In 2012 the Kimberley Foundation Australia (KFA) pledged its support for a major Rock Art Dating Project. For the last three years KFA and the Australian Research Council 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. The project is now in its third year of a three year term with a new 5-year extension 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 commences July 2016.
Dating the Aboriginal rock art of the Kimberley region, WA – landscape geochemistry, surface processes and complementary dating techniques
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.
May 2016 excerpt from KFA Winter Newsletter:
Concerted effort and technical firepower focused on dating Australian rock art continues
On the eve of their third field season (July 2016) researchers on the KFA-sponsored Rock Art Dating project are excited to be going back into the field next month. Their goal is to return to sites visited last year and collect multi-layered mineral accretions on and off rock art to substantiate their work to date on uranium series and radiocarbon dating.
Considerable progress has been made on sample material from the 2015 field seasons at coastal and inland sites in the north Kimberley with more than 30 radiocarbon dates measured over the last few months on material from mud wasp nests to test suitability for dating rock art. The first results from cosmogenic radionuclide dating are also now underway.
Working with Balanggarra Traditional Owners, archaeologists from the University of Western Australia, nuclear physicists and geoscientists from ANSTO, the University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong, the multidisciplinary team has analysed radioactive decay within tiny flakes of mineral crusts that have developed over or been present underneath paintings, gradually narrowing age brackets on the art with hundreds of samples.
The team at the University of Melbourne has identified magnesium phosphate minerals on the art that consistently contain traces of uranium. This characterisation forms the basis of ongoing efforts by Dr Helen Green to develop a robust uranium-series dating method applicable to sandstone landscapes, which opens up a whole new system for dating rock art, separate to carbon dating. So far, 88 uranium-series dates have been determined and the work on mineral accretion characterisation and uranium series dating methods is now in preparation for publication.
A major challenge facing the research is to determine how much decay-product Thorium was present when the mineral accretions formed. This ‘initial’ Thorium content needs to be known in order to produce reliable dates. The objective now is to collect additional thick, ‘off art’ samples from inland sites which can be used to characterise variations in initial Thorium concentration over time at various locations.
“We have made great strides in understanding how these different dating systems can be applied to Kimberley rock art sites and are now getting our first results on samples directly related to the art itself says Project Leader Prof. Andy Gleadow.
“The results still need a lot of work on them but the first indications are very encouraging.
Regardless of how old the art proves to be, the dating methods will have wide applicability and the results will reveal how changes in the art related to an evolving natural environment. Putting a solid date on our relatively unsung treasure will guide conservation plans into the future – a major objective for the KFA.
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.
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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