Thesis abstract ‘’Make ’em Bright’: Aboriginal Re-Marking of Rock Art in Past and Present Australia’

22nd May 2014

Katharine Sale

BA(Hons), Department of Prehistorical and Historical Archaeology, University of Sydney, Sydney, November 1992

This thesis investigated the Aboriginal practice of re-marking rock art. The re-doing of a particular act can be recognised in a range of different activities in the archaeological and ethnographic records. The re-doing of rock art has been identified as an important part of the artistic activities of some Australian Aboriginal groups (e.g. Elkin 1930. 1952; Crawford 1968; Blundell 1975, 1982; Mowaljarlai 1992; Mowaljarlai et al. 1987, 1988).

The primary aim of the research is to provide an overview of the occurrence of Aboriginal re-marking in prehistoric and historic Australia, and thereby provide a background to the contemporary re-marking of sites by Aboriginal people. Equally important was the synthesis of available information into a coherent form which will provide a comprehensive reference collection for on-going research. The data used in the analysis is derived from archaeological research, ethnographic studies and contemporary Aboriginal people. Data is organised onto sheets, each containing information (site name, geographic location, reference, photographic documentation, and details of the remarking event) on an individual site, group of sites, region and for state. The 108 data sheets are located in Appendix 2 (Volume 2).

A review of terms used in the literature to refer to re-doing rock art revealed the inconsistencies and inadequacies of present definitions and concepts. The term ‘re-marking’ is adopted, in recognition that the re-doing of rock art is not confined solely to paintings, but may also apply to stencils, drawings and engravings. Remarking refers to the re-doing of single painted and engraved marks.

It is proposed that the major criterion for defining re-marking is one of spatial association, and a preliminary typology which considers scale, technique and association (between new and existing marks) is constructed as a baseline for further research. Four components are identified as basic to the re-marking activity: medium, technique, process and results.

Analysis of the available archaeological evidence identifies the physical aspects of remarking. Issues examined include site formation processes, methods of identifying remarked surfaces (e.g. visual, technical), and geographical and temporal (prehistoric, historic, contemporary) distributions of remarked sites in Australia. There is archaeological evidence for re-marking in all mainland states of Australia, with a focus of activity in northwest Australia. Further, there is a demonstrated tradition of re-marking in some areas (e.g. the Kimberley, Western Australia, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory) which may date from as early as 6000 BP (based on stylistic analysis of a site near Jim Jim Creek, Arnhem Land).

The ethnographic evidence, based primarily on information provided by Aboriginal informants, focuses on the social aspects of the re-marking activity. This provides insight into the reasons for re-marking (e.g. ‘tapping’ into the Dreaming power, increase, sorcery magic), responsibilities for re-marking (primarily men/senior custodians), gender issues, and other functions of re-marking (e.g. reinforcing cultural group identity, enabling co-operative hunting). ‘The ethnographic and contemporary evidence suggests that re-marking is related to the expression of relationships between Aboriginal people, the landscape and the Dreaming; and between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal people. There are also implications for the notion that re-marking may provide a medium for expressing socio-cultural change.

The issues concerning contemporary Aboriginal perceptions of re-marking, and their uses of this activity today are raised in two case studies: the 1987 Gibb River Re-painting Project, Kimberley, Western Australia and current re-marking by Aboriginal people in New South Wales. While there is a differing emphasis on the re-marking activity as revival (southeast Australia) and as continuity (northern Australia), both examples stress the importance of re-marking in ensuring the survival of Aboriginal culture and identity, and as a strong political statement regarding the rights of Aboriginal people to continue practicing their cultural activities as custodians of the land and sites. As David Mowaljarlai (Mowaljarlai and Peck 1987:72) stated:

the Ngarinyin have been fighting to keep the culture for many years … We know we are on the right track and believe the work done (re-painting) has brought our culture one step closer to survival.

The research demonstrates a valuable approach to investigating rock art as a means of exploring Aboriginal cultural practices and beliefs in the past, and provides a strong basis for addressing cultural heritage issues concerning the activity of re-marking rock art in the present.


Blundell, V. 1975 Aboriginal Adaptation in Northwest Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin.

Blundell, V. 1982 Symbolic systems and cultural continuity in northwest Australia: A consideration of Aboriginal cave art. Culture II(1):3–20.

Crawford, I.M. 1968 The Art of the Wandjina: Aboriginal Cave Paintings in Kimberley, Western Australia. Melbourne and New York: Oxford University Press.

Elkin, A.P. 1930 Rock paintings of northwest Australia. Oceania 1(3):257–279.

Elkin, A.P. 1952 Cave paintings in southern Arnhem Land. Oceania 22(4):245–255.

Mowaljarlai, D. 1992 A Ngarinyin perspective of repainting: Mowaljarlai’s statement to the Symposium. In G.K. Ward (ed.) Retouch: Maintenance und Conservation of Aboriginal Rock Imagery. Proceedings of the Symposium on Retouch, First  AURA Congress, Darwin 1988, pp.8–9. Occasional AURA Publication 5.Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Toms Strait Islander Studies.

Mowaljarlai, D., P. Vinnicombe, G.K. Ward and C. Chippindale 1988 Repainting of images on rock in Australia and the maintenance of Aboriginal culture. Antiquity 62:690–696.

Mowlajarlai, D. and C. Peck 1987 Ngarinyin cultural continuity: A project to teach the young people the culture, including the re-painting of Wandjina rock art sites. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1987(2):71–78.

Sale, K.
Thesis abstract ‘'Make 'em Bright': Aboriginal Re-Marking of Rock Art in Past and Present Australia'
December 1993
Thesis Abstracts
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