Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Bindjarran Rockshelter, Manilikarr Country – the archaeology

Evidence of the settlement of humans on the floodplain of the East Alligator River from the terminal Pleistocene to the 20th century has been found by archaeological excavations at Bindjarran rockshelter in the Kakadu national Park, Northern Territory.  In this paper Shine et al. summarise the archaeological excavation, ethnographic and rock art research from the site, with their work focused on distributions of stone artefacts that have been dated. At Bindjarran Rockshelter the findings conform to the findings from archaeological excavations that have previously been carried out at other sites in the region, as well as contributing to a greater understanding of Aboriginal society in the region during the Big Swamp phase, Freshwater phase and over the last 600 years.

Bindjarran is the name of a small sandstone outlier located in a portion of Manilikarr Country, within Kakadu National Park (KNP), about 2.2 km south of the East Alligator River and 2.7 km south-southwest of the Ubirr rock art complex.  There are 2 rockshelters 30 m apart which are connected by a shallow overhang in the Bindjarran outlier which has a diameter of about 60 m in diameter: Bindjarran Rockshelter is about 26 x 5 x 3.5 m and the Nabarebarde Rockshelter is about 10 x 3.5 x 2 m. Both rockshelters were formed by disintegration or undercutting of the eastern face of the sandstone outlier. Apart from about 3 m between the 2 shelters, rock art extends in a continuous band along the face. The site complex is completed by a 3rd rock art gallery on the southern face.

Shine et al. say the name Bindjarran is derived from the Kunwinjku name for the eel-tail catfish, (Neosilurus sp.), a fish that has distinctive barbells of ‘whiskers’ (Taҫon, 1989). Nabarebarde is the Kunwinjku name for the bony brim or herring (Nematolosa erebi). These species are reflected in the images of the rock art throughout the site complex.

The results of the excavation, oral history and rock art suggest that occupation at Bindjarran began by at least 13,140-12,771 BP in the Late Pleistocene and was still being used in the 20th century. Based on an increase in lithics and burning activity the use of the site appears to have increased from about 8,014-7,858 BP to 7,164-6,936 cal. BP, after the end of a series of roof falls. Following a cessation of alluviation some time earlier than 6,956-6,670 cal. BP there was more intense use of the site in the mid-Holocene.

According to Shine et al., a regional environmental change, the ‘Big Swamp’ phase, was broadly contemporaneous with increased use of Bindjarran during the mid-Holocene. The ‘Big Swamp’ phase was characterised by emerging mangrove/swamp environments across the lowlands of western Arnhem Land that occurred between 8,000-6,000 BP (e.g. Allen, 1987,1979; Brockwell et al., 2009; Hope et al., 1985; Woodroffe et al., 1988). It has been documented previously at rockshelters close to mangroves that there was more intensive occupation during this period than has been previously documented, which include Nawamoyn at 8,182-7,679 cal. BP (ANU-53), Malangangerr at 7,231-6,490 cal. BP (GaK-627), Malakunanja at 7,463-7,013 cal. BP (SUA-251) and Malakunanja II at 7,678-6,664 cal. BP (SUA-264) (Allen & Barton, 1989; Kamminga &Allen, 19973; Schrire, 1982). In the mid-Holocene increased intensity of human activity at Bindjarran appears to be a localised expression of a regional trend in which rockshelters were occupied more intensively to enable foraging in mangrove areas that were being newly established.

At Bindjarran a second period of increased site use, as indicated by an increased rate of discard of stone artefacts and macrocharcoal, began sometime between 5,265-4,865 and 2,918-2,762 cal. BP, peaking at about 1,270-1,075 cal. BP. At Bindjarran peak activity, at about 1,200 BP, is broadly contemporaneous with the Freshwater phase, a time when the current hydrological environment is believed to have been established.

According to Shine et al. considerable variation is likely to have occurred (e.g. Allen, 1987, 1989; Allen & Barton, 1989; Jones, 1985) as different landforms and parts of the adjusted landscape variability to the new freshwater conditions (e.g. Clark & Guppy, 1988; Hiscock, 1997, 1999), though there was a general increase in both quantity and extent of site use on the freshwater flood plain as has been observed from at least 2,000 BP (Hiscock, 1999; Jones, 1985; Meehan et al., 1985).

At Bindjarran the final period of peak intensity of occupation post-dates 622-510 cal. BP. After this date the highest level of flaking activity occurs, peaking in the protohistoric period. Shine et al. suggest this period of site use probably incorporates the use of Bindjarran that was ethnohistorically recorded, e.g., as a water buffalo hunting camp, when several of the rock art images, which include Yellow Charlie, were painted

The archaeological findings are supported by the rock art at Bindjarran and the rock art is consistent with the periods that are described. Throughout the site complex the earliest layers of rock art that are observed are representative of the Estuarine Period, 8,000-1,500 BP, as defined (Chaloupka, 1993). Included in this stylistic phase is imagery described as ‘Naturalistic’, such as species of estuarine fish, crocodiles, and different types of spear throwers, as well as ‘Intellectual Realism’, which is evidenced by complex x-ray and beeswax designs (Chaloupka, 1993). There is also other imagery present from the ‘Freshwater Phase’ of Chaloupka, from 1,500 BP, which includes magpie geese and complex spear throwers, as well as the ‘Contact Period’, from 300 BP, as evidenced by contact imagery.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Shine, Denis; Marshal, Melissa; Wright, Duncan; Denham, Tim; Hiscock, Peter; Jacobsen, Geraldine and Stephens, Sean-Paul. The archaeology of Bindjarran rockshelter in Manilikarr Country, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory [online]. Australian Archaeology, No. 80, Jun 2015: 104-111. Availability: <;dn=237574513957781;res=IELHSS> ISSN: 0312-2417


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 24/06/2016
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