The KFA-initiated Rock Art Dating Project has been underway for three years, funded by KFA and the Australian Research Council (ARC). The 3-year $1 million project is nearing completion (August 2017).
The KFA and the ARC have supported a world-class team of collaborating researchers from the Universities of Melbourne, Wollongong, Western Australia and ANSTO led by Professor Andrew Gleadow. It includes a multi-disciplinary approach that enables multiple dating strategies to be explored in parallel. A new five-year extension is planned to start in July 2017. Progress has been substantial on all fronts. This includes characterisation of mineral accretions, development of uranium-series methods, characterisation and radiocarbon dating of mud wasp nest constituents, geomicrobiology and cosmogenic radionuclide dating.
In 2014 Kimberley Foundation Australia pledged its support for a major project led by Professor Peter Veth called Kimberley Visions. The project was awarded Australian Research Council funding and commenced in July 2016.
Dating the Aboriginal rock art of the Kimberley region, WA – landscape geochemistry, surface processes and complementary dating techniques.
We have demonstrated that people have been producing important art works in the Kimberley for at least 20,000 years.
The project plan was to examine closely what was happening to the rock surfaces around, under and over the art – to look for erosion, mud wasp nests, nearby rock falls, and other geological, microbial and chemical clues to when the early painters created their works.
With this knowledge in hand, the team, led by Professor Andy Gleadow was confident they could pull together a range of methods for dating materials above and below the art. This ‘bracketing’ would produce the minimum and maximum age of the work, most of which is impossible to date directly.
By building on the data, the team believed they could date the sequence of the Kimberley’s rock art styles, from the oldest rock markings and naturalistic art, through the Gwion (or Bradshaw) paintings, to the static polychrome and painted hand periods, ending with the evocative Wanjina works. Andy and his colleagues also knew they could use this dating tool kit to investigate the durability of the sandstone ‘canvasses’. That would help them estimate how long art in various sites can endure.
“We thought this is really worth doing, but it’s going to be very hard,” Andy says of the second pivotal trip to the Kimberley.
“My conclusion was, if we can’t do this with the amazing scientific tools at our disposal and this group of people, it simply can’t be done. We all said, let’s give it our best shot.”
And they did – thanks to Andy’s grant writing expertise and the track record of an expanded, nationwide team of archaeologists and other dating experts.
To date, progress has been substantial. Initially, the team identified four possible rock dating techniques which they believed they could adapt to the project. They knew each method had potential, each could fail.
“In my heart of hearts, I hoped one would work. Now they’re all working. It’s just fantastic,” Andy says enthusiastically.
Although all the numbers are not yet nailed down, results are coming in from the hundreds of samples the dating team collected in collaboration with traditional owners. They refined their geochronological tools and boosted knowledge of how the rocky landscape is evolving. They now know the rock shelters can protect the art for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years.
The Dating project is supported by the Australian Research Council and Kimberley Foundation Australia. Partners include the University of Melbourne, the University of Wollongong, the University of Western Australia and ANSTO. Partner Investigators include Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd, Kimberley Foundation Australia and Archae-aus Pty Ltd. The work is being done in collaboration with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.
Kimberley Visions: rock art dynamics of northern Australia
Kimberley Visions is a five year landmark study mapping the rock art and occupational history of the Northern Kimberley. It examines shared art styles across northern Australia and explores questions of regionalism and identity. Did similar styles occur between the Kimberley and Arnhem Land? What are our current understandings about shared traditions and why might they have changed through time?
The rock art of the Kimberley is renowned for the insights it offers into the deep history of Aboriginal social practice. The art often depicts people, their belief systems and environments in great detail with elaborate compositions, depictions of personal ornaments and scenes of group dynamism providing windows into millennia of cultural practices. Rock art as living tradition is realised through a research collaboration with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation and their Healthy Country Plan.
Chief Investigator, Prof. Peter Veth, is the Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art at UWA. Peter is one of Australia’s leading archaeologists. The other Chief Investigator is Dr. Bruno David from Monash University. Prof. Andrew Gleadow, a distinguished geologist brings expertise in rock art dating which is fundamental to the project. Assoc. Prof. Sven Ouzman has a considerable reputation in rock art research and is also on the Dating project team.
Kimberley Visions includes world leading French geomorphologist Jean-Jacques Delannoy and renowned archaeologist Jean Geneste. Delannoy is at the University of Savoie (France) and Director of the research laboratory EDYTEM (Environment, Dynamic and Mountain Areas). He led the scientific committee which advised the French government on the famous Chauvet cave facsimile. Geneste is at the Université de Bordeaux 1 and for more than 25 years has focused research on Palaeolithic sites in France.
The Kimberley Visions team has travelled northwards into the Kimberley this winter for four weeks. It is the start of their three-month field season beginning in the Drysdale River National Park then heading further north east into the King George River and ending with a coastal survey.
Led by Professor Peter Veth, the researchers are in the second year of a five-year journey examining art styles across northern Australia. The UWA team will be accompanied by French archaeologist Jean Michele Geneste, Dr Bruno David, Traditional Owners and Balanggarra Rangers, as well as the Dating research team from The University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.
The researchers are exploring whether similar styles occurred between the Kimberley and Arnhem Land. This research will shape our current understandings about shared traditions and why and if they have changed through time.
Last year the team established a number of recording systems including digital recording forms that work within a photographic and geographic information system database, gathering their data from three catchment areas − Drysdale River, King George River and Forrest River.
Approximately 50 rock art sites were visited and recorded in the Drysdale River region with two selected for excavation. A further 195 rock art sites were visited and recorded in the King George region with two sites selected for excavation, including the first open site excavation undertaken in the Kimberley.
In 2017 the Kimberley Visions team will:
• Start a new group of four PhD candidates to study aspects of art style and identity, distribution and connection, age and cultural context;
• Expand survey area, excavating and recording at sites along the Drysdale and King George River catchments; and
• Continue research at Wanjina rock shelter with laser imaging, excavation and geomorphology with French colleagues.
Peter Veth (UWA) and Bruno David (Monash University) led three excavations at Wandjina Rock shelter and at another site with more than 1,000 cupules. John-Jacques Dellanoy from the French National Centre for Scientific Research carried out geomorphic interpretations of the formation history of the shelter and helped direct excavation towards recovery of wall fragments, possibly with art on them. A rich record of flaked and ground stone artefacts, grinding slabs, ochre and hearths have been recovered with samples being submitted for dating. Further work will be carried out at this rich site in 2017.
At Oomarri on the King George River Traditional Owner Ambrose Chalarimeri and the Balanggarra Indigenous Protected Area Rangers oversaw and participated in an ambitious excavation program at a major site complex on a lake and adjacent a very rich rock art locale. Covering several hectares this occupation site was excavated to below 2.20 metres revealing intact hearth stone arrangements, flaking floors and implement production areas. Optical stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and 14C samples were taken. Another excavation was carried out in a smaller shelter with art as well as dating of crusts and mud wasp nests. Over 150 new sites and complexes were recorded at Oomarri and surrounds. The survey and excavation program will continue in 2017.
The UWA team returned with staff from Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile and La Trobe University to complete the third month of fieldwork during September in the Forrest River catchment. They surveyed, often for the first time, areas for rock art and occupation sites with Rangers and Traditional Owners using helicopter, boats and on foot.
Unlocking Environmental Archives
Led by Associate Professor Hamish McGowan, Climate Research Group, The University of Queensland, and includes Dr Patrick Moss, The University of Queensland, Dr Samuel Marx, The University of Wollongong and Dr Andrew Hammond, University of Central Queensland, Mackay.
Mrs Emily Field (PhD Candidate), Professor Hamish McGowan and Associate Professor Patrick Moss; Climate Research Group, School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management; The University of Queensland, Brisbane. Dr Samuel Marx, Wollongong Isotope Geochronology Lab (WIGL), School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Wollongong.
Project Aim: To develop new, high temporal resolution multi-proxy paleoclimate records for the Kimberley. The objective is to gain insight into late Quaternary environmental conditions including vegetation, climate (precipitation, temperature and atmospheric circulation), and anthropogenic burning.
Additional pollen and charcoal analysis has been conducted in 2015 on the Black Springs sediment core collected in 2005 by Dr Grahame Walsh and Dr Andrew Hammond from North Kimberley. This additional analysis has increased the temporal resolution of the record published by McGowan et al., 2012 and has extended this record from ~6000 cal. yrs BP to ~9000 cal. yrs BP with reliable age control.
Understanding of the late Quaternary environment of Australia’s vast Kimberley region has to date been hindered by the region’s lack of classic palaeoenvironmental archives such as deep lake sediments. However, mound spring peat deposits in the region have been found to be a potentially rich archive of palaeoenvironmental data.
A high resolution record from Black Springs mound spring in the Kimberley’s northwest is filling some of the current gaps in knowledge of the region’s environmental history. See recent publication
Sediment records to shed light on climate and environmental change
A team of researchers from The University of Queensland and University of Wollongong is using microscopic fossils found in sediments at a spring in the northwest Kimberley to reconstruct the region’s environmental history.
Early results show dramatic fluctuations in monsoon rainfall over the last 15,000 years followed by a sharp reduction in rainfall around 2,600 years before present, before recovering to conditions similar to present-day around 1,000 years ago.
Additional springs were sampled in the 2015 dry season with various elements extracted from sediments for scientific dating. With input from experts at the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation, dating of these sediments is being used to pinpoint when changes in the fossil record occurred. The degree of similarity between the site will then shed light on whether the changes seen in sediment records are the result of regional synchronous climate and environmental change or are simply local in nature.
Environmental Transformations linked to Early Human Occupation in Northern Australia*
Led by Dr Simon Haberle [Australian National University], with Dr George Perry (University of Auckland), Dr Simon Connor, Prof Peter Kershaw and Dr Sander van der Kaars (Monash Uni).
How have interactions between climatic change, human activities and other disturbances over thousands of years shaped the landscapes we know today in Australia? Existing lines of evidence from palaeoecological and archaeological sources point to significant changes to biodiversity, vegetation cover, and fire frequency since the arrival of people into Australia sometime between 50000-40000 yr BP. The extent to which humans influenced or overrode natural processes through time remains unclear. High-resolution, multi-proxy data in an innovative vegetation and megafaunal reconstruction will provide the first quantitative assessment of the response of Australian tropical savannas in the Kimberley region to a range of natural and anthropogenic influences.
This project will use cutting-edge palaeoecological proxy analyses and modeling to reconstruct the response of Australian savanna to human and climate driven change over 1000s of years. The results will provide significant insight in to how climate change and people impacted on social, biological and physical systems in Australia.
Current (ARC funding) * This project is Stage 2 of the KFA-funded Palaeoecological project featured below.
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