$4 million endowment for rock art research

By Victoria Laurie 27 November 2012
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A new focus on Kimberley rock art aims to uncover secrets about Australia’s earliest inhabitants.

EXPERTS SAY A NEW position that will focus the funds of a $4 million endowment on Kimberley rock art, could be a turning point in the search for clues about the earliest human occupants of northern Australia.

Based at the University of Western Australia in Perth, the first-of-its-kind Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art, will be dedicated solely to the north-west region’s rich rock art legacy.

Kimberley chair to prioritise dating of rock art

Archaeologist Professor Peter Veth, who has taken up the chair at UWA’s Centre for Rock Art Research Management, says the process of dating rock art is a priority, but won’t be easy. 

Across the Kimberley, thousands of wall paintings and etched symbols lie in rock overhangs and caves. In some sites, paintings have lain concealed behind curtains of vine thickets or in rocky, barely accessible ravines.

Peter believes expert analysis may eventually date some art back 50,000 years to the era of the first Aborigines to cross an Asian land bridge to northern Australia. However, the dating process requires painstaking surveys of rock, soil, pollen and fossil remains in sites often difficult to access and delicate, due to flooding by seasonal rain. 

“Rock art research has finally come of age, and it is happening in the state that has the most to celebrate in terms of its rock art heritage,” says Peter, who has been researching and providing consultation on Aboriginal heritage for more than 30 years. “We now have a strong and well-based research arm.”

Aboriginal people of the Kimberley: the world’s oldest culture?

The most famous examples of Kimberley rock art are the Gwion Gwion paintings, formerly called Bradshaws, which depict slender dancing figures in ochre and black. In other places, younger images of wide-eyed Wandjina spirits have remained crisp and detailed after thousands of years. The reason for the sequence of these painting styles has puzzled researchers for years.  

The most crucial questions to be tackled with regards to these artworks, says Peter, are basic: When they were painted? Who they were painted by? And, what other traces were left of the people’s presence?

He hopes answering these questions will give researchers insight into the chronology of the region’s rock art, perhaps part of the longest-lasting and most complex expressions of artistic endeavour in the world. 

New ceremonial sites uncovered in WA

Recent field trips headed by Peter’s colleagues, including Dr June Ross from the University of New England, have examined 210 sites in the Kimberley’s Lawley River and Mitchell River regions.

Apart from finding new art sites, the team identified thousands of ceremonial rock markings, and many arrangements of boulder-size rocks, which they believe are clues to rituals performed in and around art sites.

June says the research team has uncovered evidence that the climate was dryer between 500-1500 years ago, when the halo-surrounded Wandjina spirit images reached their peak.

“It’s speculation at this stage, but it might well be that the production of Wandjinas was one means that people used to negotiate more arid conditions and facilitate interactions in times of lower resources,” says June.

Peter says one of his key aims in his new position will be to locate, record and date the Kimberley region’s rock art in close collaboration with traditional owners to help further this kind of research.