Documenting the Kimberley’s Amazing Rock Art


NS Branch September 2020

Mike Donaldson, geologist, photographer and publisher, has journeyed to the Kimberley so many times over the last 30 years that he has lost count. At least once every year he sets off with a small band of friends and rock art enthusiasts to enjoy the wilderness and search for new rock art sites that date back perhaps 40,000 years BP.

The northwest Kimberley is only accessible by road in a couple of places so many of the excursions start and finish with a helicopter drop-off and pick-up a week or two later. The helicopter trip is also useful for spotting likely locations as the geology is important – rock art needs to be done on hard sandstone protected from the elements to survive and as these formations are more resistant to erosion they stand out from the air.

A source of water was as important to the original inhabitants for survival, as it is for the modern explorer, so many of the sites Mike has examined are along, or in close proximity to, the major rivers – the Charnley, King George, Lawley, Mitchell and Prince Regent, and their tributaries.

The International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) defines rock art as any non-utilitarian human markings on rock and this includes paintings, stencils, drawings, peckings, stone arrangements, cupules (poundings) and abraded grooves. Mike’s personal feeling is that the latter three are ritual or ceremonial in nature and not art. Rock art occurs all over the country almost wherever rocks outcrop, but there is no pan-Australia style, with the exception of hand stencils.

This led into the second half of Mike’s presentation in which he described and showed fantastic photos (he is an accomplished photographer) of the various styles of rock art, including numerous examples of super-positioning which allows the chronological sequence of the different styles to be established.

Mike spent time explaining the sequencing of the Bradshaw paintings, now referred to by the preferred indigenous name of Gwion. Amateur rock art researchers David Welch and Grahame Walsh established a detailed chronology, published by Walsh in 2000. Walsh categorised two early styles which he named ‘Tassel’ and ‘Sash Bradshaws’


for dominant clothing features, and two later variants, which he named ‘Elegant Action Figures’, as they almost always depict running figures, and ‘Clothes Peg Figures’ which usually include spears and spear throwers.

Walsh’s Gwion styles. By WLRoss – Own work, CC0,
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The Gwion figures are believed to have been painted between 8000 and 12,000 years BP, based on recent C14 dating.

‘Yowna Gwions’ (formerly ‘Sash Bradshaws’) Image: M Donaldson
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The Painted Hand or Clawed Hand period is characterised by painted hands with long fingernails but also includes simple animals, pregnant women and fruits. This artwork is at least 4000 years old as it predates the later Wandjina paintings.

‘Painted Hand’ paintings use thicker linework. Image: M Donaldson.

Probably the most recognisable Kimberley artwork is the Wandjina (or Wandjina) style in which spirit ancestors are characterised by halo-like headdresses and mouthless faces with large round eyes. The artists prepared a white background (probably by blowing pigment from the mouth) before painting over it using various shades of red, yellow and black pigment.

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Typical Wandjina face with halo, eyes, nose, and no mouth. Image: M Donaldson
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Rock art panel near Walcott Inlet showing vertical and horizontal Wandjinas, animals, fish and a snake. Image: M Donaldson

Wandjinas are shown upright or horizontally depending on strata thickness at each locality. The paintings may also include animals, birds, reptiles and yams.

Wandjina rock art dates from almost recent times to around 4000 years ago and was periodically retouched to ‘keep them fresh’. Aboriginal people say Wandjinas put themselves onto the rocks when they finished up the work in creation times.
The cover of one of Mike Donaldson’s publications on Kimberley and
Burrup Peninsula Rock Art. Wildrocks Publications

Mike concluded his presentation by displaying a couple of the books he has published on Burrup Peninsula and Kimberley Rock Art. These are available at Wildrocks Publications website.

Don Poynton