The Lightning Brothers Project 1990–91 field seasons

23rd January 2014

Excavation in progress at the Gordol-ya site (published in Australian Archaeology 41:6).

Excavation in progress at the Gordol-ya site (published in Australian Archaeology 41:6).

Bruno David, Jackie Collins, Bryce Barker, Josephine Flood and ben Gunn


The Lightning Brothers Project began in 1988 as a long-term investigation into the archaeology of Wardaman country, near the Victoria River (Northern Territory). This paper reports briefly on research undertaken during the 1990 and 1991 field seasons. Results obtained during the previous two field seasons have been reported elsewhere and will not be repeated here (cf. David et al. 1990a, 1990b, 1990c, 1991, 1992, 1994; David and Hood 1991; Flood et al. 1992; Frost et al. 1992; McNiven et al. 1992).

Prior to 1990, the project had concentrated on the systematic recording of rockshelters and rock art located around the Yingalarri waterhole (near the centre of Wardaman Country), Yiwarlarlay to the south (the Lightning Brothers complex of sites), and Jalijbang to the west Fig. 1). Excavations at Yiwarlarlay (Yiwarlarlay 1 and Delamere 3) and Jalijbang (Jalijbang 2 and Mennge-ya) had revealed cultural sequences characterised by comparatively dense cultural deposits during relatively recent times, preceded by lower artefact deposition rates and a general absence of in situ earth pigments in painted sites (Attenbrow et al. in press; David et al. 1990b, 1990c, 1991, 1992). The implications of this were that the excavated assemblages had undergone different depositional regimes – natural, cultural or both – sometime during the late Holocene. The archaeological deposits at Yiwarlarlay 1 and Delamere 3, and possibly also at Mennge-ya, also revealed major chronostratigraphic changes coincident with the arrival of Europeans around the late 19th century. It was argued by David et al. (1990c) that European invaders denied traditional custodians access to some of their lands. This resulted in a breakdown of certain ceremonial practices, of the appropriate visitation of sites, and of the ability of traditional custodians to fulfil their roles as managers of places as required by traditional Law (involving a fundamental recognition of the Dreaming beings who gave the land its identity). Consequently, it was argued that following the early contact period, numerous sites in Wardaman country were painted with very large ‘images’ of the Dreaming beings who give those places their identity—Yagjagbula and Jabirringi (the Lightning Brothers) at Yiwarlarlay, gullirida (peewees) at Nimji, and so on (David et al. 1990c). For this to hold true, however, we must be able to show that the majority of the large, paired anthropomorphs found throughout Wardaman country are indeed of post-contact origin. It is also necessary to show that such figures were, and possibly continue to be, ‘images’ of the identities of the Dreaming beings who give the sites their particular identities. The major questions explored during the 1990 and 1991 field seasons were partly aimed at further exploring some of these issues.

*Note that an abstract was not included with this paper, and so the introductory paragraph has been included here instead of the abstract.

David, B., J. Collins, B. Barker, J. Flood and R.G. Gunn
The Lightning Brothers Project 1990–91 field seasons
December 1995
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