Cupule Engravings from Jinmium-Granilpi (Northern Australia) and Beyond: Exploration of a Widespread and Enigmatic Class of Rock Markings

Article excerpt

ANTIQUITY last year reported a startlingly old series of dates from Jinmium in tropical north Australia. At Jinmium are old rock-engravings, the pecked cups or cupules that are widespread in Australia. This study of the Jinmium cupules goes beyond that immediate topic to broader issues.

Visual art, in all its manifestations, is a fundamental characteristic of fully modern humans, one of many that express cultural identity. Evidence for this key aspect of human symbolic communication figures in 'rock-art' - paintings and engravings on blocks or expanses of stone. Rock-art differs from portable art forms in that the prominent locations where rock-art was placed may provide clues about prehistoric symbolic landscape. Debate continues as to whether Homo erectus and other human ancestors, or close relatives, such as the Neanderthal, made and used some form of art, and how that art differs from that made by Homo sapiens sapiens (Anati 1993; Bednarik 1994; 1995; Chase & Dibble 1987; Davidson & Noble 1989; Lindy & Clark 1990; Marshack 1997; Mellars 1989; 1991; Noble & Davidson 1996; Pfeiffer 1982). What is clear is that cognitively modern humans have, from the beginning, had a desire and perhaps a need to mark and transform landscapes into cultural places or localities enriched with symbolic meaning (Tacon 1994). Today, we are not able to ascertain the specific meanings of the earliest cultural marks but we can study rock-art, its contexts, organizing principles and structures (Conkey 1987). When a particular form of art is found across an extensive area we can gain insight into relationships people had with large tracts of land - landscapes, territories and sometimes regions.

Alongside recent discussion about the sacred nature of landscapes for the world's indigenous peoples, it has been noted that many rock-art sites are located at unusual, special places (Ouzman 1995; in press; Tacon 1990; 1994). What makes some places, locations and natural landscapes sacred or special? Why are some more sacred or special than others? Why did people choose to mark some places, to the apparent exclusion of others, with meaningful designs? These important questions, underlying many archaeological investigations into ancient landscapes, seldom are addressed directly. And how can we, as outsiders, define what is or is not sacred or special for contemporary peoples, let alone archaeologically observed groups? We best work by applying broad theoretical constructs to specific, sustained regional research initiatives that utilise many strands of archaeological evidence (see, for example, the detailed research recently published for northern Australia, such as Chaloupka 1993; Chippindale & Tacon 1993; David et al. 1994; Haskovec 1992; Lewis 1988; Lewis & Rose 1988; McNickle 1991; 1993; Mulvaney 1996; Tacon 1991; Tacon & Brockwell 1995; Tacon & Chippindale 1994; Walsh 1994; Welch 1990; 1993).

Drawing on this regional, as well as international, archaeological research, we begin to address questions relating to human perceptions, constructions and markings of landscapes. We start by focusing on sites with large clusters of that unusual image class which comprises engraved pits or cup-shaped marks, 'cupules' (definition below). These seem the most ancient surviving evidence of symbolic activity from central Arnhem Land through to the Pilbara region of northern Australia, set most commonly on boulders or on rock-shelter walls (Chaloupka 1993; Flood 1997: 145-9; Tacon & Chippindale 1994; McNickle 1991;1993; Walsh 1996). They promise both information and insight into the country's ancient cultures. We ground our research in the Keep River region of the Northern Territory, including the Jinmium site complex (Fullagar et al. 1996) and Granilpi, a second complex near by.

Cupules, peck marks, pits and grinding hollows

A variety of rounded engraved pits, holes, hollows and cup-like forms on the walls and floors of rock shelters, boulders and large, fiat slabs of sandstone have been identified within Australian rock-art traditions; some called 'cupules' are recognized as the oldest surviving form of rock-art in northern Australia (Chaloupka 1993; Flood 1996; Flood 1997: 145-9; Tacon & Chippindale 1994; Walsh 1994; Welch 1992). …