Messages in paint: an archaeometric analysis of pigment use in Aboriginal Australia focusing on the production of rock art

23rd December 2015

Jillian Huntley

Archaeology, School of Humanities, University of New England, PhD, December 2014

Anthropogenically modified pigments are held to be some of the earliest, most unambiguous and persistent evidence for behavioural modernity, frequently (and often tenuously) invoked as material expression of symbolic thought and action. Recent finds, increases in the sophistication of analytic techniques and theoretical frameworks have renewed interest in ochre. This is reflected by a spike in actualistic studies, investigations of pigment morphology and geochemistry. Archaeological studies continue to display a bias towards Pleistocene pigments, while archaeometric research continues to focus on ochre from known source locations, and, in Australia, ethnographically documented mines. Here I take a different tack, targeting Holocene ochres, focusing on pigments with at least one known, indisputably symbolic function—the production of rock art. As part of the physical and metaphorical (cultural) landscape, rock art offers a unique pigment archive as it remains in the location in which it was created.

A decade since the first published application of portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) to rock art there has been an absence of critical scrutiny and methodological development. Aiming to redress this, I use conventional and Synchrotron X-ray Diffraction, Micro Computed Tomography and Scanning Electron Microscopy to explain and evaluate pXRF. I develop novel methods of using geochemical data to identify paint mineralogy (including differentiating between paints of the same colour), recognise the chemical signatures of taphonomic processes and compare ochres from excavated contexts with rock art. Interpreting the resultant elemental profiles relies on understanding the complex taphonomy of pigments and the chemical expression of non-cultural phenomena, something not adequately addressed previously. This work therefore offers a non-invasive means by which large scale studies of archaeological pigments can be undertaken.

By expressly separating characterisation from the assignment of provenance, I describe and interpret pigment geochemistry within the frameworks of object biography and intentionality. I demonstrate how pigment characterisations make available additional strands of chronological and behavioural evidence within regional prehistories. In the Sydney Basin, I report the first archaeological identification of calcite rock art paint at Yengo 1 shelter, where calcite pigments are present from 1500 BP. I provide the first archaeological description of a mulberry ochre quarry in northern Australia, showing that these pigments are available locally within the King Leopold formation of the northwest Kimberley and that ochre quarries occur in sites with large rock art assemblages. Ultimately, this work demonstrates that it is not always the highest resolution scientific data that produces the most insightful archaeological findings.

Huntley, J.
Messages in paint: an archaeometric analysis of pigment use in Aboriginal Australia focusing on the production of rock art
December 2015
Thesis Abstracts
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