Art of the Ancestors: Spatial and temporal patterning in the rock art of Nawarla Gabarnmang, a major Jawoyn cultural site on the Arnhem Land plateau

Robert George Gunn

Research output: Book/ReportBookResearchpeer-review


Nawarla Gabarnmang is a large and well-decorated rock art shelter on the Arnhem Land plateau, northern Australia. The site has an occupational history extending back approximately 50,000 years; the question remains: how old is the art, and how has it changed through time over this long period of time?

In this thesis I develop a new systematic approach to the archaeological recording and documentation of rock art. From this I then apply the results to study the spatial and temporal structure of the art on the ceiling at Nawarla Gabarnmang as my case study site, a site with one of the richest arrays of art and art styles in Arnhem Land. It is the combination of techniques used in this recording and the extraction of spatial and chronological evidence that forms the core innovative element of my method.

Detailed photo-tracing using DStretch-enhanced photographs of the ceiling enabled me to identify 1391 motifs from 41 separate art panels across the ceiling. From this detailed record, a comprehensive list of all motif superimpositions was made, and a Harris Matrix produced to show the sequence of superimpositions for each art panel. Using common attributes, including features identified by the Morellian Method (a Fine Art method), contemporaneous motifs within panels were then aggregated into individual layers. Where direct dating of the artwork or other temporal markers were available, a chronological framework was established for each layer of the panel. I conclude that the existing artwork was produced over a period that began no earlier than 13,000 years ago and ceased at some time between AD 1840 and AD 1935. The layers for the various panels were then inter-related by using the relative and absolute chronological evidence to produce a full sequence for the site as a whole.

The principle finding at Nawarla Gabarnmang in relation to the rock art of Arnhem Land is a major and rapid change in artistic conventions around 450 years ago. At this time white pigment replaced red as the dominant colour; larger motifs, utilising far greater quantities of pigment than previously, become more common and, where employed, infill decoration becomes considerably more intricate. This change in the art is not reflected in any notable change in the choice or proportions of general thematic groups depicted (such as specific faunal taxa or anthropomorphs), other than a slight rise in the number of anthropomorphs from 19% to 28%. The most recent period of artistic activity occurred within the past 170 years, and probably within the past 100 years, when complex X-ray depictions akin to those better known from the northern half of Arnhem Land make their first appearance.

Ultimately, the combinations of techniques employed (DStretch, Harris Matrix and Morellian Method) were found to be invaluable in resolving many of the difficult issues relating to the identification of motif superimpositions in a large and complex art site. The thesis suggests that the techniques in combination would benefit rock art recording worldwide.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationSummertown Oxford UK
Number of pages900
ISBN (Electronic)9781789690712
ISBN (Print)9781789690705
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Jawoyn
  • Rock art
  • Spatial analysis

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