Blasting The Colonial Past
By Debra JopsonMarch 11, 2013
The history of British settlement was written into sandstone by Australia’s Aboriginal people – but a mixture of disregard and “progress” has put these precious rock-art records at risk.
Archaeologist Wayne Brennan swigs from a plastic bottle and explodes water from his mouth over the delicate lines of a tall ship, carved between two emus. The spray throws more contrast on the grey rock. And there in the harsh glare of the Australian sun, the ship’s jaunty sails are clearly set before a stiff Union Jack.
“The interesting thing with this one,” says Brennan, some 200 years after the image was engraved by an unknown artist, “is the two emus are going in the same direction as the ship, as if they are escorting it.”
The Blue Mountains engraving, some 100 kilometres by bush trek at the time from Sydney, must have been made from memory; it could have been made with an axe acquired from the settlers themselves, Brennan says. The art, he suggests, was a way of plugging the newcomers into the cosmology of the Dreaming, the indigenous creation stories that pass knowledge and values through Aboriginal generations; Brennan even imagines a ceremony two centuries ago at this site, involving an emu dance and someone dressed up as the three-masted ship with its strange cargo.
This is the British invasion through Aboriginal eyes.
Like Stonehenge (With a Road Through It)
In its gum-tree gallery, this rendering of a ship is what’s known as a ‘contact work’, a rare form of rock art in which indigenous people worldwide recorded impressions of newcomers to their lands.
“We have a historic record from the indigenous peoples themselves, rather than the conquering group of peoples,” says Griffith University Professor of Archaeology Paul Taçon. He calls the contact art “a third archive to be used in conjunction with both oral history and written documents”.
In the north, a mining boom is the primary threat; in the south, the principal risks come from urban creep, vandalism and sheer neglect. Australia has made an inventory of roughly one-third of its rock art, critics say. It has been mean with its money, they say, and slack in formulating and enforcing laws to protect a heritage that belongs to the entire planet.
Under Taçon’s stewardship, a team including Brennan, a tousle-haired mountain-dweller of Kamilaroi descent, has recently completed a study of Australia’s oldest contact rock art.
During the course of their project, named Picturing Change, Taçon’s researchers investigated contact images in Arnhem Land, the Pilbara, Central Australia and the greater Blue Mountains, recording many of them for the first time. A summary of their findings was published last November in A Companion to Rock Art (Blackwell Publishing).
The first known contact artwork in Australia depicts Macassan (Indonesian) arrivals, visitors more benign than the subsequent European colonisers. The Indonesians came to trade, and the artwork, estimated to be at least 350 years old, is of a sailing boat, drawn in ochre.
Later works reflect the power imbalance between Aborigines and those who came to stay.
In the Pilbara, in the north of Western Australia, “rock documents”, as University of Western Australia archaeologist Alistair Paterson calls them, include an image of a pastoral station boss wagging his finger at some lackey. Other images made on rural properties in this area between about 1860 and 1890 depict horses, guns, pipes with tobacco and even pearl-diving, although they may be on rocks far from the coast. Paterson thinks the artists may have been using rock art as an attempt to communicate with with the newcomers.
“The fact that it’s at the stations indicates some of the art is open...in the same way that graffiti is an open communication — everyone’s meant to see it,” he says.
THROUGH THE MARKS made on the landscape itself, we can imagine those times when indigenous artists observed European newcomers with their strange trappings. Half of Australia’s contact artwork depicts watercraft. But the land’s crusty surface has also been etched, scrawled and painted with images representing all forms of European-introduced transport: biplanes, cars, trucks, bikes, horses and camels. Artists also tried to capture the likenesses of other animals that were new to them, such as pigs and cattle.
Many of the images have a haunting quality: ochres of police in Far North Queensland, painted by the Aboriginal men whom they hunted; a ghostly ship rendered in charcoal in a Hawkesbury rock shelter, which has been identified using colonial records as likely to be the HMS Lady Nelson, a British brigantine; and the shadowy shape of a Pilbara pastoralist’s wife in an ankle-length dress, engraved by an unknown artist who must have spied on her.
If Australia’s colonialists had the feeling there were eyes watching them from the bush, these images confirm that there were. The rock artists recorded the peculiarities of the people who were taking over their lands, including their hats, pipes, boots and hands on hips. Most of the subjects probably never knew their portraits were being made.
The results are not entirely flattering. The “hands on hips” pose seems to have become a sort of shorthand for colonialists in rock art across Australia (and also among native artists in North America, southern Africa and Malaysia, as code to denote Europeans).
“This common genre of portrayal makes a powerful statement about how arriving Europeans were viewed – perhaps as an arrogant, domineering and condescending people,” Taçon and colleagues have written.
SYDNEY was Australia’s first cataclysmic point of colonial contact — and indigenous contact art is rare around the city’s rocks.
Archaeologist Jo McDonald, who has studied the artwork of the Sydney region extensively, says the First Fleeters of 1788 believed the whale, bird and spirit figure engravings to be doodles made by children.
In a 2008 study, McDonald — who has since become the Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art at the University of Western Australia — found just 16 engraved figures and 21 drawings and stencils depicting “contact” in the Sydney region.
The sparsity of Sydney’s contact art is a poignant reminder of the people who had but a fleeting glimpse of their colonisers before they themselves were gone.
“Within the first 18 months [of European arrival], the [Aboriginal] population was decimated by disease. It means the rock art finished very quickly after white people arrived,” McDonald says.
Further afield, at Wollombi, in New South Wales, there is a charcoal drawing of a human figure with a ball and chain, probably a convict. Near Maroota, there is an engraving of a woman in a dress, with the outline of a man in a top hat nearby pecked into the rock, as if unfinished.
And Bull Cave, in Campbelltown, contains drawings of cattle, probably the animals that escaped from the colony in 1788. Recently this cave was vandalised with racist graffiti.
And deep in the hills behind Sydney, where the rare Wollemi pine was discovered, in an area which is even now accessible only by helicopter or after some days’ journey on foot, Taçon, Brennan and others uncovered a story of people fleeing invasion, conflict and disease. Those blighted people made pictures of a pig, horses, a ship and a musket and they revisited these traditional sites to re-outline their charcoal drawings in white clay.
“People were retreating to more out-of-the-way places where they were safe and not being forced off the land and going through massacres and terrible destruction,” Taçon says. “They weren’t staying there long because there was not enough water and food, but they were re-engaging with the landscape and tapping into the power of that place.”
“CONTACT” WROUGHT havoc on indigenous people; now, a surge of development is sweeping up contact art in a sort of double dispossession. The migrants and their descendants who populated the nation since 1788 are now eradicating the Aboriginal record of their own history.
Of course, rock art both ancient and modern is gradually being lost due to natural forces – constantly eroded and destroyed by fire, insects, feral animals, water and wind.
And wherever the bush meets the populace, utility companies, road builders, developers with shovels and diggers, lawns and mowers, kids on bikes, graffitists and souvenir hunters wreak an often mindless destruction on historical works.
Brennan, who lives at Blackheath, showed The Global Mail two imperilled Blue Mountains rock-art sites rich in Aboriginal history, and dating back thousands of years.
At a site known as Twin Shelters, two caves hover in the bush above a cutting and road once made by a mining company. It has somehow been marked on motorists’ maps, and tourists regularly clamber up the bush paths to reach the caves, where they scatter sediment which Brennan says is rich with archaeological material.
On the cave floor, beneath fading rock art, these crumbling hearth deposits hold stories of ancient fireplaces around which Aboriginal people have sat over thousands of years.
“By the week, by the month, by the year, we are losing valuable information about the site,” Brennan says.
In one cave, red-ochre goannas erode through natural weathering and perhaps, tourists’ touching, while in the other, a stunning stencil of a coolamon – a wooden dish commonly used by women – a digging stick beside it, has been graffitied with initials in charcoal.
Someone has chiselled the name “Jack Carlson” on a wall, underneath a series of the stencilled hands of children who long-ago pressed their small palms onto the stone while someone blew wet red clay over them.
At Emu Cave, on a Blue Mountains spur northeast of Twin Shelters, about 20 metres from the highway, more than 100 vertical emu tracks are carved into the cave wall. All it would take to lose them is for the NSW Government to widen the Bells Line of Road, Brennan told The Global Mail.
And the state Government is planning a highway upgrade.
Here, some of the emu tracks have been dated as at least 2,000 years old, but given the difficulties of getting a reliable age for engravings, the art could in fact be more than 8,000 years old, Brennan says.
Emu Cave has in relatively recent times been used to house an alcohol still, and itinerant people have also made their home within it. At its entrance it bears a sign carved into the rock: “The Cave Hotel. By T. Shearwood.” Subsequent graffitists have added names, initials and dates to the cave walls.
Brennan worries not only about more vandalism, but about vibration from trucks that roar past damaging the art at Emu Cave.
SOME ROCK ART carries within it the meaning of ancient Aboriginal law, but now its survival depends on the laws the colonisers imported from Britain.
“Although various forms of legislation make it an offence to disturb a rock-art site this has not stopped a rise in graffiti, vandalism, and damage from development,” Taçon told the federal department responsible for heritage last year.
Paul Morris, the chief executive of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, which covers a large swathe of Sydney, has complained that development has been allowed to roll over valuable art sites.
Brennan believes that the NSW laws protecting cultural heritage were weaker when the road was built between the Twin Shelters, and that there has been no effective remediation since that time.
Although developers and miners can still be fined under current legislation for having failed to properly remediate in the past, Brennan says, “It’s a toothless tiger. They slap them on the wrist and say: ‘Don’t do it next time, naughty boy.’ Very few people have been successfully prosecuted under heritage legislation.”
Following questions from The Global Mail, the NSW Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, said that the Office of Environment and Heritage is now investigating the Twin Shelters site.
NSW legislation was strengthened three years ago, with the result that companies that breach laws protecting Aboriginal heritage face penalties of up to $1.1 million dollars — increased from $22,000 — Parker says.
Parker says she is committed to stand-alone legislation protecting of Aboriginal heritage, rather than keeping it as part of the Act governing national parks management.
“Australia needs a national rock-art heritage strategy — it has never had one. We need an inventory of the nation's rock art, a database that can be used to help manage and protect the art for future generations. Currently, we do not even have a top-100 list, let alone a central register,” Taçon says.
Several sources have told The Global Mail that in NSW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service record of Aboriginal sites is incomplete and inaccurate.
Minister Parker responded that information about Aboriginal rock art is held in a central database, which now has more than 70,000 entries about all types of indigenous cultural heritage.
Yet in one Sydney’s most prominent and culturally significant places, where thousands of people attend the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, they walk past an engraving of a whale-like creature with gills on a rock beside the Bondi to Tamarama cliffside pathway,without even knowing it’s there.
Taçon sees this as a result of a “disconnect” which can be rectified because, he says, when people are told or shown the riches of rock art they usually want to preserve it.
In modern Australia, where the artistic heritage is of such bewildering scope, it is perhaps easier to pay homage to the modern. While the National Gallery of Australia famously spent a then-record $1.3 million for Jackson Pollock’s painting Blue Poles in 1973, and three years ago, the Art Gallery of NSW acquired Sidney Nolan’s First Class Marksman for $5.4 million, we have not yet seen fit to spend proportionally adequate sums to protect the cultural riches of our ancient outdoor art.
Robert Bednarik, the Melbourne-based convenor of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations, is scathing in comparing the French commitment to its rock art at Lascaux with Australia’s lack of effort to conserve its remarkable heritage.
“We are talking tens of millions per year [spent on conserving Lascaux]. Australia has not spent $10 million on rock art in its entire history,” he says.
He plans to heavily lobby political candidates in the lead-up to the September federal election, seeking a strong commitment to protect this heritage.
“Above all else, we need a sizable financial commitment from government, industry and the community. The alternative is to continue to sit on our hands, idly watching Australia’s incredible rock art heritage turn to dust.”
McDonald says that miners’ and developers’ offsets are used to fund conservation of some rock art. But not all of it can be saved, and it is important to record and protect the most precious art precincts, she says. The could be recorded digitally to enhance everyone’s appreciation, she said.
“You could do a virtual tour of a site from your desk or at a museum or interpretation centre,” she says.
Taçon has made a start on recording rock art and also making it more accessible to those who may never get to see it in situ by contributing rock art photos to the Google Art Project. Art museums from all over the world post images to this site for people everywhere to enjoy. Taçon’s research centre at Griffith University has so far provided 70 photos.
THERE ARE SOME ROCK-ART SITES THAT, for now, seem safe from both mining and encroaching hordes of people.
Artworks on certain Pilbara pastoral stations are protected by their remoteness, Paterson says.
Only those in the know would be able to find the engraving on a hillside rock above the ruins of a farmhouse where, sometime in the late 19th century, an unknown artist captured a woman wearing a long dress with a bustle and carrying an implement which is possibly a broom, a gun or a parasol.
One Aboriginal researcher said he was chilled to think of her looking up, knowing that men were in the hills watching her. Both the artist and the woman who long ago displaced him from his own country live on in his work.
In the Blue Mountains, Wayne Brennan finds cause for hope at Ticehurst Park, where City Council conservationists recently rehabilitated a site.
Here, visitors can follow the footprints of anthropomorphic beings – possibly half-human, half-emu – across a rock platform to carved waterholes and a group of engraved emus.
A clean-up team has eradicated graffiti, tamed an invading lawn and, working with members of the local Aboriginal community, re-grooved several engravings. This should stop members of the public clumsily scratching the artworks themselves, Brennan said.
The art hangs on a rock between the huddle of suburbia – where fences lean and dogs bark just 10 metres away – and a swathe of olive-green bushland which plunges down a hillside. Above the ancient markings power lines hover, and highway traffic roars nearby.
Here lies the spirit of Australia.