Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Engravings analysis of the Kybra Site in Western Australia

In this paper Franklin presents the results of an analysis of Aboriginal rock engravings at the Kybra Site in the far southwestern corner of Western Australia that is known of a group of rock engravings called the Panaramitee, which are comprised of engravings that are predominantly animal tracks, in particular bird tracks, which have been engraved on flat tabular limestone pavements. The Panaramitee tradition, seen in engraving sites that are distributed widely across the Australian continent, has been represented as being homogeneous at a continental level. This study, which was based on a multivariate investigation using correspondence analysis and cluster analysis, compared the Kybra Site with other engraving sites in Western Australia and elsewhere. The study was aimed at determining whether the Kybra Site showed similarities with other Panaramitee engraving sites, and whether an explanatory framework, that is known as the Discontinuous Dreaming Network Model, could account for any similarities or differences that are identified. Franklin has shown by this study that the sites in Western Australia differ more from each other than from other sites in eastern Australia, and have shown similarities with engravings in Cape York Peninsula, the Carpentaria region and central western Queensland. According to Franklin this finding fits well with the tenets of the Discontinuous Dreaming Network Model, which holds that across vast distances of Australia similarities between engraving sites reflect the widespread links that were forged by Dreaming tracks as suggested by the trade and other social networks that sometimes spanned the continent. The engravings from the Kybra Site were found to group with sites from Cape York Peninsula and Central Western Queensland, both on the other side of the continent.

When rock art sites around the world are studied a major problem has been the measurement and explanation of paintings and engravings that are sometimes found at considerable distance from each other. The questions asked are what is the significance of the variation that is detected, and the method of comparing different sites? Multivariate analysis can then explore the significance of any variability that is detected.

The Discontinuous Dreaming Network Model was proposed (Franklin, 2004) to explain the widespread similarities that had been noted across the continent of a group of rock engravings termed the “Panaramitee style” (Maynard, 1979), and was supported by multivariate analysis (Franklin, 2004). The Panaramitee style, which was named after the type-site in South Australia, consists of pecked engravings of the tracks of macropods and birds, human footprints, circles, dots, crescents, spirals, radiate designs, together a small proportion of figurative motifs other than tracks. It was claimed that this style was homogeneous at a continental level in terms of technique, forms and proportions of motifs (Maynard, 1979). It was suggested by the Discontinuous Dreaming Network Model that similarities between engraving sites spread over vast distances of Australia was a reflection of the widespread links that had been forged by Dreaming tracks and suggested by trade and other social networks that sometimes spanned the continent. In Aboriginal cosmology and land occupation Dreaming tracks have been regarded as being particularly significant (e.g. Chatwin, 1987; David, 2002; Elkin, 1934; Gunn, 1997, 2003; Layton, 1992; Morphy, 1983; Moyle, 1983; Munn, 1973; Spencer & Gillen, 1938; Strehlow, 1978; Sutton, 1988, 1990). Dreaming tracks are reflections of the activities of the Dreamtime ancestors during the creative era as they emerged from the earth, to travel across the country along lengthy tracks, or circled within regions that were defined more narrowly. Considerable distances were sometimes covered across the continent by Dreaming tracks (e.g. Sutton, 1990), often extending across the boundaries of different groups, which facilitated meetings between local groups, and for travelling groups for gift exchange and for rituals that were associated with the relevant track. According to Franklin it is well documented (e.g. Ross, 1997), that similar motifs were used at sites across vast areas and suggested that a means for negotiating rights and obligations of travellers along the tracks are shared understanding of motif forms. A shared knowledge that assured travellers of their right to cross the country of a group and which established an affilial relationship between the occupants of a country and the travellers is provided by the repetition of motifs between regions. Therefore it is not surprising that frequently Dreaming tracks correlated with the trade routes that have been documented recently (Ross, 1997), which suggests that both the Dreaming tracks and Trade routes often were a means for the meeting of people across the landscape, as well as for the diffusion across vast areas of similar motifs.

In symbolic systems use of nonfigurative motifs, such as are found in the Panaramitee, also helps to explain the persistence of the overall pattern of the similarity between the engraving sites that have been identified in the multivariate analyses possibly over a prolonged time period based on chronological evidence that is available (e.g. minimum age of 13,000 BP for buried engravings at the Early Man site, the Laura region, Rosenfeld, 1981a) and the continued use of motifs of the Panaramitee style in recent Aboriginal artistic systems (e.g. Anderson & Dussart, 1988). It is suggested to be possible that the meanings of motifs might have changed over time, while the motif morphology remained unchanged, as the potential for nonfigurative motifs that have a range of different discontinuous meanings, i.e., a single motif may have a range of different meanings (Munn, 1966). The extreme simplicity of the Panaramitee motifs allows for this possibility. Rock engravings in the far southwestern corner of Western Australia were reported, the Kybra Site, (Clarke, J., 1983) (Department of Indigenous Affairs, Site No. S1786; Clarke, 1983; Fig. 1). In this part of Australia rock art sites are relatively sparse (Dortch, 1976, 1980; Hallam, 1971, 1972; Merrilees et al., 1973; Morse, 1984; Serventy, 1952; Webb & Gunn, 2004), and Kybra is one of the few rock engraving sites that are currently known. In this part of the continent there are few references to the forms of artistic expression that have been recorded from the time of European contact (Caroline Bird, pers. comm.). Even so, it appears there was a substantial body of mythology (Berndt, 1973; Hallam, 1972, 1974a, b, 1979), and ochre was traded into the southwest, that possibly came from as far away as Wilgie Mia in the Murchison district (McCarthy, 1939; Meagher and Ride, 1979). Franklin suggested cultural expression classes other than art must have been used to maintain boundaries, as there are a large number of Aboriginal groups that are attested to in this area, which is resource rich, west of the limit of circumcision (Anderson, 1984; Berndt, 1973; Tindale, 1974).

A series of flat tabular limestone pavements in a cleared and fenced paddock on private land that is 3 km from the Southern Ocean was used for the engravings. The pavements extended over an area of 75 m north to south and about 25 m east to west including about 25 limestone blocks. More than 100 engravings, mostly of bird and macropod tracks, though also a star motif, single meandering lines, that are believed to possibly be a snake or lizard tracks, and outlines that are of several boomerang shapes, have been found. The engravings of animal tracks were usually somewhat larger than life-size. Engravings of large bird tracks, that are presumably the prints of emus, were the most common motifs. The next most numerous are tracks of smaller birds, possibly bustards, and unidentified wading types. A number of macropod track engravings have also been found, including both hind and fore prints (Clarke, 1983; Fig. 1).

As well as engravings at Yalgoo (Edah Station) that is 420 km north of Perth, and Yeelirrie, which is 680 km northeast of Perth, it was noted (Clarke, 1983) that the Kybra Site appeared to extend the range of known engravings of the Panaramitee style (Maynard, 1979).

In this paper the Kybra Site is re-examined by Franklin in a broader context. It provides, in particular, a detailed comparison of the site with Panaramitee engravings from other sites spread across the continent that was undertaken by Clarke in 1983. This paper addressed the following questions:

·         Are there similarities at Kybra with other Panaramitee style engraving sites?

·         Can the Discontinuous Dreaming Network Model be used in an explanation of any similarities or differences that are identified between the Kybra sites and other Panaramitee sites that are located in other parts of the continent?


A comparison of a series of rock engravings from the Kybra Site in far southwestern Australia that was described originally (Clarke, 1983) with other sites where Panaramitee tradition engravings have been found in Western Australia as well as in other parts of the continent (see also Franklin, 2004, 2007) has been presented in this paper. A larger sample of sites was used in this study than was available to Clarke. It was similarly found that rock engravings at Edah Station were similar to those from the Carpentaria Region, which are also a considerable distance from the Kybra Site. Therefore these sites were found to be more different from each other than they are from sites that are great distances from them. Both of these findings were argued to be consistent with the tenets of the Discontinuous Dreaming Network Model (Franklin, 2004, 2007).

Franklin anticipates that the pattern of engraved motifs present at the Kybra Site will be confirmed by further detailed studies, where excavations are planned (R. G. Gunn, pers. comm.) which are expected to uncover more engravings and possibly settle any inter-recorder discrepancies there may be in the numbers of motifs that resulted from increased cover by grass over time. 

Sources & Further reading

  1. Franklin, Natalie R., 2007, Aboriginal engravings in the southwest of Western Australia: analysis of the Kybra Site, Records of the Western Australian Museum, 24: 65-79.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 03/06/2016
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