The below text and images are taken and adapted from Grahame L. Walsh’s 2000 publication, Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley.
Tassel Bradshaws (Gwions)
The Bradshaw Period, commences with the Tassel Bradshaw Group. Within the Bradshaw Period’s group and sub-group divisions, the Tassel Group is best represented, with overall numbers and differential weathering evident within single panels indicating that their culture persisted over a long time frame, probably thousands of years.
Classic’ Tassel Bradshaw
Bust detail of a fine example of early ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaws, showing the distinctive, plan view, Broad Shoulders Feature which is the hallmark of the finest and earliest Erudite Epoch art. Early forms have elegantly hanging headdress mounted from the rear of the head, drooping in near- vertical alignment closely over the shoulder. Dunce Cap Headdress with a Pompom Tip. Large and apparently ‘fluffy’ upper arm bands are also a common decorative feature (A).
Tassel Bradshaws might be considered somewhat static in stance, but they display the greatest diversity of decorative accoutrements. These include arm bands, elbow bands, chest bands, bangles, anklets and a variety of shoulder and armpit suspended cords and tassels. Headdress forms are more naturalistic than some of the huge and elaborately decorated examples appearing in the later Sash Bradshaws. A major difference is also evident in headdress alignments. Subtle though such detail may seem, superimposition studies consistently verify that headdress alignments were rigidly adhered to on specific figures at specific times within the Bradshaw culture.
A most interesting fact involves the ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaw Figures simply ‘appearing’ in fully developed form in the lowest level of the Erudite Epoch’s superimposition sequence. In the few instances of superimposition with the IIA Period art, Tassel Bradshaws immediately overlie it. Early ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaws include a number of interesting traits which are eventually lost within the transition of a broader range of forms. Some of these include the distinctive Broad Shoulders Feature (A), with the headdress deliberately draped over the shoulder (usually the right).
Tassel Bradshaws – Alignment of held objects
A distinctive characteristic among earlier forms of ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaw involves weapons and artefacts not actually held in the figure’s hand, but closely aligned beside it. The alignment most commonly involves a vertical positioning beside the hand or forearm.
A feature of early Tassel Bradshaws is the apparent associated artefacts positioned close beside the forearm or held directly in the hand, such as the Triple Tassel assembly in the right hand of this 410x220mm example (B). A 410mm early Tassel Bradshaw showing examples of ‘held’ and ‘associated’ artefacts with the one figure. A Triple Tassel feature is depicted ‘held’ in the right hand, while the Double Boomerangs and ‘knobbed stick’ are deliberately positioned in an ‘associated’ position beside each hand.
In Bradshaw art, individual figures may be shown with ‘held’ and ‘associated’ objects, as in ‘B’, dispelling any argument for ‘association’ merely representing a poorly portrayed form of ‘holding’. The Tassel Bradshaw ‘holds’ a Triple Tassel feature in the right hand, while a Crescentic Boomerang is ‘associated’ beside it. A ‘knobbed stick’ is similarly ‘associated’ with the left hand. It may be argued that ‘floating’ artefacts are later additions, but in many instances, studies of differential weathering and paint similarities do not support this.
Lengthy studies lead me to believe that subtleties of artefact alignment are a very important key to deliberately encoded iconographic information. Examples of similar alignments of ‘held’ and ‘associated’ objects can be found in Egyptian art where, in broader terms, the ‘held’ alignments represent ‘tangible’ objects and the ‘associated’ alignments indicate ‘intangible’ objects. An example of this is where the deity Horus is shown with an object ‘associated’ rather than ‘held’ in his outstretched hand. This object is the ‘Djed pillar’, which is a stylised image of the spine of Osiris that later becomes a hieroglyph. It represents ‘stability, health and life’, and in this instance the associated and apparently floating object is a symbolic representation of an intangible, indicating that Horus is ‘giving life’.
While the Bradshaw artists may not intend similar ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ interpretations of their ‘held object’ alignments, these undoubtedly have a very specific iconographic meaning.
Arm Alignment and hand position – significance
One of the most visually impressive alignments involves one arm raised to the elbow and folded back horizontally across the head, while the other arm hangs by the side.
Arm alignment. A matter of possible significance is the apparent correlation between this hand alignment on Tassel Bradshaws, and distinctive forms of lattice-like appendages, apparently mounted from the shoulders (C).
These may be decorative appendages indicating status, or some specific ritual which this alignment may have represented. Of particular interest is a range of recurring arm alignments which are made additionally conspicuous by the anatomically improbable angles involved. Some may argue that undue attention is drawn to these arrangements by their unnatural and almost double-jointed appearance, as the angles seem deliberately engineered by the artists to achieve a specific overall silhouette. Most figures which display seemingly deliberate geometric arm arrangements tend to be in plan view, presumably to optimise the viewer’s identification of the ‘symbol silhouette’ they create. Some appear deliberate contortions to form geometric angles between the torso, upper arm, and lower arm, as in Fig ‘D’.
The main surviving body of hand detail is now found associated with the early Tassel Bradshaws, which in the highest incidence of the most sophisticated levels of encoded information transfer is encountered. Several distinctive hand variations are found, Triangular Hands being the most frustrating to interpret. These appear to represent surviving ‘palm’ sections of once bichrome hands, with the now missing fingers having been in a less stable paint. The loss of finger detail not only removes the possibility of determining the original hand ‘style’, but also the important detail of relationship to associated objects.
The greatest headdress variation within the Bradshaw groups is unquestioningly found amongst the Tassel Bradshaws.
Occasional examples of Watusi form of headdress extend into the early Tassel Bradshaws, best identified in profile silhouettes such as Fig ‘F’, with added erect-mounted feathers and associated long tasselled cords. In early Tassel Bradshaw examples, the artists depict the head arched back from the shoulders so that the long headdress silhouette can be clearly and unmistakably defined. Some indication of the real appearance of such headdress may be gained by the New Guinea Marind-anim men in historical times. The Ewati class young males of the Marind-anim people were considered the most courageous and dangerous killers among this group of New Guinea head-hunters.
The ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaw Dunce Cap form is a large, drooping and elegantly tapering arrangement which commonly terminates in a large Pompom Tip, other tip decorations do occur. These include a single Large Tassel (G), tiered tassel extensions, and at times clusters of long Tasselled Cords. Although decorative objects mounted vertically from the foresection of the headdress became a common trait of the later Sash Bradshaws, occasional examples occur in Tassel Bradshaws. These objects are commonly in pairs, such as in the slim, knobbed pins shown in Fig ‘B’, and at times, in pairs of detailed identifiable long feathers. The Dunce Cap Headdress form is not unique to Australia, nor is there any current evidence from north-west Australian rock art supporting its continued presence from Bradshaw times up to European contact times.
Elaborately dressed forms of Bradshaw Figure appears in the early Tassel Bradshaw times, its additional decorative appendages resulting in the term ‘Ceremonial Figure’.
The key to these figures seems to lie in the features ‘hovering’ above their heads, which appear to be intended more as ‘indicators’ than as tangible ‘artefacts’. The primary identifying element is an unusual ‘half centipede’ shaped feature in a close ‘hovering’ alignment over the head and headdress. This Half Centipede Feature is of flexible shape, with the basic appearance of a long cord with a fringe of consistent length along one side. On rare occasions, this object is painted without any associated figure but it is normally aligned close above the headdress, along the length of the ‘barrel’ section and similarly, close down over the face. Most commonly, the ‘fringe’ lies face down (H), but they can also face up, as in ‘I’. A much less common version is the Half Tram Track Feature, as in ‘J’. Another variation involves a ‘hovering’ object above the base of the headdress and out over the face. This can be in a range of slightly variant forms, but is most commonly based on an elongated ‘football’ shape, with a number of apparent miniature Triple Tassel forms appended from either extremity, as in ‘K’. None of the ‘hovering’ objects appears to be part of the headdress. They are close to the headdress, but are definitely separate.
The head has been the focal point of ‘spirit’ or ‘being’ in humans in many cultures over a long period, and has been used as a focus for many forms of ‘indicators’ in many societies through time. One might think that head-oriented indicators would be so obvious that their meanings would be well known, but such things, generally, are applicable only to living cultures. Knowledge of the imagery, icons and indicators of a specific society are soon lost. An example of this is the range of head-oriented indicators associated with Christianity.
From the earliest examples of Tassel Bradshaws, a detailed form of appendage is shown mounted from the underside of the Cummerbund Waistband, which is referred to as a Triple Tassel.
The Triple Tassel is so consistently present that it represents a primary identification key for the earliest major group — the Tassel Bradshaws. Triple Tassels mostly hang limply by the side, commonly extending just below knee level, but at times as short as only 75 per cent of thigh length. At times, additional Triple Tassels may be shown hand held, mounted from an Elbow Band, or even suspended from the rear of a headdress. This 440mm Tassel Bradshaw (I) has additional Triple Tassels hang as appendages from the figure’s Elbow Bands, and a long Pendulum Cord is suspended from each armpit. Figure ‘H‘ holds a Crescentic Boomerang in one hand, and a typical northern Dillybag in the other, and shows detail of its looped handle and constricted bottle neck.
Arm Decorations and Bangles. The Tassel Bradshaw group collectively displays a wide and, at times, bizarre range of arm decorations, frequently mounted on both upper arm and elbow areas. Elbow Bands, in particular, involve some spectacular appendages of ribbonned and tasselled forms, which interestingly disappear with the passing of the Tassel Bradshaws. Elbow Bands do not appear again in the Erudite Epoch, while the use of arm bands in varying forms of decreased elaboration are used throughout. Early ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaw forms commonly feature a single small rounded bangle mounted in the wrist area, at times accompanied by an equivalent form of anklet (H), both appearing to have had a primarily decorative role.
Sash Bradshaws (Gwions)
Sash Bradshaws evolved out of the original Tassel Bradshaw Group and are the second most numerous group of the Bradshaw Period.
Dress and accoutrements change dramatically, most apparent in the replacement of variations of the ubiquitous Triple Tassel by an unmistakable Three Point Sash. (C) All forms of elbow bands disappear completely, and the diverse range of upper armbands is replaced by a single very distinctive form of Tuft Armband (A), which then becomes the primary identification key for almost every ‘classic’ Sash Bradshaw. The Single and Multiple Thin Bangle form of the Tassel Bradshaws is replaced by as many as eight clearly defined, heavy, broad, rounded bangles (B), stacked in close alignment from wrist to elbow.
A number of examples of superimposition clearly show Sash Bradshaws over, but none beneath, Tassel Bradshaws. Sufficient figures exist to identify basic transition stages from Tassel to Sash Bradshaws. Transition appears to have been a localised development around one central plateau region, possibly over a fairly short duration, before the fully developed ‘classic’ Sash Bradshaw form then presumably spread rapidly over a wide area. Distinctive apparel changes show that the artistic change accompanied a significant and widespread cultural change. Development of a more robust body combined with miniaturising of the lower legs and feet accompanies the transition. Mastery of the profile shoulder perspective, which had long plagued the Tassel Bradshaw artists, resulted in an increase of profile view depictions.
Sash Bradshaws display awide range of elaborate accoutrements. The numerous Dunce Cap variations of the headdress take on many decorative additions.
All hand detail is replaced by miniature circular ‘knobs’ tipping the heavily bangled forearms. A noticeable difference is that artefacts are now clearly ‘held’ in the small round hand, not aligned beside the forearm, or passed beneath open fingers as on some late Tassel Bradshaws. Almost all figures hold boomerangs erect by the tip (E), and of all the groups, Sash Bradshaws appear most involved in some form of ceremony or dancing. The hand-held Whisks (F), large neck-mounted Dillybags and often bulky armpit and waist-mounted apparel seem incongruous with conflict. When feet are shown on figures throughout the Bradshaw Period, they almost invariably involve forms of slightly downfacing Slipper Feet, consistently giving the impression of some form of footwear. In exceptionally rare instances, heeled feet with toe detail are deliberately and clearly depicted. Foot detail appears only on very ‘basic’ figures, usually those appearing as ‘secondary’ or ‘subservient’ in group scenes. This 430x380mm Sash Bradshaw, showing remarkably clear foot detail, is the secondary figure (G) in a Large-And-Small Arrangement. Figures are depicted singly and in group scenes, some obviously discrete arrangements, with extremely rare examples of females. Females are devoid of decoration other than small Round Arm Bands and some form of short ‘stove-pipe like’ hairdo or headdress.
Sash Bradshaws display a distinctly different suite of waist-mounted apparel, of which the most striking and common is the Three Point Sash. The ‘classic’ Three Point Sash is so synonymous with this group that their name is derived from it.
A feature of note is the Sash Bradshaw method of mounting waist appendages, which appear to have served a largely decorative role. They are commonly shown rising from the inner top of the broad Cummerbund Waistband, deliberately arching out and falling away from the body silhouette . The purpose of Three Point Sashes and Long Pubic Aprons does not appear related to modesty or any level of clothing. Not uncommonly, the Three Point Sash is mounted higher up the torso than the waistline, at times even appearing as a Chest Band appendage (J). Three Point Sash have solid infill, some appear to suggest a woven composition. The Barred Three Point Sash variations feature definite transverse bands, perhaps intending woven or painted detail (H).Chest Bands may also have the Broad Plume Feature aligned from them (I). It is noteworthy that on Sash Bradshaws, Chest Band mounting shows clear indentation into the torso silhouette, quite the reverse of Tassel Bradshaws, where Chest Band mounts are clearly show as risen bands. Another accoutrement which appears exclusive to the Sash Bradshaws is the Waist Pompom, where mounting appears to have been exclusively to the front of the waistband (H, I and J).
While there is some intermixing of Tassel and Sash Bradshaw forms in individual galleries, they tend to be found largely in separate groups.
An apparent variation of the Waist Pompom is a huge drooped ‘balloon’ shape, referred to as the Dancing Balloon, also unique to Sash Bradshaws.
The ‘Dancing Balloon’ seems to be exclusively front-mounted from the Cummerbund Waistband, similar to the smaller Waist Pompom, but are usually accompanied by a rear-mounted Three Point Sash. Some of these objects are of very large size, at times proportionally one third the size of the wearer. The voluminous and seeming spherical size of these appendages suggest that they must have been of some ‘non-solid’ construction, which is supported by the common preference for an irregular dash infill rather than for a solid one (K).The size and cumbersome nature of the object is such that one would assume it probably represents some form of decorative rather than functional apparel. A less common waist-mounted feature, between the Waist Pompom and Dancing Balloon in size, is the Waist Fan (L). All three forms appear related in purpose.
Some Sash Bradshaws have a Long Pubic Apron mounted from the front of the Cummerbund Waistband, falling to lower calf length, and these certainly appear to be woven. This appears to be an accoutrement exclusive to the Sash Bradshaw Group, where it commonly appears as the sole waist mounted appendage, without a rear-mounted Three Point Sash (M). Examples of monochrome white have survived, showing that the artists did use less stable paints. Bichrome examples also survive, with short transverse bars and dotted lines across the body.
Sash Bradshaws display a wide range of elaborate accoutrements. The numerous Dunce Cap variations of the headdress take on many decorative additions.
An almost mandatory neck-mounted accoutrement appears to be an elongated, triangular Dillybag, rear mounted out from the neck on profile figures. On plan view figures this is positioned between the chest and the right arm, suitably spaced to permit clear depiction (N). The Dillybag is clearly suspended from a neck cord. This figure clearly holds two forms of boomerang, Crescentic and Angular (O).
Beneath the left arm, many figures display a Chilli Armpit Decoration, named because of its sectional shapes, which can involve two, three or four ‘chillis’. An example of a figure decked in a full complement of optional accoutrements is shown in ‘N’. On some profile alignment Sash Bradshaws attempts to align Chilli Armpit Decoration close against the chest can easily result in misinterpretation as pendulous breasts. Tassel Bradshaw artists prefer profile depictions, frequently developing what seems to be a grossly accentuated arch in the lower back, and protruding buttocks, combined with a sweep of line that gives them an air of grace. A common stance is to have both arms rigidly thrust ahead of the body, at an angle of about 30˚–40˚, sometimes slightly upraised from the elbow, and almost invariably holding one or more boomerangs erect and forward while trailing a whisk from below the hand.
The elongated barrel Dunce Cap appears to be the standard form within Sash Bradshaws.
A form of large feather or apparent Bird Wing Feature is commonly mounted erect from the forehead area of the headdress (P). Some are quite detailed and striking in their appearance, similar to the dried bird wing decorations used in some headdress of Highland New Guinea.
A single feather is frequently mounted through the ‘barrel’ of the headdress, immediately in front of the rear Pompom Tip, with quill tip protruding beneath. At least one broad tassel is commonly suspended from the Pompom Tip, and at times two, in a tiered alignment with one below the other (Q).
Sash Bradshaws feature a very limited range of basic Dunce Cap Headdress forms, most in apparently exaggerated forms, with some considerably longer than the physical height of the wearer (R). The possibility that these were accurate proportions cannot be ruled out, as similar pointed dunce cap headdress forms, capped with pendulous ribbons, were still used in New Britain in the twentieth century. Bark cloth and bamboo construction enabled these three-metre long headdress to be managed by a single individual without support. Most have an enlarged Pompom Tip which commonly has a sizeable tassel suspended from its underside (S), or at times Double-Tiered Tassels (O), or an additional tassel along the mid-underside (T). Feathers are commonly mounted from the body of the upper headdress (O), or the Pompom Tip (U) or the forehead area (V). However, pairs of stylised feathers rear-mounted from the headdress base also appear (Q) and (T).
An interesting feature which appears on Sash but not Tassel Bradshaws involves the elongated Dunce Cap Headdress combined with the Watusi Headdress (T and U). This suggests that the Watusi Headdress may have been a form of class-specific permanent coiffure in Bradshaw times and the tall Dunce Cap Headdress represented a removable addition worn on special occasions.
Elegant Action Figures
Elegant Action Figures show some of the more fascinating activity scenes in Kimberley rock art. Figures appear to have been all monochrome, are basically of miniature form, and depict rather basic and undecorated individuals.
While male forms dominate, a number of females are present, and on rare occasions even children. Males have two basic forms of headdress, most commonly a simple Dunce Cap with Pompom Tip (A), but occasionally the sweptback Watusi Headdress (B). Females and children are normally shown with simple Round Heads. One larger and more detailed painting of a female shows some form of short, vertical, conical hair style or headdress, with a form of Tasselled Cord extending down over the forehead (C).This is an example of a female with the common Stacked Profile Breasts. Larger and more detailed female figures such as this even have nipple detail accentuated. People are mostly shown with Slipper Feet and hands formed by small sharply curved arm tips, but larger paintings show magnificent heel and toe detail on feet (C).
Elegant Action Figure women are shown involved in activities. Men are normally shown carrying short Multi-Barb Spears, sets of mildly angular boomerangs, and frequently have a small ‘rounded bag’ clutched in the same hand.
Women are shown involved in activities, with one carrying a large neck-mounted Dillybag down her back (D). This appears to herald the artists’ first use of the convenient alignment of having females fold their arms up and behind their head to allow easy and uncomplicated display of breast detail without superimposition: a variation is shown in ‘E’.
Most male Elegant Action Figures display a lower stomach indentation on their silhouettes that suggests the use of a waistband (F). A 450x260mm Elegant Action Figure (H), in a quite complex Sitting Cross-Legged position. During the time of these artists, complex sitting positions were depicted with a degree of accuracy and detail not equalled in Kimberley art history.
Hunting and action scenes are common, with men clearly shown gripping spears part way along the shaft and throwing them by hand, never, strangely, with any evidence of a spearthrower.
Spears generally appear shorter than those associated with later art groups, and in Fig ‘I’, the 240mm scene shows details of some decorative appendage mounted near the spear’s lower end. There are only rare depictions of spears in the lengthy duration of the early Bradshaw Period. However, after the appearance of the very distinctive Elegant Action Figure (EAF) Group, spears become a common feature and seem to be even more favoured than the boomerangs which are almost invariably shown accompanying the figures .
The advent of this form of figures appears to mark major lifestyle change, with associated weapon and wildlife depictions raising the possibility that this may reflect environmental changes. The elaborate tassels, skirts, arm and leg decorations of the earlier Bradshaws are abandoned on males, who retain only a limited range of modest headdress forms. Females and children are devoid of any decoration. There is no indication of spearthrower use, and spears are shown hand-held and balanced in mid-shaft areas, which is typical of javelin types. These apparently heavy, hand-thrown EAF spears (J) may have been well suited (or even specially developed) for the particular game depicted in hunting scenes, invariably shown as some sorts of large macropod species.
Hunting invariably involves depictions of proportionally large kangaroos, which have minor characteristics clearly linking them with the Elegant Action Figure Group.
Speared large macropods such as this 145x185mm example (K) are commonly associated with Elegant Action Figures. An interesting identification point is the similar alignment used for both macropod forearms and people’s arms, with sharp bent elbows on slim arms terminating in hand curves. Dashed lines surrounding the spear penetration point either represent blood splatters (K) or are action indicators of the spear’s impact. The first identifiable examples of Motion and Voice Dashes appear within the Elegant Action Figure art. During Elegant Action Figure times, Motion Dashes first appear in identifiable form in Kimberley art, in the form of apparent blood splatters from spear impacts and exclamation lines from the mouths of people and animals. This is typical of the innovation evident among artists of this time, who tackled leg and seating positions attempted neither before nor since in Kimberley art. In many cases, artists achieved some of the finest advances in prehistoric Kimberley naturalism and perspective. Rare painting examples appear to extend scenes further towards realms of perspective than most prehistoric Australian rock art.
Group scenes among Elegant Action Figures are common, but this 250x570mm example (L), showing four kangaroos surrounded by three individuals, with weapons laid down in the upper left, differs from the normal. The surrounding line suggests some form of perimeter or containment, but whether this was intended as tangible or magical is unknown. The most elementary possibility is that it may indicate some form of hunting enclosure or trap.
Camp scenes include hunters carrying captured game by the tail, Sitting Cross-Legged family groups (M) involved in activities, sometimes with dead kangaroos by their sides, and men seated around working on spear heads.
The Elegant Action Figure heralds a new image of Erudite Epoch rock art, where the daily activities of all members of the society were recorded for the first and last time. It provides the one very brief window found into the world of the normal people in the unknown millennia of Kimberley rock art. The abandonment of elaborate decoration, the presence of females and children, and the numerous hunting scenes involving large macropods are all so ‘different’ for Kimberley art that it suggests a major change, possibly not only in the subject, but also in the role of art. The images suggest a ‘coming down to earth’ after a long period of idealism. The leisure time and abundance suggested by a proliferation of images of narcissistic-appearing males doing nothing more than ‘looking pretty’ may have been brought to an end. Switching the focus of the art from personal finery and ‘posing’ to hunting for survival and illustrating community involvement suggest confronting the realities of day-to-day life. This may have reflected cultural change, perhaps resulting from diminishing resources brought about by climatic change and increasing aridity. The appearance and prominence of large macropods may provide some indication of the type of change — possibly to an increase in grassland environments, now one which most large macropods prefer. With the innovation, naturalism and developing perspective evident in this group, one wonders to what levels of sophistication it may have developed if the seemingly incessant driving force towards schematisation had not triumphed.
Although depictions of fabulous beings appear from the earliest times of Kimberley rock painting, the concentrated presence of animal-headed beings can be comfortably linked to one specific group, the EAF.
Within Elegant Action Figure art, naturalistic animal-headed beings appear, at times engaged in action scenes and armed with conventional warriors’ weapons, as with this 210x250mm example. The EAF zoomorphs share similar artefacts to their ‘human’ contemporaries, including Dillybags, Multi-Barb Spears and boomerangs. However, their apparent action scenes with weapons do not appear to be in collusion with ‘humans’, or to indicate collective hunting scenes. This scene (N), dominated by a 260x75mm animal-headed Elegant Action Figure and secondary figure bent over from the waist, is superimposed over a 180mm pair of late Tassel Bradshaws. A number of similar superimpositions confirm the Elegant Action Figure appearance as post-dating the ‘classic’ Tassel Bradshaw times. Kimberley beings as shown in (O) are certainly armed and active, but the theme suggests conflict rather than food gathering.
The above text and images are taken and adapted from Grahame L. Walsh’s 2000 publication, Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley.