A Rock Art Field School in Arnhem Land

At 6:00 a.m., like clockwork, the barking owls would begin their muted series of “woof-woofs,” indicating the start of another day and of preparations for another ascent of Injalak Hill.

Injalak Hill at Dusk

I’d traveled to the aboriginal region of Arnhem Land, part of the Northern Territory of Australia, for the unique experience of participating as a volunteer in the first archaeological field school held in the region. Abutting Kakadu National Park, which is home to such famous rock art sites as Ubirr and Nourlangie, Arnhem Land is a vast homeland encompassing wild stretches of flood plain and mangrove groves, dotted throughout with indigenous communities, rock shelters, and sacred “Dreaming” sites. The field school, entitled “Ethnoarchaeology in Aboriginal Australia,” was coordinated by Flinders University in Adelaide, which obtained the necessary permits for our stay from the Northern Lands Council in Katherine. Instruction was by researchers from the Australian National University in Canberra, and by native informants Wilfred and Warren.

The goals of the field school were two: to teach students and volunteers basic techniques of rock art recording, and to acquaint them with the issues surrounding research in an indigenous environment in which every feature of the landscape has meaning for its inhabitants, and the potential to be sacred.

Croc in the Billabong

The focus of our activities was Injalak Hill, located near the town of Oenpelli in western Arnhem Land. A sacred site to the Kunwinjku people, the hill contains an extensive collection of rock art shelters, as well as numerous grinding holes for the preparation of the charcoal and ochre used as paints. Kundalk grass, whose blades were cut and chewed to the desired thickness and used as brushes by the native artists, is abundant. Access to the first shelters is by a fairly steep and rocky twenty-minute climb. Once atop the hill, the rock art images appear to be literally everywhere, including locations that seem to defy logic and gravity.

Injalak Hill is accessible to tourists, who can apply for a permit either individually or as part of a tour group. During our time on the hill we encountered several small groups of visitors. Like us, they were accompanied throughout by an aboriginal guide, and restricted to only those areas deemed appropriate for outsiders by the local community.

Our first days were spent exploring the different shelters and gaining an appreciation of the richness and variety of their imagery. As elsewhere in the area, many of the figures at Injalak are supernatural beings associated with the Dreaming, or creation period. There is a single and particularly striking image of the Yingana, or Earth Mother. According to this version of the creation myth, the Yingana carries hundreds of babies in her dilly bags, the all-purpose carriers still woven today from pandanus fronds by the local women.  As she roamed the earth she scattered her babies, giving rise to the different linguistic groups and clans. Other images represent the slim, ghostly-looking figures known as “mimis.” Mimis are supernatural ancestral figures credited with giving mankind skills such as hunting and painting, as well as rituals and ceremonies.

Yingana Figure at Injalak Hill

Along with the ancient ancestors, mimis are thought by the aborigines to have created some of the first rock art. The images at Injalak Hill are part of a continuous artistic tradition in northern Australia that some authorities believe to be 60,000 to 40,000 years old. We learned of the difficulty of dating the rock art, and that the generally accepted timelines are based on stylistic and iconographic criteria. One practical technique employed at Injalak and elsewhere in the region is to establish a minimum age by dating the material in the ubiquitous wasp nests that form over the images.

More intriguing to us, however, was the fact that the age of the artwork is completely irrelevant to the aboriginal community. Both Wilfred and Warren could identify recent images, created by named artists in the living memory of local people. Beyond this, it was sufficient for them simply to know that the art was created by their ancestors, and bequeathed to them as a living document of their culture.

In addition to the mythological figures there are numerous depictions of animals, articles from daily life such as food carriers, and hunting scenes. Some shelters are specific in their subject matter, such as a particular animal, while others lack a dominant theme. Fish, an important food source, are a common image; the identifiable species include barramundi, catfish, and nailfish. Many of the fish are depicted with their heads detached, illustrating the practice of breaking these off for ease of carrying.

The drawings were produced in the traditional four-color palette of red, white, yellow, and black. The first three colors were derived from naturally occurring pigments, and the last from ground charcoal. Red was sometimes produced using animal, particularly kangaroo, or even human blood.

Gathering Pandanus Fronds

The majority of the animal and human images at Injalak are in the characteristic “x-ray” style for which aboriginal rock art is famous. In x-ray style, internal organs, skeletal features, and musculature are clearly visible. Typically the image is outlined in white, and the anatomical details filled in using yellow and red. The technique is still very much alive among aboriginal artists working in newer mediums, such as bark and canvas. Other images illustrate a technique known as “rarrk,” in which the silhouette is filled in with a series of crosshatches inspired by the designs of body painting.

Of the images at Injalak we were intrigued to learn that each one tells a story, and that this story may be revealed in layers. For example, for us and for other non-aborigines, the description of an object might be simply “It’s a fish.”  For a child in the community the same image may serve a didactic purpose, forming the basis of a cautionary tale, or have totemic or other associations. Only when an individual is initiated, or acquires extensive knowledge of the culture, is the full ceremonial meaning revealed.

Wilfred was often accompanied on our excursions by his young daughter, Sharon. He stressed time and again that the stories of the images, as interpreted by parents and elders, are the main vehicle by which children learn their traditional culture.

Our practical task for the field school was the first mapping of a shelter that Wilfred dubbed “Nawaran”, after the Kunwinjku name of the Oenpelli rock python (nyctophil opython) that is one of its dominant images. It was in deference to Wilfred’s position as a traditional owner of the land that he was given the honor of naming the shelter. He was also consulted on the placement of the baseline, to insure that this didn’t violate any sacred space.  Making the best of the materials at hand and the irregular terrain, we established our baseline by tying one end of a tape measure around a shrub, and fastening the other between two boulders. We then proceeded to assign the tasks of measuring and plotting the physical features of the shelter, and of sketching and photographing the images.

Wilfred at the Narawan Shelter

During our stay in the Oenpelli region we visited a number of other sites, two of which had features particularly worthy of note. At one site a “Macassan prau” was rendered in vivid blue, a startling departure from the traditional four-color palette. Macassan praus were the wooden-hulled sailing vessels used by traders from Sulawesi. They began appearing in the waterways of northern Australia in the 17th century and are a recurring feature in Arnhem Land’s rock art.  The blue color was created using Ricketts or  “blue bag” soap powder, a common detergent introduced at the time of white settlement in the 19th century. Its use, in addition to emphasizing the foreignness of the image, illustrates the adaptability of the artists to new possibilities of expression. At the second site the images were created with beeswax, a technique known as “ngawlin” that is thought to be unique to Northern Australia. Here lines of evenly spaced dots of wax were applied to the rock face to form the outlines of some indeterminate figures. The color of the dots becomes darker as the wax ages, and ranged at this site from white to black.

In sum, the field school was an all too brief introduction to the rock art and people of Arnhem Land.  Injalak Hill is a wonderfully rich site whose magic lingers, a world away from the billabongs, the mimis, and the barking owls.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in The Bay Area Rock Art News, Volume XII, Number 2.

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