Thesis abstract ‘An Investigation into the Aboriginal Rock Art Paints of the Selwyn Ranges Region in North West Queensland’

13th January 2014

Malcolm Ridges

BSc(Hons), Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, University of New England, Armidale, October 1995

It has become well established that minute quantities of organic matter can be extracted from rock paints and dated using radiocarbon methods. Many of these dates have been used to suggest the antiquity of painting. This has led to discrepancies emerging between these dates and rock art chronologies determined using other dating techniques. Some researchers are now questioning how accurately the age of a painting can be determined by measuring the radiocarbon age of its organic contents. It was the proposition of this thesis that the analysis of prehistoric rock paints requires a greater emphasis on understanding the organic environment of a painting. It is believed that this would promote an understanding of the origin and history of substances found within rock paints. Specific organic substances could then be extracted and isolated from the paints for the purpose of radiocarbon dating, the age of these substances being more easily argued as having a similar antiquity as the act of painting.

This study was a baseline study, establishing that organic matter was present in the paints, that the amount of organic matter could be quantified and that different types of organic matter could be identified in different paints. An important aspect of this thesis was also to investigate the organic content of materials associated with the paintings, and the act of painting. Thus the organic composition of the supporting rock substrate, mineral skins forming on the rock surface and an ochre pigment source were also investigated. Analysis of the paints’ organic environment in the Selwyn region shows that sufficient organic material for radiocarbon dating was present in several paints that did not utilise a charcoal-based pigment. Importantly, it was also demonstrated that the organic material in these paints can have a multitude of origins. This implies that methods which seek to radiocarbon date the entire organic content of a paint, are not accurate indicators of a painting’s age. The resulting radiocarbon measurement will be an average of the different history of each organic substance, and is unlikely to reflect the actual antiquity of the painting.

This thesis concluded by suggesting that the analysis of the organic environment of rock paints is an equally important aspect of dating paintings, as the dating itself. It is suggested that the adoption of a methodology that seeks to characterise the organic composition of rock paints, before radiocarbon dating is considered, will lead to better approaches to determining the age of rock paintings by using their organic constituents.

Ridges, M.
Thesis abstract 'An Investigation into the Aboriginal Rock Art Paints of the Selwyn Ranges Region in North West Queensland'
June 1997
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Thesis Abstracts
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