Australia: The Land Where Time Began
Ochre was one of the most important commodities passing along the trade routes of Australia, partly because it was used fir decoration of bodies, artefacts, cave wall painting, but most importantly it was an essential part of decoration for important ceremonies. The places where the best ochre was mined, such as the Yarrakina red ochre mine where the sacred iridescent ochre was mined at Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, were busy centres of trade, people travelling from as far away as western Queensland to trade for the ochre.
The ochre miners crushed the soft rock and made it into a paste by mixing it with water, though sometimes it was mixed with the fat or blood of animals such as fish, emus, possums, or kangaroos. Orchid juice was sometimes used as a fixative. The paste was rolled into small balls for trade.
There are a number of ochre mines known around Australia.
Mt Rowland, Tasmania
At this mine the women were the miners. The red iron ore was levered out with a pointed stick as a chisel and a stone as a hammer. They squeezed into narrow crevices to get at the ochre. One instance is known of a woman getting stuck in a crevice, having to be pulled out by the legs. The ochre was carried away from the mine in kangaroo skin bags.
Wilgie Mia (Wilgamia)
This mine is northwest of Cue in the Weld Range, Murchison district, Western Australia. The mine was on the northern side of Nganakurakura Hill. An open cut mine had been dug out of the hillside that was 20 m deep and 15-30 m wide. A cavern opens from the pit and the miners tunnelled out many small caves and galleries as they followed the red and yellow ochre seams.
The mining method here was to hit the rock with heavy stone mauls and dig the ochre out with fire-hardened pointed wooden wedges. To reach seams that were too high to work from the floor they erected pole scaffolding. The ore was processed at the top of the northern slope were the ochre was extracted, crushed, had water added, then rolled into balls for trade.
Wooden wedges and stone implements have been found in the strata of the cavity floor. Dating has placed the wooden implements at 1000 years ago, but the huge amount of material removed from the mine, estimated to be as much as several thousand tons, indicate that mining has probably been going on for much longer. The mine was still being worked as late as 1939.
Of the ochre pigments, the red variety was the most valuable in pre-contact Australia. And when is is found in a place associated with an important Dreamtime being, as the Wilgie Mia site is, being associated with the a giant kangaroo that was speared by Mondong, the spirit being. The kangaroo was said to have made its final leap to what is now Wilgie Mia, the red ochre is said to be its blood. Yellow and green ochre were also mined here, the yellow being the liver and green the gall of the great kangaroo.
The aborigines feared the ochre mine, the only people allowed to enter were the elders, stone piles being placed to mark places where the uninitiated could not go. The miners were not allowed to take mining implements away from the mine, and when leaving had to walk backwards, brushing away their footprints as they went to prevent Mondong from following and killing them.
This red ochre was much sought after all over Western Australia, and is even said to have been traded as far as Queensland. The mining activity was organised to a level that was not usually attributed to Aborigines.
This quarry is situated 150 km from the Purittjarra Cave Rock shelter, about 320 km west of Alice Springs, is the source, as determined by chemical analysis, of the red ochre found in layers at Puritjarra dated from 32,000 to 13,000 years ago.
Ochre recovered from sites all over Australia dated to the late Pleistocene are thought to possibly indicate the occurrence of small scale ochre mining before the close of the Pleistocene.
Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.
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