Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

'Exotic Bradshaws' or Australian 'Gwion': An Archaeological Test

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

'Exotic Bradshaws' or Australian 'Gwion': An Archaeological Test

Article excerpt

Abstract: 'Bradshaws', Aboriginal rock-art figures in the Kimberley, recently have become a focus of increased interest and publication. We discuss six recent pieces of work relevant to the suggestion that they are of exotic, rather than Australian, origin. We present robust evidence of their Aboriginality.


Bradshaws are paintings on rock surfaces in the Kimberley that look like elegant, enhanced stick-figure 'humans', often with accoutrements. First reported for European eyes by the explorer Joseph Bradshaw in 1892, they are now known from an area of some 60 000 [km.sup.2] in the Kimberley of north-western Australia (Figure 1). Ngarinyin people from this country call them 'Gwion Gwion' (Ngarjno et al. 2000:11) (1).


Scholars with some knowledge of world rock-art often remark on their apparent similarity to figures in Spain or Southern Africa. These comments are seldom published, so they are difficult to reference.

Ever since Bradshaw's report, there have been two very different attitudes to them. One view is that they are so different from other figures in Australia that they must have been painted by non-Aborigines. This view has been expressed by Walsh (1994) in his sequence division of the rock-art of the Kimberley. He constructed three epochs and named them: 'Archaic', 'Erudite', and 'Aborigine'. He placed the 'Bradshaws' in the Erudite Epoch. The use of the word 'erudite' assumes that the cultures from the other epochs were inferior and less developed. The use of the word 'Aborigine' suggests that there was no Aboriginal constituent to the previous epochs, that they were new arrivals upon the scene and their heritage began, in this area, after the 'Bradshaw period' (Walsh 1994:32). That this is a commonly held view is documented by McNiven and Russell (1997), and Redmond (2002).

The other view, (e.g. Lewis 1997) is that they are Australian, and their relationship to the rest of the Aboriginal art corpus merits study.

We note that the problem we address resonates strongly with current political ideologies. We do not explore this aspect.

Although there is a considerable literature on the 'Bradshaws', six recent works are considered here. In chronological order, they are: Walsh (1994), Barry (1997), McNiven and Russell (1997), Lewis (1997), Walsh (1999) and Redmond (2002). The three dated to 1997 were not informed by each other. All have extensive bibliographies which cover various aspects of the older literature. Five of the six works have been published and are generally available, so there is no need to review them in detail. Barry (1997) is not so generally available, for which reason we concentrate on it here. His BA (Hons) thesis tackled the question of whether or not Gwion figures resemble those from overseas more or less than Australian figures. Barry's purpose was to examine the hypothesis that the Gwion resemble prehistoric figures outside Australia more than they do those within the continent.

Two other works that are contemporaries of the above papers are Welch (1993) and Tacon et al. (2003). Welch's paper is devoted to a detailed recording of the Gwion by both words and pictures, and Tacon positions like figures (some of different colours) in the Keep River region. These were considered to be aspects outside the thrust of this paper. Likewise, we were informed by Graeme Ward (written communication) that he and others have recorded 'not dissimilar purple figures along the Fitzmaurice River'.


Barry collected all the images he could find, in the literature, of apparently human figures on rock surfaces in the tropical and temperate zones of the Old World (Figure 2). Two thousand, two hundred and thirty images were collected. These include 1694 images from seventeen areas outside Australia and 536 from three areas within Australia, mostly Kimberley (Gwion figures only) and Arnhem Land. …

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