Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Dynamic Sketches: 6000+ Year Old Dry-Pigment Drawings from Arnhem Land

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Dynamic Sketches: 6000+ Year Old Dry-Pigment Drawings from Arnhem Land

Article excerpt


A unique example of 'Dynamic Figures' style motifs drawn with dry pigment was recently located in south-western Arnhem Land. One of these figures has been partially over-painted with wet pigment, suggesting that the drawings were produced as sketches for the painting of Dynamic Figures. The implications for rock art research are discussed.

Keywords: Arnhem Land, Jawoyn, Dynamic style, Drawing, Incomplete motifs


A fortuitous find in south-western Arnhem Land of two dry pigment drawings and the incomplete over-painting of one of these presented a unique insight into the preparatory process for the painting of a Dynamic-style figure. The incompleteness of the painted figure also prompted a rethinking of the partial or apparently incomplete figures commonly found, but rarely noted, elsewhere in Arnhem Land rock art.

The drawings

The site complex (Jawoyn Association No ARN-0040) was located by Ray Whear and Chris Morgan during a helicopter reconnaissance of south-western Arnhem Land (Figure 1), and a preliminary recording of the complex in February 2006 recorded nine shelters within three adjacent rock outcrops (Figure 2).


The drawings occur in shelter C1, six metres wide, four deep, and three high, on a southerly facing, cliff-front ledge, some eight metres above the ground (Figure 3). Access is along the ledge from the east. The interior of the shelter is largely filled by a rock slab that dropped and formed the smooth horizontal ceiling that has been used for the artwork. Behind the slab there is a small area where two or three people could shelter. The floor is flat bedrock and the shelter contained no other cultural material. Apart from the figures reported on here there are no other motifs on the ceiling or elsewhere within the shelter. The ceiling is a stable, white sandstone, easily reached from the top of the slab. However, unlike many panels with dynamic figures, there is no silica skin on the rock surface. The artwork consists of three faint fragments and two distinct figures. All are drawn in a purple-red ochre, but one has also been partially over-painted in a brown-red pigment.


The two figures of interest in this paper consist of one standing and one running figure. Chaloupka (pets. comm., 2006) suggests that these figures are from the post-Dynamic period rather than the classic Dynamic period. As more indicative features may not have been required at the preliminary stage, it remains difficult to identify their period status. Given their similarity to the dynamic pose, however, they would probably derive at least from the early post-Dynamic period, if not the classic period.

The standing figure, which is partially painted, is 54 cm tall. It wears a large 'beehive' headdress and is standing with left leg partially raised (Figure 4), suggesting either an informal stance or else a restrained and measured dance. As the figure does not have female sexual characteristics, it is assumed to be male (cf. Chaloupka 1993a). In his right hand the figure holds a single curved boomerang, while in his raised left hand he holds a similar pair of boomerangs. His legs have been infilled with paint and the lower portion of the torso has been partially painted. This painting, which does not follow the drawing exactly, clearly overlies the ochre drawing (Figure 5). Changes apparent in the drawn and painted sections (Figure 6), cannot be taken to necessarily indicate changes to the motif, as these could well have been the subject of further revision had the painting been completed.


Above this figure, a second, well-defined drawing of a dynamic figure runs or dances with legs splayed in the standard 'Dynamic' pose (Figure 7). While nothing can be detected in his left hand, his right hand behind him holds either a boomerang or inverted hooked-stick. …

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