For one of the oldest forms of human expression, there is still much uncertainty regarding rock art. What is it? Where is it? How old is it? And what purpose did it serve? The last question is phrased in the past tense, because, with a very few exceptions, as a form of human expression, rock art is no longer practised. This means it is irreplaceable. The Bradshaw Foundation is dedicated to discovering, documenting, deciphering and preserving ancient rock art around the world. This brief article will raise more questions than it answers and, as such, will represent only an introduction to our common artistic legacy.
Let us begin by defining rock art. The British archaeologist, Christopher Chippindale (best known for his work on Stonehenge), correctly addresses this in his publication, Stonehenge Complete (Thames and Hudson, London, 3rd edition, 2004), by analysing the two words. ‘Rock’ is straightforward enough – the geological surfaces of the exposed earth, generally hard but also including soft surfaces like sand, clay and the distinctive muds of some deep-cave walls. Mechanical hardness, chemical durability and protection from weathering are most important when it comes to survival of the art; distribution reflects survival as well as the creating.
‘Art’ is a harder concept, since art has a special and misleading place in our western culture. In the twentieth century, it has strengthened its romantic definition, so that ‘art’ is not just paintings of recognisable paintings, not just abstract paintings, but anything and everything that an ‘artist’ defines as art; and the doctrine remains that ‘art’ is very much the free creation of the individual artist. However, anthropologically, it is almost the opposite – it is the social expression of shared knowledge and understanding.
If we follow this line of thought, then our word ‘art’ does convey some essentials applicable to prehistoric rock art, namely:
- The idea of pictures of subjects and physical objects.
- The notion of skill and accomplishment in their making.
- The concept of images representing other concepts.
- The hint these images may be separate from day-to-day physical objects.
The next question to address is the distribution of rock art. This phenomenon can be found on every continent. It was a practice carried out by different members of the human race and, therefore understandably, there are major contrasts in style and subject. However, the problem is there are also remarkable similarities. David Lewis-Williams considers this in his book, Inside the Neolithic Mind (Thames & Hudson):
“Contrasts between the sites of Atlantic Europe and those in the Near East enable us to ask further questions. In what ways did beliefs about the rock-immured dead of Gavrinis, Newgrange and other megalithic sites differ from beliefs about skulls buried beneath Near Eastern mud-plastered floors? Was there an underlying, not easily detected, bedrock of belief that expressed itself in contrasting ways? In geological terms, was there a subterranean chamber of molten rock that rose to the surface in different places to form batholiths, each similar to others in its origin but each shaped by the forces of erosion to display its own hills and valleys?”
Today, many archaeologists are reluctant to seek generalities of this kind. They prefer to see each society as possessing its own unique culture, that is, the set of beliefs and norms that individuals learn from birth and with which they creatively interact. Of course, there is truth in the concept of the uniqueness of human cultures, but it is by no means the whole story. Case in point, the Bradshaw paintings of Australia are often compared with the Tassili figures of Algeria in Africa. However, this is not the present forum to analyse these two types of rock art. Indeed, it only serves as an opportunity to introduce one of the two – the Bradshaws.
In the remote, north-western corner of Australia lie the Kimberley Ranges, home to the unique and exquisite rock art known as the Bradshaw Paintings, or Gwion Gwion. Despite their undisputed uniqueness and beauty, they remain enshrouded in mystery. At a time when most of Europe lay deep beneath ice sheets, these paintings were created with a freshness and precision unseen anywhere else in the world. But, who were the people who painted them? Where did they come from? When did they live, and what happened to them?
The Kimberley region, roughly the size of Spain and larger than the state of California, is a vast empty wilderness of sandstone and basalt rocks that were laid down some 1.8 billion years ago – its surface rocks are some of the oldest to be seen anywhere in the world. The extremes of climate and inhospitable terrain seem to have kept this mystery intact.
The dating of the Bradshaw figures remains the key issue. Dr Bert Roberts, of La Trobe University, carried out ‘optically stimulated luminescence dating’ that indicated a Pleistocene age for at least some of these paintings. Attempting to determine how long ago quartz grains from nests were last exposed to light, he analysed samples from seven different wasp nests, some covering paint residues, others occurring near paintings. The theory was that mud-dauber wasps, who occasionally construct their nests over rock art, exposed tiny sand grains to daylight when they collected mud and carried it to the rock shelters. The core of a nest partly covering a Bradshaw painting produced an age estimate of approximately 17,500 years, indicating that the underlying human figure should be older than this date. This is the date given to the famous and well-recorded paintings of Lascaux cave in south-western France.
However, at this point, comparisons with European Palaeolithic art come to an end. One simple factor throws the Bradshaw paintings into an entirely new league – they are figurative. While the rock art of Europe at this time had acquired high degrees of sophistication and artistic endeavour, the vast majority of the paintings depict animals. However, the Bradshaws are nearly all figurative paintings – possibly the earliest figurative art ever created.
For such a significant artistic attribute, can the dating of a wasp nest really provide a clue as to when these paintings were created? The mystery of the Bradshaws continues if we examine when the continent of Australia was first colonised. The work of Professor Stephen Oppenheimer, in the Journey of Mankind Genetic Map (which traces the migration of modern man out of Africa, our ancestral home) proves that we had beachcombed our way along coastlines to reach the Timor Sea many thousands of years before that. Between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, our ancestors would have stood on the shores of South East Asia, which we now refer to as Sundaland, where, without doubt, they would have observed the smoke from the distant bushfires caused by lightning on a land that had not yet been reached.
With fluctuating sea levels, Oppenheimer shows how our window of opportunity to get to Australia was between 65,000 and 70,000 years ago – by boat. Seventy thousand years ago, there was a very deep lowstand of the world’s oceans caused by an increase in water locked up in the northern ice caps. This would have taken Australia’s sea shores to roughly 260 feet vertically below today’s levels. After 65,000 years, levels began to rise rapidly. To migrate from Timor to Australia, this was important – sea crossings did have their limits. At this lowest level, the distance would have been just over 100 miles, whereas a sea level even 65 feet below present levels, the distance between the two land masses would have been nearly three times as great.
Genetic evidence does not stand alone. Archaeologists working at the rock shelter of Jinmium on the coast of Arnhem Land, in northern Australia, have identified a fallen fragment of engraved sandstone buried in sediments that have been dated to 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Today, however, the extremes of the dry and wet seasons – searing heat and torrential downpours – mixed with the region’s severe inaccessibility only serve to lock these earliest of artistic endeavours into a timeless vault, in perhaps the world’s oldest and most inaccessible art gallery. In September 2004, an expedition to the Kimberleys, involving the author, Ian Wilson, chanced upon the discovery of a hitherto unrecorded Bradshaw painting. This fortuitous encounter offered some tantalising insights into the Bradshaw peoples’ links outside Australia. The site itself, a huge sandstone boulder at the base of a cliff, had been visited previously by the archaeologist, Dr Graham Walsh, who had recorded a painting of a four man canoe with upswept prow and stern, quite possibly the world’s oldest boat painting.
But what Walsh had not seen, and what perhaps throws even greater light on the origins of the artists, was a panel lying along the boulder’s much longer, east-facing side. Faint but unmistakeable was painted a long line of twenty-six or more antlered, four legged animals standing along a simple, single base-line. The deeply intriguing aspect of the discovery is that deer of any kind have never been part of Australia’s fauna. As noted by the great nineteenth century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, the incidence of placental, hoofed mammals (such as deer) ceases abruptly beyond a line drawn east of Java, Borneo and the Philippines (the so-called ‘Wallace line’). Conversely, the Australasian continent’s predominantly marsupial fauna, such as koalas and kangaroos, are never found any further west of this same line.
To have depicted deer, the Bradshaw artist would therefore have had to voyage across the Timor Strait. Very likely, the species of deer depicted in the painting is the sambar. This is a magnificently-antlered variety, small herds of which still exist in Borneo, but which may well have been more widespread across the then sub-continental Southeast Asia at the time of the Ice Age.
Not only does the discovery of this particular Bradshaw painting have profound implications for the Bradshaw peoples’ capability to voyage by boat between Southeast Asia and northwest Australia, it also demonstrates that the artists were painting from memory. The presence of a base-line is extremely rare in ancient rock-art. Does it represent an horizon? Did it become a symbol that conjured up for the ancient voyagers, having inadvertently crossed the Wallace Line, the departure from one world to enter another?
In comparison with other rock paintings in Australia, the Bradshaws are diminutive in size, averaging 12 to 18 inches in height. Their occurrence differs from their European counterparts in being painted mostly on open rock features, rather than in caves. As a series of paintings, the Bradshaws demonstrate a clear uniformity in style and uniqueness in execution. Yet, within this uniformity, there is variation. The Bradshaw style evolves.
Dr Graham Walsh, one of today’s leading authorities on the Bradshaw paintings, has identified two main periods – the Archaic Epoch and the Erudite Epoch. Within each category, there is a sub-category: for the Archaic, the Pecked Cupule Period and the Irregular Infill Animal Period: and for the Erudite, the Bradshaw Period and the Clothes Peg Period.
The Bradshaw Period of the Erudite Epoch is perhaps the most interesting of all Kimberley art periods, as it seems to appear simply in its most developed form. There is no evidence of development or transition, and every indication suggests this artistic tradition arrived in the Kimberley in a fully developed form, so radically different in every way that this appearance seems to be in the wake of a period of discontinuity. Some of the finest figurative paintings are associated with the earliest levels of the sequence.
The term ‘epoch’ applied to the two ages of the Bradshaws hints cleverly at the antiquity of the paintings. And the relatively recent date of their first European viewing only serves to extend that antiquity.
The paintings were named after the naval captain, Joseph Bradshaw, in 1891, although mention of the paintings was first made in 1838 by a young British army lieutenant, George Grey, who was leading a small party of troops on one of the very first inland surveys of the Kimberley. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s, that the first scientific survey was carried out by the German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius. The work recorded the lifestyle of the indigenous aborigines at a time when contact with Europeans was relatively recent, especially in the Kimberley.
The survey inspired a subsequent expedition to the Kimberley by Dr Andreas Lommel in 1955. Accompanied by his wife and artist Katharina, their research of the paintings was carried out on behalf of the Natural History Museum in Munich, where most of Katharina’s original paintings of the Bradshaws can still be seen. Lommel’s work not only recorded the paintings themselves, but recorded many of the myths associated with the art.
The common belief among the more traditional and now deceased Elders of the west Kimberley was that the Bradshaw Figures were the work of ‘a little bird called Kujon, who lives in the rocks’. Kujon is not considered a being from the Dreamtime, but a medium-sized grey and brown mottled bird still living in that area. He is said to peck his beak on the rock until it bleeds from the tip and he then uses his beak tip to create the figures by applying his own blood. On occasions, Kujon is also claimed to have used one of his tail feathers to apply the blood and create such fine linework.
To them, this myth serves to explain the surviving monochrome, dark red colour of the Bradshaws, the fineness of linework and deftness of application. Moreover, it explains the depiction of some panels in very high and now totally inaccessible locations on cliff faces. It has also been claimed that, if a panel of the Bradshaw paintings are deliberately defaced, Kujon will come and completely repaint them during the night and, by morning, they will appear exactly the same. In some areas, it is claimed that the bush spirits, known as Djimi and Koion, have asked Kujon to paint the spirit people that mortals are unable to see.
If the Bradshaw Paintings really are ancient, how can they have lasted for as long as they have? How can paint pigment be so resilient? With millennia of successive waves of scorching heat and wet periods, surely the exposed panels would suffer. One suggestion is that the paintings are so old that the soluble silica within the rock has evaporated to the rock surface, creating a skin of varnish. The paintings had literally become tattooed into the rock. The transportation of the minerals, oxalates or other elements, which have collectively created these surface transformations, would most likely appear to be associated with extended wet periods. Therefore, the surviving Bradshaws may pre-date a very distinctive climate change or, perhaps, many changes.
Or is there another explanation? Perhaps the answer lies both in the canvas and the pigment. In recent experiments with sandstone fragments from Kimberley, the rock displays strong absorption when daubed with modern solvent-based ink, making the marks indelible. Had these early artists accidentally produced a pigment from native flora that has fortuitously turned out to be permanent?
As to who created this art, and when, the question for now remains unanswered. But of this we can be sure – the Bradshaw paintings are a priceless and inalienable part of the aboriginal people’s culture, even if there is no clear ancestral tradition explaining them. They belong to every Aboriginal Australian’s heritage and, arguably, every white Australian’s as well. When all is said and done, we are all immigrants.
For more information, visit the Bradshaw Foundation’s website at: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com. Map image, The Journey of Mankind, Copyright Stephen Oppenheimer and The Bradshaw Foundation, 2003.