rock art

A strange small-scale rock art discovery surprises Archaeologists

In northern Australia, a recent archaeological discovery revealed unique assemblage of small-scale rock art, that included; anthropomorphs, material culture, macropod tracks and geometric designs, raising questions about the type of material used in their creation.

Australia is known to have a large variety of diverse stencilled rock art assemblages. A stencil is an artifact in archaeological terms, and refers to negative images that are created by blowing/spraying paint around an object held against a rock surface. The most common types of stencilled artifacts include human bodies, body parts (hands, feet), plant matter (twigs, leaves), wooden or fiber objects (axes, spear-throwers, boomerangs, bags)
zoomorphs (fish, snakes, birds, macropod legs, tails, paws, feet), and and contact-themed artifacts like metal knives, metal axes, horseshoes, and tobacco tins.

By studying the archaeological and ethnographic records, archaeologists and anthropologists gain key insights into the diverse meanings associated with stenciled artifacts/motifs, including their importance as identity markers, e.g. narratives of events involving people or ancestral beings, ownership of land, ceremony/rituals, children’s toys and memorials.

Rock art discovery in Australia

Rock art discovered in Australia shows diverse and culturally complex nature of stenciled motifs with unique stenciling techniques. These include composite stenciling, when an object is stenciled several times in different directions to create a motif, and ‘hand masks,’ where hands and fingers are positioned to create a shape for stenciling.

Stencils in Australian rock art have received a lot of attention in both full and life-sized materials to create stencil templates, and related social and cultural dimensions. But little has been recorded or known about stenciled artifacts that do not conform to full- and life-sized dimensions. In 2017, a rock art recording project led to the discovery of unique assemblage of small-scaled stenciled artifacts, that consisted of anthropomorphs, macropod tracks, and other geometric and linear designs at Yilbilinji rockshelter (that was owned by the Marra Aboriginal people) in Limmen National Park.

Yilbilinji rock art site
Image Credit: Flinders University
Yilbilinji rockshelter, a rock art site in Australia

Australian researchers from Flinders University and Monash University, identified small-scale stencils that were found to be less than 0.12 m in length owned by the Marra people. These small scale objects are extremely rare in the archaeological record both in Australia and in the rest of the world. Due to which the present discovery offers an opportunity to develop new insights into this form of unique rock art.

“It’s the size of the rock art that makes this site unusual and unique,” says Flinders University archaeologist Dr. Liam Brady. “Usually, stenciled rock art around the world consists of full or life-sized dimensions such as human and animal body parts, or objects (like boomerangs, metal objects), and even plant matter. “However, many of the stencils found at the Yilbilinji site are small scaled, and too tiny to have been made using real-life body parts and full-size objects.” Only two other examples of this small scaled stenciled type rock art, are known in the world: one at Nielson’s Creek in New South Wales, and one at Kisar Island in Indonesia.

Liam M. Brady, a co-author of the study and his team published their results in Antiquity journal. By using experimental archaeology and ethnographic data, the team tried to uncover the secrets related to the material type used in the creation of the stencil templates, along with the significance of the material used and its value for the Aboriginal people who created them.

The images show a wide range of miniature stencil motifs including, human figures, animals (crab, turtles), kangaroo paws, wavy lines, boomerangs, and geometric shapes. These motifs had rounded and curved edges which meant that they were probably made using something that could be easily molded and stuck to the rock surface. Co-author and anthropologist Dr. John Bradley from Monash Indigenous Centre, worked with Aboriginal people for more than 40 years. He remembers watching Aboriginal people using beeswax for different purposes such as an adhesive for repairing harpoons and spears, along with children using beeswax into objects and animals e.g. cattle and horses.

Using clues like these, the researchers decided to experiment with beeswax to understand if beeswax could be used to create miniature stencils. The experiments involved heating and reshaping beeswax into human figures, geometric shapes, animals, objects, and then stenciling onto a rock slab. This experiment confirmed that beeswax was an excellent material for making small scaled stencils.

“Whoever made these small sized stencils – adults or children – is open for debate, as is their meaning,” said Professor Amanda Kearney, a co-author of the study. “However, it is important to know that this discovery adds another dimension to the Australian and global rock art record,” she said. Since this discovery was made, three additional stencils have been discovered in the area – a human figure, an echidna and a freshwater turtle – which further highlights the archaeological potential at Limmen National Park.

Using beeswax to create rock art
Image Credit: Flinders University
Experiments conducted by using beeswax to test the method used to create the rock art
Using beeswax to create rock art
Image Credit: Flinders University
Experimental archaeology: recreating the stencils using beeswax


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