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Birriwilk Rockshelter, Manilikarr Country, Southwest Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, a Mid- Late Holocene Site

The Birriwilk Rockshelter is comprised of an elevated terrace about 13 by 7 m, between a significant upward slope to the north-northeast and a downward slope to the south-southwest. A cliff overhang on the eastern side which formed by block disintegration or undercutting of the cliff face, partially encloses the site. According to Shine et al. this overhang is deceptively deep, between 3 and 5 m, though the site feels ‘unroofed’ as the result of its height of about 20 m of cliff face above. Panoramic views to the south over Birriwilk Lagoon, towards the Njanjmah rock art site, and west to the East Alligator River, is provided by the site. The billabong was only about 40 m south of the site during excavation in the mid- to late dry season, and the terrain falls sharply to the south towards the lagoon, at a rate of about 8 m per 20 m.

As well as rock art, some surface ochre and occasional grinding hollows were found that provide clear evidence of usage in the past. Apart from 2 minor ‘hollows’ that were potentially made by macropodoid marsupials or feral pigs (Sus scrofa); it is common to find pig ‘wallows’ on the adjacent valley floor. Dense vegetation covered the immediate vicinity of the site, with paperbarks, Melaleuca spp., and eucalypts, mainly Eucalyptus miniata. These did not extend onto the rockshelter floor.

Evidence for settlement in the mid- Late Holocene settlement, including a major period of site use during the last millennium, has been revealed by recent excavations at the Birriwilk Rockshelter in Mikinj Valley, southwest Arnhem Land. The site is important to the traditional owners, and there is a rich oral tradition associated with ‘Birriwilk’, an important ancestor of the Urningangk tribe, the image of Birriwilk being depicted in rock art at the site. According to oral traditions the Birriwilk site is linked with an adjacent lagoon, as well as a number of other rock art sites and features in the landscape, which includes the renowned Ubirr complex. Significant places to the Nayinggul family, traditional owners for the Manilikarr estate, include the Birriwilk site and its vicinity. Key archaeological findings at Birriwilk using stone artefact frequencies and faunal remains as proxies of occupation from about 5,000 BP are summarised in this post-fieldwork report. Within the last 700 years the most intense occupation occurred, a period which is characterised by foraging and hunting in adjacent wetland habitats, technological emphasis changing to bifacial point manufacture, increased rates of artefact discard and an increase in the grinding of ochre. There is little evidence of use of the site over the last 200 years, though it is indicated by oral histories that it was regularly visited until the mid-20th century. This site is still an important story site at the present.

Archaeological excavations were undertaken at Birriwilk, a rockshelter in Manilikarr country, in the East Alligator Region of southwest Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, during September and October 2011. The excavations are part of a doctoral research program by the lead author that are community-led. The Nayinggul family were consulted in site selection, as they wished to gain a better understanding of the settlement history of Birriwilk, as they regard the rockshelter to be one of the most significant sites within their country. Excavation results are summarised in this short report, settlement history being interpreted through dated distributions of faunal remains and stone artefacts, augmented by analyses of burning patterns and worked ochre distribution. A future publication will assess the significance of the occupational sequence of the site, rock art and oral histories for the interpreting of spatio-temporal aspects of the Birriwilk story.

Manilikarr Country

This is a clan territory encompassing both side of the East Alligator River and is located to the south of Kunbarlanja (Oenpelli). It is primarily within west Arnhem Land, which was declared an Aboriginal reserve in 1931, though it extends into Kakadu National Park (KNP) of the present. Until 2011 the clan area was named after the senior traditional owner who was recently deceased, referred to in this publication by his skin name Nakodjok. The archaeological investigations at Birriwilk, as well as at 2 other rockshelters, Ingaanjalwurr and Bindjarran, and several members of his family participated in the excavations. Urningangk was the traditional language of Manilikarr Country, which was restricted to an area directly south of Kunbarlanja centred on Mikinj Valley (Birch, 2006). Nakodjok is said to be the last ‘hearer’ of this language, which has been displaced by Kunwinggu.

Prior to this research excavations had not been carried out in Manilikarr country since the 1960s (Schrire, 1982; White, 1967a, 1967b, 1971; White & Peterson, 1969), though there are several other rockshelters that have been excavated more recently in close proximity to the estate (e.g. Allen & Barton, 1989; Jones, 1985; Kamminga & Allen, 1973). A number of surveys of rock art have also been carried out in Manilikarr country (e.g. Brandl, 1968; Edwards, 1979; Gunn, 1992; Jelínek, 1976, 1978, 1979; Mountford, 1956; Taҫon, 1989) and ethnographic information has been documented for the estate (e.g. Berndt, 1962; Chaloupka et al., 1985; Mountford, 1956). Oral histories were obtained and a partial record was produced of the rock art at Birriwilk in 1991 (Gunn, 1992). The significance of the site lies in the importance it has for the traditional owners and it association with the Rainbow Serpent, as well as potentially with creation stories for the East Alligator River.


It is indicated by excavations at Birriwilk that there were 2 principal phases of human settlement: from 4,500 BP ephemeral visitations and from 750-50 BP there was sustained settlement. Minor deposition of stone artefacts, worked ochre, calcined bone and evidence of increased burning are included in the earliest phase. Activity at this site in the Middle Holocene appears to have been minor, when considered in terms of its overall distribution of cultural materials, as well as evidence of burning, with the main period of site use beginning in the last millennium.

At Birriwilk the main occupation dates from about 750-50 BP. Site usage is suggested by the stone artefacts and faunal remains to have been most intensive from 750 BP to approximately 250-200 BP. Hunting and foraging was focused on adjacent wetland habitats, as indicated by analysis of the faunal materials from this period. Birriwilk is distinguished from other sites that were investigated previously by this activity, and suggests the occupants of Birriwilk placed greater emphasis on freshwater resources. In the mythologies of Birriwilk the connection between the site and the freshwater environment continues to be recorded, which are still significant at the present; the adjacent lagoon is also regarded as a djang site. From 750 BP occupation was accompanied by the adoption of quartzite points as the preferred raw material and emphasis was placed on manufacturing bifacial quartzite points. More than half of the worked fragments of ochre were also recovered from these levels, which suggests that much of the rock art dates to about 750-200 BP, though such fragments were distributed throughout the site. Shine et al. suggest this age is consistent with ages that had previously been conjectured for the rock art at the site based on the prominence of freshwater species (Gunn, 1992).

The use of the rockshelter for activities related to subsistence appears to have declined after 250-200 BP. Limited amounts of stone artefacts and faunal material and large quantities of charcoal (suggestive of extensive burning) that date to 250-150 BP have been recovered suggesting continued accumulation. In the recent past (XUs 5-6) there was a further decrease in cultural materials, though worked ochre and ‘European’ finds from the uppermost excavation levels of the site still indicated that the site was being used. Nakodjok recalled rock art events and camping at the rockshelter, though archaeological evidence indicates recent occupation of the site was much less sustained than in the earlier period. At Birriwilk the occupation decrease was potentially the result of changing settlement patterns that were linked to the foundation of Kunbarlanja cattle station in 1909-10, which was followed by the development of the Kunbarlanja Anglican mission and town. An alternative suggestion is that at Birriwilk reduced activity in the usage of the site may reflect a shift in the usage of the site to a purely ritual focus, as opposed to a camp site that was used while hunting and fishing.

The results of the excavation at Birriwilk are consistent with many floodplain sites in the region (e.g. Brockwell, 1989; Hiscock, 1999; Jones, 1985). It is believed these sites expanded across the floodplains as the freshwater environment became stabilised in the last 1,500 years (e.g. Allen, 1987, 1989; Allen & Barton, 1989; Brockwell, 2011; Jones, 1985). Birriwilk is linked to the adjacent freshwater lagoon by the archaeological evidence, rock art and oral traditions which indicate the primary occupation period was short-lived, over a period of 500-700 years. Shine et al. suggest this raises the intriguing possibility that the Birriwilk story may have developed in this period as the changed freshwater landscape was reinterpreted. As outlined here, the history of settlement will be examined further in future publications to assess the antiquity of the Birriwilk story and help to clarify the changing character of the connection of the people to the landscapes of Western Arnhem Land during the later Holocene.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Shine, D., D. Wright, T. Denham, K. Aplin, P. Hiscock, K. Parker and R. Walton (2013). "Birriwilk rockshelter: A mid- to late Holocene site in Manilikarr Country, southwest Arnhem Land, Northern Territory." Australian Archaeology 76(1): 69-78.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 27/06/2016
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