Ancient Bird Stencils Discovered in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

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Introduction

In July 2009 five stencils of the complete body of a bird were found on the wall and ceiling of a small rockshelter that is part of an extraordinary rock art complex known to the local Maung speaking Aboriginal people as Djulirri. Located in Arnhem Land's Wellington Range (Figure 1), the site has over 3100 paintings, prints, stencils and beeswax figures, making it the largest pictograph (pigment) rock art site in Australia. Djulirri's main gallery has been visited and photographed by a handful of non-Aboriginal people since the 1950s but an intense recording and analysis of the site complex commenced in 2008. While recording 55 panels of imagery in detail the bird stencils were located in one of the more difficult to access areas. No other stencils of whole birds have been published from anywhere in the world, although a solitary example of a small bird stencil from elsewhere in Arnhem Land has been reported (Lewis 1988: 205). We describe and illustrate this unique rock art discovery, discuss the probable species of bird stencilled and present evidence that suggests considerable antiquity for the stencils.

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The Djulirri rock art complex

Djulirri is located in the Wellington Range of Australia's Northern Territory, south of Goulbourn Island in Arnhem Land. Wellington Range is the northernmost outlier of the Kombolgie Sandstone that forms the famous Arnhem Land Plateau. Western Arnhem Land and the adjacent Kakadu National Park have long been famous for exquisite and extraordinary rock art with many thousands of sites documented and new discoveries made each year (Lewis 1988; Tacon 1989; Chaloupka 1993). The region boasts an impressive chronology with numerous styles, forms and subjects argued to have been produced from at least 15 000 years ago to well after Aboriginal contact with people from Asia and Europe (Chippindale & Tacon 1998). Djulirri is the largest art site within the Maung language group's traditional territory and today is at the western side of senior traditional owner Ronald Lamilami's clan estate. Lamilami's father, Lazurus, is believed to have taken the first non-Aboriginal person to the site, photographer Axel Poignant, in 1952 (Lamilami 1974; Poignant 1995). In the 1970s, George Chaloupka (1993) photographed and described parts of Djulirri's main gallery but further research did not take place until 2008 when an intensive recording program of the entire site commenced.

This recording program includes a number of other key sites in the region as well as a general survey of the Lamilami estate. A rock art chronology similar to that of Kakadu and other parts of Arnhem Land has been constructed and unique rock art subject matter, forms and styles associated with various periods of production, such as bird stencils, noted. In recent/ethnographic times rock paintings took place in key focal points within the Lamilami estate rather than occurring right across it, as in previous periods. The Lamilami family argue that there were various motivations for producing the art, including recording the arrival of newcomers such as Macassans and Europeans. They argue that in many ways their sites are like 'journals', 'history books' and 'libraries' that reflect changing times, relationships to land and other creatures, the power of Ancestral Beings that created and/or shaped the world and individual experience. However, with older forms of art the exact motivations are uncertain, as is the relevance of contemporary ontologies/cosmologies.

Across a 51 m length of dissected sandstone, Djulirri's main gallery has more than 1100 paintings, stencils, prints and figures made from the resinous wax of native bees in three adjacent wall/ceiling areas. There are another 52 panels within this complex with at least a further 2000 examples of rock art, making it the largest known pigment site yet documented in Australia. …