By Jacqueline Matthews. Based on the recent article by ben Gunn, Ray Whear and Leigh Douglas, ‘Dating the present at Nawarla Gabarnmang: Time and function in the art of a major Jawoyn rock art and occupation site in western Arnhem Land’, published in Australian Archaeology 75. All images in this post are copyright to the Jawoyn Association and are used here with permission of the authors.
Australia is world renowned for its impressive array of Aboriginal rock art. Researchers have spent decades studying the diverse art forms across Australia, identifying numerous periods and styles of art, and working with Indigenous groups to try to explain their meaning and significance to a new audience. One of the key challenges researchers face is establishing just how old the rock art is, because, unlike other archaeological materials, art is not straight-forward to date. In Australia, like the rest of the world, direct dates for rock art are extremely rare, but they are on the rise as more researchers invest time and effort into solving this issue.
As one of only a handful of Australian sites that has been reliably dated to beyond 45,000 years, Nawarla Gabarnmang is a significant and increasingly well-known site, both in Australia and internationally. Excavations at this site, which began in 2010, have brought to light some of the oldest currently known evidence for ground edge axe technology (Geneste et al. 2010) and pigment use specifically for art (David et al. 2013) (for more about recent research click here). However, the compelling archaeological stories being told below the ground are equally matched by those above it. The visually stunning nature of this shelter, which is quite literally covered in rock art, rivals some of the best known rock art sites in the world.
In Australian Archaeology 75, ben Gunn, Ray Whear and Leigh Douglas report on their research at Nawarla Gabarnmang, and their use of different methods to date the most recent period of art creation at the site. They combine techniques of superimposition and direct dating of beeswax with information about contact motifs (or ‘figures’) and crucial comments provided by the traditional owners.
Superimposition is a critical method in rock art research and was originally developed to interpret the stratigraphy of archaeological sites. In rock art, researchers use it to establish a relative sequence for different painting episodes. They look at which and how motifs overlap, to ultimately arrive at a sequence of timing showing what was painted first, and in what order other paintings followed.
At Nawarla Gabarnmang one particular motif provides more assistance in giving an age to the superimposition sequence. A motif of a horse is significant as it must have been painted after 1845, when explorer Ludwig Leichardt’s party passed through this part of Arnhem Land—an event which would have marked the first time such animals had been seen by Aboriginal people in this part of Australia. This gives a relative age for the art motifs that are painted over the horse motif, i.e. the overlying paintings must have been painted within the last 170 years.
The majority of rock art in Australia (and the world) is created using inorganic pigments (the paint) such as clays and ochres, which are nearly impossible to date directly because they do not contain the carbon necessary to use radiocarbon dating. However, some forms of art include organic compounds that can be successfully dated—one example is beeswax. At Nawarla Gabarnmang, artists created several figures out of native beeswax pellets and also used them to embellish key parts of painted art motifs. The pellets were sampled and directly dated for this research, and these radiocarbon dates have been used in conjunction with the superimposition sequence to help define a chronology for when different motifs were created.
Collaboration with the Jawoyn people is the key to unravelling the past of Nawarla Gabarnmang through its rock art: their stories form a vital part of this archaeological research. A senior Elder recalls seeing the striking barramundi and other motifs at the shelter when he visited as a boy, which indicates that the main paintings at the site must have been created prior to his visit (ca 1935). Another Elder commented on the style of the barramundi, which is not a ‘Jawoyn’ style but one common to groups to the north, suggesting that these paintings were made by people travelling from the north into Jawoyn Country to take part in ceremonies and who likely camped at the site. This sort of information greatly enhances the chronological sequence unravelled by the authors; it not only gives a minimum age for the art but also provides information on the function of this site in the past.
This article and the ongoing research at Nawarla Gabarnmang highlight the ways that archaeologists construct stories of successive site use using a range of archaeological methods and supported by local Indigenous knowledge. With a site as complex and physically immense as this it will take many more decades of research before archaeologists will learn all they can about the history of this site. This study provides an intriguing insight into an exciting and dynamic period of the past, and a hint of bigger things to come.
David, B., B. Barker, F. Petchey, J-J. Delannoy, J-M. Geneste, C. Rowe, M. Eccleston, L. Lamb and R.L. Whear 2013 A 28,000 year old excavated painted rock from Nawarla Gabarnmang, northern Australia. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:2493–2501.
Geneste, J-M., B. David, H. Plisson, C. Clarkson, J-J. Delannoy, F. Petchey and R.L. Whear 2010 Earliest evidence for ground-edge axes: 35,400±410 cal. BP from Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land. Australian Archaeology 71:66–69. (Media release.)
Gunn, R.G., R.L. Whear and L.C. Douglas 2012 Dating the present at Nawarla Gabarnmang: Time and function in the art of a major Jawoyn rock art and occupation site in western Arnhem Land. Australian Archaeology 75:55–65.
For more information see:
Chaloupka, G. 1993 Journey in Time: The World’s Longest Continuing Art Tradition. Chatswood: Reed.
Gunn, R.G. and R.L. Whear 2007 The Jawoyn Rock Art and Heritage Project. Rock Art Research 24:5–20.
Gunn, R.G. and R.L. Whear 2008 A singular beeswax representation of Namarrkon, the Lightning Man, from Western Arnhem Land. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2008(2):54–69.
Lewis, D. 1988 The Rock Art Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia. BAR International Series 415. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Tacon, P.S.C., E. Nelson, C. Chippindale and G. Chaloupka 2004 The beeswax rock art of the Northern Territory: Direct dating and a ‘book of record’. Rock Art Research 21(2):155–160.
Useful online resources
ANU Rock Art Research Centre, Rock Art in the News (Archive)
Australian Rock Art Research Association Inc., Articles on rock art dating
Recent rock art news stories
Australian Geographic, Burrup Peninsula Rock Art among oldest in the world
The Australian, Finding puts Aborigines among art’s avant garde