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Dating Gwion Gwion rock art figures in the Kimberley

Dating Gwion Gwion rock art figures in the Kimberley

Mud wasp nest samples and their development sequence. Credit: Damien Finch

A team of ARC-supported archaeologists has been able to accurately date a significant number of the Kimberley’s most remarkable ancient rock art to more than 10,000 years ago.

The dates have been produced as part of the ARC Linkage Project, ‘Dating the Aboriginal rock art sequence of the Kimberley in NW Australia’, led by The University of Melbourne and working in partnership with Balanggarra and other Aboriginal Corporations.

Professor Peter Veth, from The University of Western Australia, and one of the project’s Chief Investigators, said the Kimberley region of Western Australia hosted thousands of rock art sites with some earlier depictions in an exceptionally good state of preservation.

‘They provide a window into how Aboriginal people thought and lived in a socially and environmentally dynamic world and are of great significance to Kimberley Traditional Owners today,’ Professor Veth says.

‘One of the best known styles showing human figures with complex headdress and body ornaments is the Gwion Gwion. Their extraordinary detail challenged European observers leading to more than a century of speculation about their age and authorship. They are clearly of Aboriginal origin forming part of a long tradition of signalling places of importance within the wider landscape.

As with other rock art worldwide, the older styles have proven notoriously difficult to date quantitatively, requiring new scientific approaches. The research team's method of dating carbon found in mud wasp nests under and overlying Gwion Gwion images has produced a remarkably consistent suite of dates clustering around 12,000 years ago (11,500 to 12,700 years ago) with one motif, however, dating to approximately 17,000 years.

The research team worked with partners including the Aboriginal Traditional Owners and Corporations, the University of Wollongong, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Dunkeld Pastoral and with ongoing support from Rock Art Australia.



‘More exciting dating work awaits, with Gwion Gwion imagery known to occupy the middle part of a very long chronology of making rock art in the Kimberley that continues to this day,’ says Dr Sven Ouzman, a chief investigator on the project from the university of Western Australia’s centre for rock art research and management.

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