Scientists document painted portals to a vanished past
Victoria Laurie From: The Australian May 12, 2010 12:00AM
LAST year, archeologist Mike Morwood and rock art specialist June Ross took the ride of their lifetime across the northwest Kimberley. They hired a helicopter and flew across largely trackless territory, their pilot landing periodically in spots where he felt he could get his helicopter down safely and where they believed a good rock art site might lie.
Their journey took them from Bigge Island, one of the Kimberley's largest offshore landmasses, east to inland pastoral stations, and north as far as the rugged Drysdale River National Park, the Kimberley's largest park that lacks an airstrip, ranger station or even a single road.
The pair's aerial reconnoitre recorded 27 locations in which they documented a total of 54 rock art sites. "It was an absolute revelation," Ross recalls. "What struck us was how many rock art sites there are, and we developed a great admiration for the artists who made them."
Across the Kimberley, hundreds of thousands of paintings lie in rock overhangs and caves, often behind curtains of tropical vines. Dappled light plays over the surface of hauntingly beautiful images that have made the region famous: Gwion Gwion or Bradshaw paintings depicting slender dancing figures in mulberry coloured ochre or younger images of Wandjina spirits, wide-eyed and startlingly white despite the passage of years.
But who were these prodigious artists, when did they come and what other traces did they leave of their presence? Such questions are among the most crucial in Australian archeology, according to Morwood and Ross. Like Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, they say, the Kimberley may hold vital clues to understanding the origins of the first Australians.
"In fact, given the proximity of island southeast Asia and the relatively short water crossing required at times of lowered sea level, the Kimberley was a likely beach-head for the initial peopling of Australia," Morwood says.
In a bid to give substance to such speculation, Morwood, Ross and a team of multidisciplinary scientists will spend next month in the Kimberley, in the first of three expeditions to be conducted in successive years. It marks a new era in archeological exploration in the region, where previous work on only a few sites dates back nearly 20 years.
Morwood's hope is that intensive study of selected sites will build up a picture of human occupancy and the sequence of rock painting styles, which "may prove one of the longest and most complex anywhere in the world".
He says the area has a long history of human occupation, dating back 43,000 years or more. "There are caves and open sites around swamps, graves, dreaming tracks, rain forests, so who knows what rich areas there are."
Morwood has a track record for unearthing contentious finds. His previous work on excavations in rural Indonesia led to the discovery of the Flores hobbit or Homo floresiensis, the near-complete skeleton of a previously unknown species of human.
Ross is an expert in the rock art of central Australia, research that has required her to drive for hours across sand dunes to reach desert sites; she once punctured eight tyres on one stretch alone.
Both scientists say the logistics of working in the Kimberley will be as challenging as anything they've experienced. Individuals can reach the expedition area only by helicopter and they must camp in tiny tents among heat-radiating rock escarpments.
In three years, the team will excavate sites around the Lawley River, Mitchell Plateau and lower Mitchell River. This year's sites lie a short helicopter trip from the picturesque Mitchell Falls, a location known to tourists travelling the Gibb River Road in the dry season. Many of them take a detour into Mitchell River National Park to see its waterfalls and rock art sites.
The geology of the Kimberley is a factor that acts in the researchers' favour. In many parts of Australia, friable rock surfaces cause art to erode or flake from the surface and disappear, Ross explains. "But in the Kimberley, the paint remains in the rock as a stain. And the rock surfaces are dense quartzite and sandstone, which are hard, very resistant to weathering and break down very, very slowly."
While geology helps, a hostile climate acts against them. In most parts of the world, cave floors are covered with telltale debris, including layers of paint and charcoal from eons of human activity.
"But out of the 54 sites we've seen, few have any significant deposits at all," Ross says. "Think of the [ferocity of] cyclonic wet season rain, when a lot of the shelters would have been scoured out by floods. A huge amount of material is simply washed away."
To overcome this, the team will adopt a multidisciplinary approach. Kira Westaway from Macquarie University will use cutting-edge rock art dating techniques. Using pollen samples, Australian National University scientist Simon Haberle will determine the vegetation that grew near the caves and the influence of climatic changes on its growth. Geographer Murray Scown will map ancient river systems, pinpointing permanent water sources that may have led humans to make their home there.
Ross says: "We have to attack the problem with every possible tool. It's the direction that we have to go in archeology in Australia because we've got very few clues.
"We've had tantalising pieces of evidence in the last 20 years in archeological digs - from ground ochre to a smear of pigment on a rock - that indicate that the first Australians had the ability to produce art."
But the lack of accurate dating of much of the art remains an obstacle to understanding. Grahame Walsh, who died in 2007, made comprehensive surveys of rock art in the region and published books in 1994 and 2000. In them, Walsh aired contentious and speculative views that the art was created by a pre-Aboriginal civilisation, not the antecedents of today's indigenous people.
In the mid-1990s, Walsh accompanied Morwood and Ross to the northwest Kimberley to attempt the first scientific dating of rock art. At one site, they huddled around a fire waiting until it was pitch dark. "We'd then go out in the middle of the night and take samples from the rock art surface using a torch covered with a red filter," Ross says. "We were scraping a lump of mud from a wasp's nest off the wall, and taking rock grains from the bottom of it to analyse. It was all quite dramatic. The actual samples cannot be exposed to light because what we were measuring was the last time they had been exposed to light."
Luminescence dating by the University of Wollongong's Richard Roberts indicated the art was at least 17,000 years old.
This time, to avoid damaging the art, researchers will use a portable X-ray machine to measure the surfaces in situ.
Morwood and Ross will work alongside traditional owners from the Kandiwal community at Mitchell Falls. "We never forget that we are researching a living culture, albeit a changing one," Ross says.
Community members are keen to co-operate because they are concerned about the effect of growing tourist numbers and the threat of mining in the bauxite-rich Mitchell Plateau, Morwood adds. "If there is development coming, it's worth showing the art's significance now and not as an emergency response."
An $800,000 Australian Research Council grant will fund the surveys, which are also supported by the Kimberley Rock Art Foundation, a philanthropic group headed by Maria Myers, Walsh's former patron.
Room has been made for three PhD students to join the team and the positions have been advertised.
Morwood thinks their research may turn up some of the earliest evidence for human presence in Australia, dating back 50,000 years. Ross is more cautious: "I don't want to predict what we'll find . . . But I think the Kimberley will be hugely important in answering significant questions [in] Australian archeology."
1,000 ancient rock paintings found in east-central China
16:13, May 06, 2010
...a large cambered stone which is 8 meters long and 3.7 meters wide. There are more than 500 small craters of different sizes on the surface of the stone and several relatively larger craters that are 13 to 20 centimeters in diameter and three to seven centimeters in depth. These craters are connected by various lines, forming a very large ancient diagram (as shown in the above picture).
"It is quite incredible that a large stone goat carries 'Hetu and Luoshu' (map of the Yellow River and the book of the Luo River) on its back," Ma said.
The neck and back of the stone goat are carved with many craters. This is the first time that a Juci Mountain-style rock painting has been found on a stone animal, which is extremely rare and valuable.
Greenville, South Carolina, USA
Effort to preserve Pickens petroglyphs gets help from Natural Resources
Agency will help chisel away at fundraising goal for center
By Terry Cregar • Staff Writer • May 15, 2010
The agency is expected to announce the fundraising effort next week, with the money used to build the South Carolina Rock Art Center on the grounds of Hagood Mill Historic Site and Folklife Center.
The center is located off U.S. 178 north of Pickens.
Last fall, the Pickens County Cultural Commission launched a capital campaign toward raising money for the rock art center called “Preserving a Place of Ancient Voices.” So far that effort has brought in around $90,000, according to Allen Coleman, executive director of the Pickens County Museum and the Pickens County Cultural Commission.
A successful DNR campaign, which is part of that local effort, would give the center the money needed to complete the project, Coleman said.
The more than 40 carvings, including 17 rare human figures, were discovered in 2003 in a large rock outcropping toward the rear of the Hagood Mill property. According to DNR, petroglyphs carved by prehistoric American Indians are found at more that 300 sites in the state, most of them located in Pickens, Greenville and Oconee counties. Many are at high elevations and difficult to reach for the general public.
Some of the high-elevation petroglyphs are on the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges in northern Pickens County.
Coleman said the commission is revising the original plan for the rock art center to make the structure “blend” with the rest of the buildings at the Hagood Mill property. “We want to make it look more like the site, make it less slick-looking,” he said.
The structure's design will remain unchanged, he said.
Engraved menhir found in India
Mon, 10 May 2010 17:41:24 GMT
A freelance Indian archeologist has discovered an engraved megalith menhir on an open field about 100 kilometers from the southeastern city of Guntur.
K. Venkateshwara Rao found the menhir on the left bank of Nagaleuru, a tributary of the Krishna at Karampudi, The Hindu reported.
The Menhir, which dates back to the time between 1,000 and 300 BCE, stands alone facing the north-east and bears rock engravings at 8 to 9 feet off the ground.
Menhirs are remnants of the prehistoric megalithic civilization, when people used signs to communicate. Archaeological evidence also shows that they were used as places of worship.