Months of gruelling outback survey work involving helicopters, boats and long treks on foot is helping to piece together the history of Indigenous rock art scattered across thousands of caves and cliffs in northern Western Australia.
It is the start of a five-year project bringing together international experts to build up a database of rock art styles in the northern Kimberley — home to one of the world’s biggest and most varied ancient collections.
“We’re at the end of three months of fieldwork, and it’s been hard work … but we’re happy, we’re tired, and the feeling’s good,” project leader and University of Western Australia archaeology Professor Peter Veth said.
“It’s like there’s a whole new insight, a whole new window into this whole graphic, deep-time history of the Kimberley.”
Kimberley’s rock art is poorly understood, with archaeologists estimating only 1 or 2 per cent has been recorded.
It is hoped the Kimberley Visions project will help track the development of the region’s distinctive art styles, which include the elongated Gwion figures and the distinctive Wandjina spirit figures.
The survey work has so far focused on Balanggarra country covering WA’s north-eastern corner.
“It will take another 10 to 25 years for all this new data to be amassed and completely synthesised, but we’ve already found out from this first fieldwork that there’s a different distribution of the art than was previously thought,” Professor Veth said.
“We are finding old Wandjina paintings virtually up to Wyndham and Kununurra, and there’s over-printing of what appears to be desert art, as well as Gwion panels in areas thought not thought to contain them.
“It’s a window into dynamism which is unmatched, nearly, in terms of the cultural records globally.”
Challenging hikes and swooping chopper rides
The expeditions are gruelling and potentially dangerous, with each day beginning before dawn as the archaeologists head far out of phone range, often far from fresh water.
Each person carries at least four litres of water, and walkie-talkies and satellite phone check-ins are part of the daily routine.
As one aerial survey got underway, pilot Nick Sundblom navigated his helicopter along cliff faces, drawing on his the experience searching the most hard-to-access corners of the region to swoop down and inspect rocky outcrops.
In the passenger seat, Professor Veth pointed out likely habitation sites, usually sheltered areas beneath overhangs where Aboriginal families spent thousands of years gathering for ceremonies, cooking and storytelling.
After a likely site was spotted on a high-up escarpment, the helicopter swung down onto a clear patch of rock, and the scramble through vines, ravines and narrow ledges began.
Three long, elongated human shapes soon loomed out from a shadowy rock.
They were Gwion figures, distinctive human forms adorned with tall head-dresses, bangles and dilly-bags, that are also referred to as ‘Bradshaw art’.
Great ancestral stories on these rocks’
Archaeologist Richard Cosgrove described the Gwion art find, saying it was highly significant.
“These are lovely floating figures, with long spindly arms and these fantastic head-dresses, and you can see amulets displayed and pantaloon arrangements on the thighs and some feathery decorations below,” he said.
“These, I would have thought, have never been seen by Europeans or anybody else, apart from the Aboriginal people that put them here many, many thousands of years ago.
“So we are the first ones of the non-Indigenous community to see those images, which is really a privilege and an amazing thing.”
Photos taken by anthropologists in the Kimberley in the early 20th century show men dressed in ceremonial outfits very similar those depicted in Gwion art.
“We possibly will never understand the real meaning of these things, [but] it’s very exciting to see … great ancestral stories on these rocks,” Dr Cosgrove said.
By the end of the day, the team had recorded more than a dozen sites and retired hot and exhausted to camp.
Preserving knowledge of Kimberley rock art
The Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation is a partner in the project, and local rangers have been involved at every stage of the fieldwork, guiding the archaeologists to remote cave walls and helping sift through soil excavated from pits alongside rock art galleries.
Ranger Wesley Alberts said knowledge of the rock art was at risk of being lost with the older generations.
“The old people, they would bring us out here and tell us about the art … about the dreamtime stories,” Mr Alberts said.
“But these days the young people don’t really know, because they stay in town, in Wyndham. It’s good they can come out here and we can see where the old people were eating and sitting, eating fish and goanna, and making spears and boomerangs. The rock art brings back a lot of memories.”
The first findings from the fieldwork are due to be published next year.