Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Art - the Pilbara Engraved Stones

 The Pilbara is a rock pile facing the sea that dovetails with the desert, the constituent rocks being iron-rich granite that has been dated to more then 3 Ma. The rocks have rusted brown over time as a result of their age, and have also weathered round and been fractured to square shapes that gives then an artificial-looking appearance, forming extensive piles of rock that were used by humans to form, according to the author1 the greatest art gallery in the world by abrading, bashing and hammering (pecking). There are engravings all over the Pilbara, such as at Woodstock station on the Yule River, where there are more than 3,000 engravings on 200 boulders, and on the Burrup Peninsula there are more than 10,000 engravings. At some other places there are individual locations with more than 1,000 engravings as well as many other art works throughout the greater region, with possibly a total 1 million engravings, more art here than at any other place on Earth. The artistic technique involved cutting through the rusted skin of the rocks thereby exposing the fresh surface of inner rock, soft yellows and brighter orange, and 'wondrous abstractions'1 were carved in contrast to the darker patina of the rocks. The author1 suggests the Pilbara people were engravers, 'the best, the most prolific and the most accomplished of their time'1.

The earliest known of these petroglyphs consist of lines and geometric patterns, various figures and terrestrial animals that are engraved deep into the rocks. The engravings are so old that their abraded surfaces have long since returned to the weathered stain of the rocks on which they were engraved. The actual age of these art works has yet to be determined, though it is safe to say they are very old, probably at least  25,000 years old. Among these ancient engravings there are some that are younger which lack the veneer of age and display marine animals dating from the time when the rising sea level stabilised 7,000 BP. By this time the engravings are of many kinds of track, artefacts of predictable kinds such as spears, shields and boomerangs, wondrous kinds of figures, such as Murujuga Man, with antennae, huge genitals and strange projections from their heads, and in various positions, such as running, fighting, hunting, dancing and having sex.

There is a panel that the author1 describes as of particular interest, that stands out among this sea of fine art. It is believed to be about 3,000-4,000 years old, but its notable feature is that it conveys something about the nature of human society in the more distant past. This comparatively small panel consists of a triptych formed by a repeated pattern of figures on both sides of tracks that they appear to be following. As the engraved line is aligned vertically it gives the appearance of figures climbing. The focus of each panel is the engraved line, possibly a track, a branch or an imagined pathway, and the figures face each other along the engraved line. The figures appear to hang, rather like leaves to a branch, as they are attached to the engraved line by their left forearms, though they could be leap-frogging, swinging or dancing, or possibly climbing or crawling. All the figures are in-filled, stylised and variable, suggesting men, women and children, as well as strange human-like figures. The entire composition also hangs, as it aligned by otherwise disconnected from anything but imagined surroundings. There is a small circular head detached from the body of each figure. Though in all respects it is motionless and meaningless, it conveys movement and meaning. It immediately conveys ritual and dance in the context of the Wati Kutjara (The Two Men) and Tjukurrpa to senior Aboriginal leaders from Australia's western deserts.

In this collection of art that is otherwise diversified the 'climbing men' stand out as a result of their peculiarity and singularity, and also because there is another similar panel of them in the Little Sandy Desert more than 600 km to the west, that would be described by the Aboriginal people as 'the same but different'. In this panel there are 2 figures, one of which is filled in, that faces the viewer. This one looks like a man and is half-way along an engraved line that it is attached to by its left foot and hand, and the suggestion it is climbing results from its position. There is a second figure that is represented in profile that appears to be stepping or walking while leaning slightly forward. In this panel the track is more elaborate being comprised of 2 parallel lines, that make its appearance path-like, that ends in a circular 'head' with a banded neck and linear protuberances. There are 11 pecked dots adjacent to the path on either side of the path and the figure sits to the left of the path approaching one of the 11 pecked dots.

According to the Cane1  the engravings are clearly part of the same tradition, though there are stylistic differenced displayed by them. A common cultural tradition across a large socio-geographic area is suggested by the similarity of engravings, there being a covert relationship between subject, society and space. That the people of the Pilbara shared the same religious beliefs with the people from the Little Sandy Desert, viewed the world in the same way, expressing it accordingly, is suggested by the relationship between geography and style. It is indicated by the concordance of their artistic symbolism that they followed similar codes of social conduct and religious attendance, though the people of these 2 different locations may never have met. It is suggested by the 'climbing men' that there was a large-scale relationship across vast areas about 4,000 BP.  Common traditions that necessarily imply broad-ranging social traditions, such as similar language, kinship, religion and territorial protocols, is suggested by the similarities of the engravings. In the Western Deserts of Australia Traditional society is configured in the same way at the present, and it is suggested  by the 'climbing men' that it was similar in the past. Current traditions with ancient roots and great geographic meaning is implied by the analogous relationship between the Wati Kutjara, its ritual meaning and the 'climbing men' - the past lives on in the present.

The small figures of the 'climbing men' therefore have big implications. Beside the 'climbing men' are what the Cane1 calls the even greater, older and more widespread artistic tradition, the 'Panaramitee'. The Panaramitee, that has been found throughout Australia from the Pilbara to Cape York margins, then south to the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, is characterised by symbols that would be widely familiar and that are ubiquitous in Aboriginal art of the present, such as tracks, lines and circles that are painted in various combinations. Across most of the continent there are many thousands of these symbols that comprise the Panaramitee tradition, with sites in central Australia where there are 2,000-3,000 of these engravings. At the Sturts Meadow site in northwestern New South Wales there are more than 18,000 of these motifs on rocky outcrops. There are more than 20,000 engravings at 20 sites in the Olary area of northeastern South Australia . The geographic spread appears to have been across the arid zone and its edges at a time in the distant past when that particular environment was more extensive than it is at present. The author1 suggests that the universality of artistic creation implies social accord, in an established population of Australia with shared traditions across the continent by the Late Pleistocene. In the earliest phases of human settlement there were human sketches and by the Late Pleistocene there is  textured and patterned infill, it has become the art of all people across Australia. The Cane1 describes this as 'the art of the ancients within which there is general and regionalised uniformity that suggests social coherence and communication on a scale that spans the continent. The art speaks of an ancient society of image-makers with imagined realities and diverse symbolism that was once provincial yet set with a coherent social universe'.

It is not yet known how old the Panaramitee art tradition is, though great antiquity is always implied and there is nothing that appears to be older than it, but its antiquity remains elusive. As recent imagery is often superimposed on it, this suggests its possible age. The old, weathered nature of the engravings covered by the dark covering of desert patina and the mineralised coatings of 'desert varnish' suggest great antiquity. The fact that it is found in northwestern Tasmania suggests it arrived in Tasmania prior to the closing of the land bridge that occurred 14,000 years ago, though there is no reason to suppose that the tradition is defined by this event. The greatest antiquity is of 9,000 BP for it, its presence at sites of greater antiquity, such as at the Puritjarra Rock Shelter in central Australia, suggest it may also be of the greater antiquity of the site, though at present the evidence is circumstantial (26).

Archaic design and composition implies great antiquity, as well as its presence in areas where the people of the present no longer recognise either the design or composition, it is obviously a tradition that has long been forgotten and of culture before remembered time. At a site in an isolated range, Yiripanta Range, in the remote eastern margin of the Great Sandy Desert, the country having being occupied until 1985, there is a series of rust-coloured panels with ancient circular and linear engravings. The people who had lived there until 1985 didn't know who made them and couldn't interpret them. More recent engravings had been cut into the patina and superimposed the older engravings, though the author1 suggests these petroglyphs appear to be attempts to copy the older engravings rather than renewing them as is often done. He suggests the new attempts appear more scratchy, frail and tentative than the older artistic traditions. The older petroglyphs at this site suggests that at Yiripanta Range the Panaramitee art was more labour-intensive and difficult to produce than the present art in the same part of the desert, which is mostly sweeps, smears, washes and dots of charcoal, ochre and pigment, and the ancient petroglyphs are more substantial than the intaglios superimposed on them. It is believed the older art had more time and resources spent on it than on the modern art, which is ephemeral, in the region. It has been estimated that the 18,000 engravings at Sturts Meadow took a year to complete. It is implied that the older, more substantial art tradition suggests there was a more substantial human presence in the area, therefore a more productive subsistence environment than the region is at the present. A sense of enduring human presence at the time the art was produced is conveyed by the physicality of the art, though there is a lack of confirmatory evidence from that period is lacking.

At the Early Man site in Cape York engravings have been found that are covered by sediments dated to more than 14,000 BP, and the art continues below this and the age of them is not known. In the Sandy Creek site in Cape York an ancient panel of rock art has been reported, and it has been found that in Ingaladdi in the Victoria River district engraved rock fragments had fallen from the cave walls into the sediments. The sediments have been dated to 5.000-7,000 BP, but the age of the engravings is unknown. Engravings at several locations across southern Australia are suggested by mineralogical examinations to be 25,000-40,000 years old, though these estimates have proven to be complicated and have been contested.

The Panaramitee are considered by archaeological intuition to be ancient. The pan-continental parity of the Panaramitee reinforces the breadth of tradition as a substantive feature of Australian society in the Late Pleistocene, as does the artistic specificity and geographic disparity of the 'climbing men' which points to social networks on a regional scale that is defined by common artistic and religious traditions, that is, a single people who are firmly established in a single country. The Panaramitee tradition is described as art of homogeneity with regional variation that indicates ancient traditions, social commonality, as well as emergent autonomy across the continent in the very ancient past.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin

Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  07/12/2013

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