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Art from the dreamtime.

"Our story is the land ... it is written in those sacred places. My children will look after those places, that's the law. Dreaming place ... you can't change it, no matter who you are. No matter you rich man. no matter you King. You can't change it."

Big Bill Neidjie, 1983. (Australian Aborigine from the Kakadu area, quoted from Kakadu Man.)

Looking Carefully

The "painting" on the following pages is an example of the rock art of the aboriginal Wardaman culture of Australia's Northern Territory. Rock art consists of simple marks, symbols or complex images that have been pecked, incised, drawn, painted, stamped or sprayed on a rock surface. When the mark-making technique involves pecking with a sharp stone, incising or engraving areas into the rock, it is called a petroglyph. Pictographs are produced by drawing, painting, stamping or spraying pigment onto the rock. Different techniqnes may be combined in a single motif or found in a large panel of rock art that may span thousands of years and several cultures.

This particular rock art panel depicts the Lightning Brothers, important ancestral beings in the Wardaman culture. The two figures are almost on a human scale. They face outward from the vertical surface of a rock shelter that may have been used for artistic put poses for thousands of years.

The physical permanence of these images of important ancestral beings is thought to be linked to their continued spiritual presence. Therefore, the images are periodically redrawn or repainted. This retouching is accompanied by the appropriate ceremonial singing, dancing or reenactment of an event. Of course, this is possible only as long as members of the tribe survive. Old and faded images not associated with a tribe's oral tradition may simply be painted over with new rock art.

The senior tradition owner of the tribe is responsible for the site, its rock art, the performance of ceremonial obligations and the associated oral mythology of the site. However, even he dare not enter a sacred site without announcing his presence to the spirit and requesting permission to enter. The ancestral beings exist in the Dreamtime, a mythic period encompassing the distant and recent past as well as the present. It is an era of creation, heroic deeds and the giving of the laws to guide aboriginal life.

The Lightning Brothers depicted in this photograph are among the most important ancestral figures of the Wardaman people. In the Dreamtime, these two figures, Jabaringi and his older brother Yagjadbula, began fighting. The battle continued until Jabaringi's headdress was knocked off by his brother's stone ax. The headdress fell to the earth and turned to stone. The fight was stopped by the arrival of the women of the tribe. The Lightning Brothers then painted images of themselves on a rock that had been split by a boomerang during the fight. In October, at the end of the dry season, the Wardaman return to this site to make the rains come by cutting "old man lightning" to make him bleed.

The Lightning Brother figures may be found on many sites throughout the traditional Wardaman country. Notice the red and white vertical stripes on these particular figures. The Brothers typically have a vertical, central, black stripe which denotes strength and manhood. Black eyes and ears represent their great ability to withstand the flash of lightning and the crashing sound of thunder as reproduced by a stone ax striking rock during the Dreamtime battle.


The complex rock art gallery seen in the photograph on this page may resemble a chalkboard after a teacher has left the classroom. The marks and symbols on the chalkboard may be indecipherable when seen out of context although they made sense to the class being taught at the time. So, too, the 'lessons" taught by the many aboriginal groups over thousands of years and recorded on this rock shelter wall may be without their original meanings. However, we can still admire the masterful use of line, texture and form while we interpret and record fragments of almost vanished cultures.

While we do not have the original aboriginal people's oral tradition to give us insight as we view the imagery, we may still be able to empathize with the artist/creators. Was the mabung (incision) in the rock, part of an initiation rite in which mabung were also made on the body? Did the depiction of an animal accompany a request for permission to kill it or for the necessary skill to accomplish the task? The Dreaming Track is the journey of the Rainbow Serpent during the creation era of the Dreamtime. Does the representation of this great ancestral being represent a specific event that occurred during this journey?

The panel also includes examples of contact art, recent art depicting the Ballanda (Europeans) standing with cowboy hats or on horseback. The Ballanda were typically represented as smaller than aboriginal persons, animals or spirit beings. Similarities may be found in the drawing styles of naive or folk artists or even the work of young children.

Key Concepts

* Rock art consists of pictographs and petroglyphs.

* Pictographs are produced by stamping drawing, painting or spraying pigment on a rock surface.

* Petroglyphs are produced by pecking, incising, engraving or abrading simple marks, symbols or complex images into rock.

* Oral tradition is the knowledge of the past committed to memory by special individuals of the tribe. A senior tradition owner is the authority on the oral tradition associated with a specific site.

* Contact art depicts encounters with non-aboriginal culture.

Rock Art

Rock art usually occurs in areas that are protected from the storms of the rainy season and where there are also adequate sources of fresh water and food nearby. The artist's materials include charcoal and pieces of yellow, red and white ochre, readily picked up in a nearby stream bed. A chunk of ochre can be rubbed against the rock surface or ground into a pigment by rubbing the ochre with a smooth stone within a depression of a larger stone. A similar technique has been used by primitive cultures all over the world to grind grain. If the pigment is to be applied wet, fluids such as water, urine or animal blood, are used as binders to help adhere tire pigment to the rock surface. In some areas, moisture and geological processes create a natural, more permanent bond between the ochre and its rock support.

The antiquity of rock art may be determined by archaeological excavation when permitted by law, local agencies or property owners of the site. Careful removal of thin layers of occupational debris may reveal organic material (seeds, hair, plant or bone fragments, ashes, etc.). If these organic materials are located at the same level as a shell, bits of ochre, worked stone objects, or paint flakes and fragments fallen from the rock art, they may reveal the rock art's age. The content of the artwork itself may provide a clue to its antiquity. On a site in Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, depictions of a rhinoceros-like prehistoric marsupial, the diprotodon, were found. This beast is believed to have become extinct some 31,000 years ago. This may well be the world's oldest art.

Rock art is found in areas throughout the world from the magnificent Lascaux Caves of France to the British Isles, Greenland, North Africa and the Americas. Thousands of sites exist in the southwest and western United States. While many of these sites are quite rich in imagery, they pale in comparison to the overwhelming abundance of sites, variety of motifs and styles, and the richness that results front the approximate 50,000 years that Australian Aboriginal culture has survived. Several of the richest and most unique rock art galleries in the world can be found in the Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory and in the lands of the Wardaman people, an area of over 21,00 square miles located south of Darwin and west of Katherine.

Professor Charles Peterson has pursued an interest in documenting rock art of the American southwest for many years. During the summer of 1989 he had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological expedition in the remote Northern territory of Australia. The expedition, supported by the United States Earthwatch program was led by Dr. Josephine Flood, an archaeologist with the Australian Heritage Commission. Rock art motifs were documented through sketches, written narrative and photographs taken by Professor Peterson and other members of the team. The photographs appearing in this article are the first to be published an these particular rock art petroglyphs.

Suggested Activities


* Have students develop and sketch personal symbols to visually represent an important place in their life's "Dreaming Track."

* Have students collect artifacts of their own culture and trace the objects on pieces of different colored construction paper. Create a cut-paper collage out of the different objects.


* Study rock art of the American South west, the Anasazi, the Sinigwa, or the Hohokam civilization to determine their chronology. What are common and recurring rock art motifs and what is known of their meanings? Have students write a research paper on the art of the culture of their choice.

* Have the students create a drawing or painting in the style of the aboriginal rock artists that depicts a myth or story pertinent to their own lives.

* Study reproductions of the rock art paintings of animals from Lascaux. Compare the depiction of animals with those of the American Indian, Bosch or Durer. Have the students draw or paint an animal influenced by one of these styles.



Davis, Stephen and Allan Fox. Kakadu Man.-... Bill Neidjie. Darwin, Australia: Re source Managers Pry. Ltd., 1986.

Flood, Josephine. Archaeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney, Australia: William Collins Pty. Ltd., 1983.

Sutton, Peter, et al. Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1988.

Walsh, Grahame L. Australia's Greatest Rock Art. E.J. Brill/Robert Brown and Associates (Aust) Pty. Ltd., 1988.


The Land of the Lightning Brothers, (26 min.). Film Australia, 1987. Eton Road, Lindfield NSW 2070, Australia.

Australia's Art of the Dreamtime, (60 min.). GIN-Great Plains National Instructional Television Library, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Charles R. Peterson is Director of Young Artist Workshops, and Professor of Art, St. Norberts College, DePere, Wisconsin.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:the study of petroglyph, rock art
Author:Peterson, Charlres
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Promoting intercultural exchange: artwork, videos and ideas.
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