Prof. Mike Morwood and Dr June Ross in front of a Gwion sash-period rock painting in the Mitchell River National Park, WA. Photo: Peter Eve

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 27.03.13

In a marvellous piece of irony, the Kimberley Foundation, which was established by the likes of Elisabeth Murdoch and Allen and Maria Myers to assist the late Grahame Walsh continue his assiduous survey of Aboriginal rock art in The Kimberley, is now promoting a team of archaeology (and other) academics to mitigate some of Walsh's more contentious conclusions. For it was Walsh who put the cat amongst the pigeons by declaring in his famous book, Bradshaw Art of The Kimberley, that the earliest figures painted there were so much more sophisticated than the later Wanjina art, it must have been done by different peoples.

This hurt local Aborigines such as the Wunambal Gaambera people – especially as they were embarking on an ultimately successful land rights claim at the time – and they proceeded to embrace the Bradshaws into their long mythology, insist on everyone calling them Gwions rather than the name that reflected only the first white discoverer, Joseph Bradshaw, and have played a serious part in the current three-year project - mainly in the Lawley and Mitchell River catchments - that has been entitled, significantly, Change and Continuity.

In a speech last week, one of the co-leaders of Change & Continuity, Dr June Ross (working with Dr Mike Morwood, who is credited with advice to Walsh in his book) declared that she was now almost certain that although Walsh's chronology appears to be supported at the 210 rock art sites they'd investigated, the progression from Gwion to Wanjina was not a simple stop-start process but had occurred gradually over time. And the reason for that change was not the arrival of different people in the region, but could be social, technological, environmental or be related to the migration or diffusion of existing populations.

Ross summed up her views emphatically: “If we understand HOW the artists painted, WHAT they painted, WHERE they painted, WHEN they painted, we have the best chance of establishing WHY they produced each of the art assemblage”.

At the moment, she's awaiting the WHEN – hoping to get a very precise chronology of art-making using such new methods as Uranium Series dating, which was used date the 40,000 year-old paintings in Spain’s El Castillo cave, the world’s oldest well-dated rock art. This method, which takes as little as 10 milligrams of crust (not ochre) that's built up over a painting, was employed to satisfy Traditional Owners who were most reluctant to damage anything of their new-found treasures. And the research is in the laboratories as I write.

When it's published, Ross is optimistic that her babies will turn out to be older than El Castillo. But she already feels The Kimberley has a head-start: “It depicts human-like figures, a motif exceedingly rare in the rock art galleries of Europe, famed for their depictions of ice age animals, hand stencils and circles”. More remarkably, while Europe’s painted caves reflect long-gone traditions and people, the rock art of West Australia’s rugged, rust-coloured Kimberley reveals a complex thread running from the distant past to the present. “There is change, but there is also continuity of art, beliefs and land use over thousands of years,” adds Mike Morwood.

Something that Ross did not discuss in her speech is the enthusiastic work of Mike Donaldson (see my earlier article) who's mid-way through a marvellous 3-volume publication of Kimberley rock art photographs. He posits a 5000 year gap in the art between Gwions and Wanjina which could be explained by the years around the last Glacial Maximum (c 19000 years BP), when the Kimberley was droughty and hostile while the Arafura Plains stretching up to 150 kms from the present coastline were a lot more habitable. Is it not possible that the same people returned from the plains as the seas rose, but had changed their iconography?

Indeed, Ross herself in her Melbourne speech did end it with a bit of related speculation: “Some researchers suggest that climate was dryer from 1500-500 BP – the period when the production of Wanjinas was reaching its zenith. It is tempting to speculate that it might well be that the production of Wanjinas was one means that populations used to negotiate more arid conditions and facilitate interactions in times of lower resources and population stress. (I have no real evidence for this hypothesis this but it’s good to finish with something to chew on!)”.

Wanjinas, of course, are storm and thunder figures, well and truly associated with rain-making.

“It will take generations to unravel it all,” predicts Ross. But, as a result of the multi-disciplinary skills of the academic team she and Morwood have put together, details are beginning to emerge by combining archaeological excavation and dating techniques with the scientific analysis of the styles, techniques, positioning and functions played by the rock art.

Look out for some excitement when the new dating numbers actually emerge.

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