The Antiquity of Aboriginal Art


Aboriginal art is part of a living tradition, perhaps the oldest continuous art tradition in the world. It is the visual expression of a religion which has its origins in antiquity. Serious practitioners of the ceremonies have maintained the traditional art forms throughout the deserts of Australia and in the far northern areas.

Like all forms of cultural expression, Aboriginal art is constantly adapting and changing with time. Even the traditional arts - those that express the religion, land and Dreaming - revel the individuality of each artist, and constantly incorporate new ideas, patterns and materials.

There are many examples of early works now held in the collections of Australian museums and upheaval and they now emerge as exciting, innovative expressions of an ancient and continuous philosophy and belief in the Australian landscape itself. Hundreds of Aboriginal artists in Australia may not yet be known individually, but their work is of major importance and their skills and creativity are a significant part of the unique Australian heritage.

In Aboriginal society men and women have their own parallel expressive arts. The painted or decorated body becomes a living sculpture in dance. The same designs may be transferred to many different surfaces, for different purposes - to fibre, sand, wood, bark and stone. The separation of art and craft, traditional in the Western world, does not exist in Aboriginal art. The intricacies of spinning, weaving and knotting are integrated with shells, fibre and paint, while feathers and fibre can form part of sculpture.

Public perception and appreciation of the total context of creativity in the wider society have increased. Contemporary art exhibitions now include constructional performances, fibre works and combinations of natural objects such as feathers and shells - all elements that Aboriginal artists have always explored. It is hoped that the symbols that express the Dreaming continue as the living arts of Aboriginal Australia.

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Dramatic advances have been made in the archaeological investigation of Australia's prehistory over the last quarter of a century. During that time discoveries have extended the time mankind has occupied the continent from just several thousand years to 40,000 years, with some adventurous theorists postulating that people might have been in Australia for 120,000 years. Large areas of Australia await investigation, and a great deal of work is needed to give a more comprehensive date sequence for Aboriginal culture and art. The excitement of discovery still hangs over this work, which is vitally important to Aboriginals themselves as well as to the wider community in general. Many vast galleries of rock engravings and paintings have been discovered, but few have been excavated and dated. Much of the sequencing of sites and the antiquity of the art is therefore based on inference and, in a number of significant sites, on the presence of associated deposits of ochre. These sites have provided the basic framework now generally accepted for Aboriginal rock art. 


It is probable that, because ochre is used in all facets of contemporary Aboriginal life, it also assumed an important role in antiquity. Almost every excavation of sites older than 10,000 B. (before the present) has uncovered quantities of ochre pigment in pellets or as a stain. Pieces of ochre wee obviously used as crayons, as some fragments have smooth edges. Large quantities of ochre have always been used in ceremonies and accounts exist of supplies being gathered from certain quarries for this purpose, and being traded throughout the country. Nearly all of these quarries hold mythological significance to the owners; a particular one in the Lake Eyre region was visited by up to 70 Dieri tribesmen who annually travelled 500 kilometres from central Australia to the Flinders Ranges to gather the ochre and to carry it home for ceremonies. These same people travelled across the Simpson desert, where they exchanged ochre for the leaves of the pitury bush (Duboisia topwoodii) a form of native tobacco that is chewed, producing a mild narcotic effect.

The earliest evidence of human occupation of Australia has been found in the Willandra Lakes region of south-western New South Wales. This extraordinary area has been declared a World Heritage site because it is significant not only for the cultural heritage of Aboriginal Australians, but for the world. The area is a distinct geological entity. In the Ice Age, when temperatures wee lower and the precipitation from the eastern mountains greater, lake Mungo, which then covered 135 square kilometres, was a chain of freshwater lakes along the Willandra Creek. The site was discovered in 1967 by Australian National University geomorphologist Dr Jim bowler. As often happens in archaeology, Dr Bowler was investigating something else entirely when he came across bone protruding from a wind-eroded bank. These fragments turned out to be part of a human burial site, one of three found at the lake. Over the past 20,000 years or so, the entire drainage system has virtually fossilised the evidence of landform and environmental conditions during the last Ice Age on a scale unequalled elsewhere. Archaeological evidence at Mungo and at other nearby lake sites subsequently dated human occupation to well beyond 35,000 years - at the time the earliest fully established date for human presence in Australia.

This site was also important in showing more about Aboriginal aesthetic and ritual practices. The bones of a male corpse dated to about 32,000 B.P. and the adjacent grave were stained red, indicating that they had been coated with ochre from pigments unobtainable locally. This showed that ochre had a special significance for the people of those times and that it had been carried for long distances to be used in ceremonies. The presence of ochre and the fact that bodies were buried rather than simply abandoned indicates that the people believed in an after-life, and that there was probably ritual associated with burials. The presence of ochre indicates an aesthetic sense, the need to decorate the grave and perhaps the body.

However, the evidence of ochre does not necessarily indicate that a form of art was practised. The ochre should therefore be seen as having associations that are ritualistic rather than being artistic.

The real significance of Lake Mungo is that the dates it established indicate that human occupation of Australia began even earlier. It is postulated that the movement of population across the continent began in the far north; it would have taken many millennia to spread a small original population from there to Lake Mungo, New south Wales. The Lake Mungo dates of about 35,000 years are therefore in no sense final. Galleries of rock art about throughout the Australian continent, and engravings are by far the most widespread form of art activity. Ranging from single images to groups of hundreds on wide expanses of rock, they are the oldest art works. The designs in rock art include simple geometric markings, animal tracks, representations of fish and game nets, a multitude of birds and animals and a wide range of figures with recognisable human features such as bodies, arms and legs; these often have other elements, such as headdresses or supernatural or superhuman features, denoting ancestral hero status. Many have exaggerated heads, arms or genital organs. Aboriginal people probably practised all the art forms of a multifaceted society in ancient times much as they do today, though evidence to support this, apart from general descriptions in the song cycles, has been lost. Only rock art is left to give a visual explanation of the creative forces at work in ancient Aboriginal society.

Some rock engravings that diverge from other examples have given rise to novel and, in retrospect, somewhat amusing suggestions about their origin. In 1909, Lawrence Hargrave claimed that a pattern series on Woollahra Point, Port Jackson, claimed that a pattern series on Woollaha Point, Port Jackson, was made by Peruvian slaves who were part of the crew of a Spanish ship commanded by Lope de Vega that became separated from a fleet led by Medana that was visiting the Solomon Islands. These men sighted the Australian continent in 1595. The claim was countered by another settle, Captain Watson, who claimed that the engravings were the work of convicts. Yet others have attributed them to Indonesians, citing Hindu symbolism as proof.

In other parts of the country, notably the Kimberleys, the style of Wandjina rock paintings has been responsible for the suggestion that Indonesians visited the area and influenced the art. Along Cape York and the eastern coast, many have suggested that successive sea visits by Papuans or New Guineans influenced the material culture. From small fragments of ochre found in many archaeological deposits, it is clear that the use of paint was widespread. A grinding dish found in the Alligator Rivers area and dated to 19,000 B.P. had traces of ochre on its surface. Old stone implements were obviously decorated and, as designs now appear on bodies and wooden implements, it is highly probably that ochre has been ground and used in this way since the first people came to Australia. 

In any large rock art gallery, particularly painting sites, the full range of the artists' work can be seen. Sometimes well painted figures occur beside simple and roughly made markings; at other sites, successive layers of paintings form a sequence through time. In painting galleries such as those founding Cape York, the Kakadu National Park and the Kimberley region, ancient red paintings show clear differences of style and subject matter compared to later paintings in the same galleries. These shelters convey an enormous amount of visual information about the previous landowners and artists. Animals depicted, styles of ceremonial regalia, weapons and other features can give important pointers to historians, as well as giving pleasure to those interested in the overall impact of the paintings. rock engravings have spanned almost the full period of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, ranging from an actual date of up to 20,000 years (at Koonalda cave, south Australia) to examples executed this century and showing European boats and other aspects of the invading white culture.

Cave paintings may well date back to a time similar to that of the engravings. However, they disintegrate rapidly, so few may be very old. Many of the important paintings were retouched by the artists or the caretakers of the sites, but now that this has ceased, many magnificent galleries are at the mercy of chemical and physical weathering, vandalism, and insect and animal damage. The most recent known cave paintings wee done between 1958 and 1965. The oldest and most significant art site discovered so far is in Koonalda cave, beneath the Nullarbor Plain in south Australia. The cave runs off a deep sink in the desert in a vey isolated area close to the Western Australian border and only twenty-two kilometres inland from the sea. The caves were first examined by speleologists in 1904 but the art at the site was not even reported, let alone brought to the attention of archaeologists as having any significance.

The fact that the caves were once occupied by humans was first noted in 1957 by Dr Alexander Gallus, whose name was given to the site. Gallus excavated the cave in 1960. He dug a pit in the floor of the main chamber, resulting in the discovery of lint tailings that clearly indicated the role of the caves as a flint mine for making stone tools. Gallus also noted the existence of the art at the site and specialists subsequently investigated it, establishing its importance in the art history of the world ancient people had made a series of marks on the limestone walls up to 20,000 years ago These marks have tremendous significance; they are the oldest art discovered in Australia and they predate much o the Palaeolithic art of Europe.

In the harder limestone sections, the marks consist of deeply engraved V-shaped lines in random groups with no apparent pattern. The lines are predominantly vertical with some indiscriminate crisscrosses. The only exception is one section on which a recognisable pattern can be seen, a grid of approximately 1.3 square metres in area. In another part, two concentric circles are faintly discernible. In other areas of the cave, which wee whee the stone walls wee once soft, thee are recognisable patens made by running the four fingers of the hand down he wall. The caves had been used for ritual purposes as well as for the mining of flint. However, though there was an abundance of flint in the main chamber in the front section of the cave, art areas wee on narrow ledges above water, which made access difficult. They were vey deep in the recesses of the cave and in complete darkness; people would have had to carry light into the cave in order to gather the flint and to make the marks on the wall. They would have achieved this by using torches and antiquity. Fortunately, the artists must have dropped the brush torches on rocks as they climbed over the rubble of rock in the cave. Examining the carbon produced by the extinguished torches on the floor of the cave has enabled archaeologists to date the engravings to 20,000 years ago.

More recent Aboriginal inhabitants of the area avoided the sink and the caves, believing them to be the home of Ganba, a malevolent serpent. Reports of this belief go back into the nineteenth century, and the legend was mentioned in the writings of Daisy Bates. Other excavations of particularly interesting rock engravings include the Cape York discovery of the early man shelter. A frieze of pecked designs of possibly human and kangaroo tracks continues 1.5 metres below the floor level of this shelter. Associated carbon dates indicate an age in excess of 13,000 years B.P. At Ingaladdi in the Northern Territory, a section of rock showing abraded grooves was found and dated to 6800-4920 years B.P. This site includes deeply incised linear grooves and bird tracks on rock fragments. It is interesting to note that at Delamere, only eighty kilometres away, identical grooves have been found and were observed being rubbed at a ceremony only fifty years ago. Thus abraded grooves are not necessarily a measure of age in themselves. 

At Mt Cameron West, Tasmania, remarkable engravings have been discovered similar to the rock engravings that occur throughout the arid region from South Australia to the Northern Territory, from the Pilbara region of Western Australia cross to new south Wales and Queensland. Some argue that these are linked in style and technique, being done by people with a common culture who lived across the whole of Australia, including Tasmania, before Bass Strait was flooded 12,000 years ago.

In the Hawkesbury region surrounding Sydney a few rock engravings of European ships have been found. These indicate that, although the tribes of the area were decimated very early in the history of European invasion, some survivors recorded seeing such ships coming up the Hawkesbury River as settlement flowed along the river from Sydney to Windsor.

Dating Rock Art

Rock art in Australia can be dated by inference and also by absolute methods such as radiocarbon analysis. Dates of a relative or imprecise nature are inferred from an examination of subject content of the art o by reference to other potential associations. For example, the inclusion of a European sailing ship in a painting will indicate that it could not have been made before European ships wee in the vicinity. Thus a relative date may be inferred from the time that such ships were common. More precision is gained if the type of boat has some special characteristics. In Arnhem Land rock art and in paintings on Groote Eylandt, lugger-type boats appear; such types of vessel wee common at the turn of the twentieth century.

Arguments and new discoveries rearrange the sequence, or assumed sequence, of past events in Australian art history. Archaeologists can infer dates by associating the art with other substances and objects found in the digs, such as stone tools and ochre. For example, it is known that stone tool technology changed over the centuries and that certain types were used for a period before being entirely replaced by others. Backed blades gave way to contemporary stone technology about 750 years ago. In the Southern Alps, an investigation of art sites shoed that the art was exclusively associated with a stone technology that post dated backed blades; thus it could not be older than750 ears.

Dates provided by ochre deposits are extremely widespread. Western Arnhem Land has yielded the earliest of these dates for rock paintings. ochre found in deposits dated at 22,000 years B.P. has been used to infer a date for paintings in the alligator River region. A site on Deaf Adder Creek, Northern Territory, has been dated by the same means to about 19,000 years B.P. Similarly, Kenniff cave in southern Queensland has been dated to 19,000 years B.P. Although the paintings could not be associated with particular layers of deposit, ochre was found down to the 19,000-year-old level. It is assumed that the ochre was used in the paintings of the rock faces. 

In many areas, painting galleries and rock engravings have no role as part of the living sculpture of current inhabitants, and are frequently ascribed to 'spirit' artists. when the painted figures at port Bradshaw in the Kimberley region of north-west Australia were recorded in the nineteenth century, their discover, Bradshaw, was unable to find any living Aboriginal who could give the meaning of the paintings. They were said to have been painted by the spirit ancestors. Similarly, the Mimi paintings western Arnhem land are said by the Gunwinggu people to have been the work of the spirits clearly these paintings were created by people living in these areas before the present occupants.

Within one vast rock art gallery, differing styles of painting and engravings can be placed in sequence by studying the superimposition of succeeding styles. In many painting galleries and engraving sites, successive generations of artists have used styles particular to their on culture. As these cultures succeeded one another in time, the paintings and engravings overlapped and as the superimposed layers are untangled, the sequence of styles and therefore cultures can be determined. The rock painting galleries at Obiri rock in western Arnhem Land are some of the most spectacular multilayered galleries in the world. Faded red stick figures known as Mimi are the earliest paintings and simple monochrome figure and animals of a different style have been superimposed over these. over both of these appear polychrome, x-ray-style paintings.

In many engraving sites, great age can be inferred if the surface on which the engravings occur has changed. Over a vey long time, the surface might have cracked or even fallen into pieces. Part of the engraving may remain in its original place; other parts might have fallen onto the ground or been subsequently covered by debris. In other places, rock ledges have split along faults and have fallen away, leaving the engraving site in an inaccessible position. While specific dates cannot be determined where rock surfaces have split or fractured and fallen onto the ground, the fracturing of rock faces by natural weathering takes a very long time indeed. In many areas, paintings and engravings have been covered with a fine layer of silica. It has been argued that the process of developing this silica patina takes thousands of years.

In the past, some have made attempts to indicate great antiquity for a small number of sites by citing references to extinct animals in the art. These arguments have been advanced at Carnarvon in central Queensland, in the Hawkesbury area of New south Wales, in the Kakadu National Park and at Panaramitee in South Australia. At Panaramitee a giant crocodile is engraved on the rock surface. These arguments have been advanced at Carnarvon in central Queensland, in the Hawkesbury area of New south Wales, in the Kakadu national part and at Panaramitee in South Australia. At Panaramitee a giant crocodile is engraved on the rock surface. There are also a large turtle and the tracks of a large bird. These images have been identified as extinct animals from the Pleistocene era.

Since the 1950s, the development of dating techniques by technological means has been staggeringly rapid. All the techniques are complicated, requiring expensive laboratory facilities and the results are sufficiently reliable to be termed absolute. The most useful absolute dating technique to be known as C-14, a method developed by Nobel laureate Willard F. Libby. It is recognised that all organic matter has a certain amount of radioactive carbon - C.14 - in it and that in living matter the amount is constant. Any loss of C-14 is made up by ingesting or photosynthsising more from the environment, so that is a balance between the environment and all organic matter in it. When the organism dies the process is stopped; no more C-14 is taken in from the environment. At the same time, C-14 is lost from the dead organism at a uniform rate. By measuring the amount of radiation emitted as a result of the disintegration of C-14, the date of the organism's death can be determined. a recently dead organism emits a higher level of radiation than does an organism long deceased.

Because the rate of C-14 decay in the deceased organism is variable, and because of some other factors, no single year date is reliable in scientific terms. consequently, a statistically calculated number of years on either side of a median date forms part of the date expression. All the dates are expressed in years before present, or B.P. Thus the date of a midden site of Garrki in the Northern Territory is expressed as 1305 +- 306 B.P. and dates from the Devon Downs site associated with paintings are 250 +- 140 B.P.

The most common materials for carbon dating are charcoal, wood, shell and bone found during excavation. In the case of a rock shelter that has been occupied over many centuries, this dating method is most useful. Over the years family groups have camped at the shelter, made stone tools and other utensils, hunted, cooked and eaten their food. They have also made paintings on the walls of the shelter. After many centuries, the littler of stone tools, discarded meals and remains of campfires, as well as the dust of ages, may be many metres thick. when excavated, each layer is removed very carefully and recorded. In some of these layer organic debris, particularly charcoal, might have survived. That charcoal is then processed and subjected to C-14 dating. Each layer with datable material then represents a period point in the past. The oldest date for the deposits represents the oldest likely date for the art.

At some levels of he deposits, ochre lumps or rocks used for mixing colours might have been found. These layers indicate a possible date when painting is likely to have taken place. Thus, while the dates of the deposits are described as absolute, those for the paintings can only be called relative. Dating methods have given new life in interest the study of prehistoric art in Australia. Dating has significantly modified many theories concerning Aboriginal rock art, producing an increasingly reliable and useful basis for study and development.

It is clear that artists wee busy in both Australia and Europe at about the same time. The grooves on the walls of Koonalda cave show some similarities to the hand grooves at the site of Altamira in Spain dated at 30,000 years ago. These are believed to be the earliest art forms produced by Upper Palaeolithic man. Perhaps the most directly comparable feature of the rock paintings on both continents is the stencilling of the hands. Stencilling is a simple and very direct technique. Pigment is chewed until it forms a thin paste in the mouth and sips of water dilute it to a thin paint. The item to be stencilled - hand or boomerang, axe or other utensil - is placed against the rock surface. The paint is then sprayed from the mouth onto the rock, over the object. When the object is removed, it leaves silhouette stencilled on the rock surface.  

Throughout Australia, many and varied everyday objects have been recorded in this way. The technique has been used since very early times and it is still in use today in Arnhem land and north-west Western Australia whee recent examples are known. Some of the caves at Gargas in the French Pyrenees contain as many as 150 examples of stencilled hands, many showing amputated fingers.

In Australia until very recently it was common to amputate the fingers in a number of rites. sometimes the finger of a woman was amputated if her husband died or when she married. In other places, men had their fingers amputated for different reasons. Paintings of hands with amputate fingers in different positions, with fingers apart or together, or sometimes with the index and little fingers stretched and separated from the two middle fingers of the hand, suggest different symbolic purposes. Occasionally, hand stencils appear with one finger curled over, forming the personal signature of an artist. The presence of numerous hands stencilled in galleries from Victoria through new south Wales, Queensland, across Arnhem land, throughout central Australia into Western Australia, in fact throughout the entire continent, strongly links the creative forces that motivated the peoples of Australia and Europe so many centuries ago.

In general it is tempting to compare the art of Altamira in Spain, the paintings of Lascaux in France, even that of the Bushmen in Africa, with Australian prehistoric art. However, in Australian art, fine anatomical detail and perspective are lacking compared to the Lascaux art, although the Mimi and Bradshaw figures are similar in depicting musculature and movement. The Australian galleries achieve enormous visual impact because of the impressive layers of paintings. Moreover, rock painting has remained a living at until the last decade or so, and the sites are vital parts of a living religion.

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