Hergott Springs’.
During World War I, anti-German sentiment caused the town to change its name to Marree (as happened to a number of German related place names in Australia, in this period).
In 1883, the railroad reached Marree, and it became a key stop on the route to Alice Springs (and eventually, Darwin).
The town also stands at a junction of two important outback roads; The Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks, which provide access to some of Australia’s most remote areas. Initially used to transport cattle, these dirt tracks also allow mail deliveries and supplies to reach outback towns and Indigenous communities.
The landscape surrounding Marree is flat, vast and ancient. Some of the world’s oldest rocks come from central Australia, the soil has a distinctive red hue.
The remote location and harsh environment have kept the town’s population small; it currently stands at around 150.
In June 1998 an outback pilot, Trec Smith, was flying back to Marree in a small plane from a trip to Coober Pedy.
When he landed, he reported something unusual he had seen during his flight; a huge human figure, seemingly an Aboriginal man, somehow drawn or carved into the ground outside of town.
‘It was so big I assumed everyone would know about it. But when I landed in town nobody had any idea.
I tried to explain to them, this thing is huge. I could see it from 6,000 feet. They thought I was a little bit mad.’
– Trec Smith
Curious locals went to investigate, and confirmed what Smith had reported. Someone had created a giant-sized artwork, in secret, in the middle of nowhere.
Marree Man is a tribal Aboriginal figure drawn in an action pose; legs apart, one arm raised, holding a stick or a spear.
It is an example of a type of art known as a ‘geoglyph’; a large image drawn into the ground. Geoglyphs have been found all over the world, from a range of time periods, and created using a variety of different methods.
Famous examples include the Nazca Lines in Peru, the Cerne Abbas Giant, and the Uffington White Horse, both in England. There are many examples.
Even by glyph standards, Marree Man is enormous: 4.2 kilometres long, with a circumference of 28 kilometres. If you overlaid the image across Melbourne, it would stretch from the MCG to St Kilda beach, in Sydney from the Opera House to Redfern.
It was created by scraping the topsoil away; lines 35 centimetres deep, and up to thirty metres wide, carved into the ground, revealing different coloured soil beneath. This contrast made the image visible from the air, even from space (a technique also used in other ancient glyphs).
Creating the image would have been an enormous undertaking.
The amount of soil removed was substantial, and, in the era before GPS was widely available, how had the figure been created so precisely? Who had made it, and why?
A few weeks after the figure had been discovered, an anonymous fax was received by businesses in Marree. The author claimed to be the work’s creator.
The message referred to the glyph as ‘Stuart’s Giant.’ Subsequent faxes were sent to the media, and would provide a rationale for its creation:
‘The giant has given South Australia enormous, worldwide publicity.
Now that is confirmed no laws were broken, it is our hope that your State Government can promote and make use of the tourist attraction to deliver substantial financial gains to the state, especially to local Aboriginal communities.’
– Excerpts from fax received 24 August, 1998
The faxes also provided enigmatic clues, as to where further information could be found.
A strange kind of treasure hunt now ensued.
One fax advised: ‘During the creation of the figure, a 36-inch by 25-inch dedicatory plaque was buried on the plateau four inches below the surface, 23 feet south of the point of the nose.’
A police search at this location revealed a buried, chipboard plaque. But the message inscribed only deepened the mystery:
‘His attainments in these pursuits are extraordinary; a constant source of wonderment and admiration.’
– Buried Marree Man plaque
It was later determined that this was a quote about Aboriginal hunting, taken from the 1936 book ‘The Red Centre’. The plaque was adorned with an American flag and the Olympic rings, also unexplained.
A further search at the site uncovered more buried clues: this time a jar containing a satellite image of the glyph, a small American flag, and a note referring to the Branch Davidian religious sect, which had been involved in a notorious showdown with US law enforcement in Waco, Texas, in 1993.
More clues were promised, via the anonymous faxes, although none eventuated.
Investigators now considered the information they had.
The faxes had an American style cadence; US spellings were used, there were multiple references to Aboriginal ‘reservations’, a term more common in North America.
Was an unknown American artist/s behind Marree Man?
300km south west of Marree was the more substantial regional town of Woomera, where the Australian Air Force had a long standing military facility.
The base had been used in conjunction with Australia’s military allies a number of times since World War II, including British nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s.
In 1969, Australia and the US established the Joint Defense Facility Nurrungar (JDFN) at Woomera. This was an advanced surveillance station, designed to monitor missile launches and aircraft using over-the-horizon radar, and satellites.
JDFN was so secret that it was not announced to the Australian public until after it was completed, its exact location remained restricted for years afterwards.
JDFN was in use for thirty years, until 1999. Its operations were then consolidated with America’s other top secret monitoring station in Australia, at Pine Gap.
People interested in Marree Man noted the alignment of the dates. Was it possible that departing American defence personal had travelled into the outback, the year before they left, and created the artwork as a kind of farewell?
There were the US oriented clues, the flags and wording. There was also speculation about what kind of technology may have been required.
GPS access would have been hugely beneficial, but this was a nascent technology in 1998. Personal GPS devices were available, but uncommon.
However, military personal stationed at JDFN would have had access, and could have used the military tech to help create the drawing.
Other investigators thought the US connection was a deliberate red herring, designed to misdirect people away from the real creator.
Their attention turned to another possibility: Alice Springs based artist, Bardius Goldberg.
Goldberg was an eccentric painter and sculptor, interested in Aboriginal history and art. In 1995 he was the subject of a BBC TV documentary, produced by Glen Adamus, about a large-scale dot painting he was creating on the ground near Alice Springs.
That project stalled when Goldberg had a falling out with the traditional owners of the land he was working on, Herman and Mavis Malbunka. But while filming had been in progress, Adamus said Goldberg had discussed another project he had in mind:
‘ “I want something five kilometres in length,’ Goldberg said. “I want to put something out in the desert that can be seen from space.”
He told me got $10 000 funding from a businessman living in Hahndorf, in the Adelaide Hills.’
– Glen Adamus, ‘The Weekend Australian’, 2008
Adamus claimed that Goldberg had even sketched Marree Man for him, in the dirt.
Goldberg died in 2002.
A passionate and sometimes volatile man, he got into a fight in a bar in the Adelaide suburbs, and had a tooth knocked out. Terrified of dentists, Goldberg refused to seek treatment; the cavity became infected, and he developed a fatal case of septicaemia.
After his death, former mining contractor John Henderson added more weight to the theory he had created Marree Man. Henderson told the press he had leant Goldberg a tractor and a GPS, and shown him how to use the technology.
Other friends of Goldberg’s, including Kangaroo Island mayor Peter Clements, also claimed that Goldberg had told them privately he was responsible.
For some people though: the mystery remains.
In 2016 the owner of the Marree pub, Phil Turner, claimed on ABC radio that he had found 250 wooden stakes near the glyph. Turner speculated that these had been used to help create the work, using a theodolite rather than a GPS device.
In 2018, outback pilot Dick Lang claimed that a friend of his had recovered another American flag from near the foot of the image, which reignited speculation about American military creators.
Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith offered $5 000 for further evidence. It has so far been unclaimed.
Meanwhile, the harsh environment gradually eroded Marree Man. By 2016, it was barely visible.
Marree locals proposed a restoration of the glyph, but this was originally opposed by the Indigenous owners of the land, who had never liked having the image forced upon them.
‘Whoever put it there doesn’t understand what they were doing.
Some people in the community may think it is good for tourism, but it is not good for us. It makes a joke of our dreaming.’
– Tribal spokesperson Raelene Warren, quoted in 2009
But negotiations between the Arabana Aboriginal Corporation and members of the Marree community, including Phil Turner, were successful, and funding secured for a restoration.
Using a commercial grader and a GPS, the image was retraced by locals, across July and August 2016.