The Bradshaw Foundation: rock art

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.

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‘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?

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Geike Gorge, a fine example of the famous sandstone rocks in Kimberley.

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.


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