Monday, August 31, 2009

Gwion Gwion, a Paleolithic mystery

I am still enjoying my vicarious safari of the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, in fact in raptures over depictions of ancient Gwion Gwion rock art. But first the disclaimers, vital to this post:

Nomenclature: My hosts were understandably excited by what they came to know as “The Bradshaws”, named after the white bloke who ‘found’ them in the 1890’s. The traditional people of the area rightly claim the traditional name for this art and it’s creators, Gwion Gwion, who predate the current people. This art belongs to “The Dreaming” and dates back to a period lost in time.

Rights: While the photos here are courtesy of Louise Caldwell the images they depict are subject to strict rights. Certainly they can be reproduced with attribution but must not be used in any way commercially or on commercial media.

The Gwion Gwion mystery

When I was shown the photos of this rock art I was knocked out by the sophistication of the depictions compared to later art which in some cases overlays them. (Note - click on the images for larger resolution.)

From Gwion Gwion
Unfortunately the story related by the tour guide went nowhere near matching the excitement of the images. So we went researching, only to find a mystery, wrapped in an enigma.

For a start: “The pigment used to create the beautiful Gwion Gwion is extremely resilient, so much so that C14 radiocarbon and other scientific dating methods cannot differentiate between it and the rock canvas. An indicator of their age was determined by a fossilised wasp nest built by the insects on top of a Bradshaw figure. It was reckoned to be at least 17,000 years old, placing the art beneath an indeterminate age beyond.”

Even relating the story is fraught with hazards, with any single comment likely to be pounced on with n opposing view. There are obvious arguments about the nomenclature but even the description ‘art’ gets under the skin of some. Simple soul that I am I will graciously accept differences of opinion on an issue where balance is problematic.

Clues to the origins

From Gwion Gwion
There are over 100,000 documented Gwion Gwion sites, generally protected only by rock overhangs as depicted in the second image. In contrast to the timeless solidity of the rock the images were painted on any understanding of the where’s and when’s are pure conjecture, speculation and educated guess.

The current controversies span issues like land rights and ownership, confused cultural imperatives, the twists and turns of politics and commerce and of course scientific rigour. The scientists might be able to resolve some of the issues around these incredible features, regarded as one of the planets great wonders, if the tools and methodology were available to them. Dating methods are simply not developed sufficiently yet.

What science does know is that when our ancestors moved out of Africa what we now know as Europe was covered in ice, so the migrants moved east, reaching the Australian continent around 60,000 years ago. Were these the Gwion Gwion? Again our lack of information and understanding of those early arrivals, and the probable waves following, leave a big question mark over who the Gwion Gwion people were.

From Gwion Gwion

Another possible dating method, borrowed from art history is based on comparative styles, has been soundly rejected by archeologists. Granted it is a method based on conjecture not provable fact. Even so it is instructive to note the similarities of ‘rock art’ in the Kalahari region of Southern Africa and on the probable migration trail through the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia. In fact my immediate thoughts on seeing these depictions was of current Indonesian cultural depictions.

From Gwion Gwion

So while the debate rages another concern, from the stories I’m hearing, is the protection of these treasures. I guess you don’t need to know everything to be able to recognise something worthy of protection. The Kimberley Region is fairly isolated and difficult at present, but the Gwion Gwion rock art suggests that it was once a thriving centre of culture.

Without doubt the local traditional people, property owners and various national parks agencies are making access to the bulk of these sites difficult. Given that Louise’s collection is the same as those elsewhere on the web the current level of protection appears to be working. Let us hope it continues to be so.


lindsaylobe said...

Fascinating pictures from our early indigenous peoples who we know celebrated their life cycles, to welcome in new seasons, to celebrate a successful hunt or season or an initiation ceremony –with their law – as they journey into adulthood.

Best wishes

Cartledge said...

Lindsay, I expect you have a deeper understanding than I do. I just think they are wonderful depictions worth saving.

Dougie Kinnear said...


Can I use one of your images in my undergraduate dissertation. I'm writing about jewellery and need an image showing prehistoric depictions of body adornment, it's the one showing the 4 standing figures. You will be fully credited in the bibiliography.



Cartledge said...

Thank you for asking. I have no problem, but just ask that you are sensitive to the ancient cultural issues involved. I guess the main issue is the images aren't used commercially. I wouldn't mind seeing your work. Cheers