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

By Gunn, R. G.; Whear, R. L. | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2007 | Go to article overview

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

Gunn, R. G., Whear, R. L., Archaeology in Oceania


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. If this was a hooked stick, then the figure would be from the 'post-dynamic' period but it is now too indeterminate to classify (cf. Lewis 1988).


Both figures have been rapidly drawn with sure strokes, indicating that the artist was well practised in the style. The headdresses, torsos and legs are outlined. The arms and boomerangs of the lower figure are also finely outlined, while the arms and implement of the upper figure are sketched with only single strokes.

The overall impression here is that the artist had roughed in the position and poses of the two figures. Further details were roughed in by drawing prior to applying the painted infill. As there are no other marks around these figures, it is clear that no changes were made to the positioning or orientation of the motifs. This implies the artist either had a preconceived notion of the relationship between the two figures or was not concerned with such relationships. Whether any further figures were to be added to the group or not remains moot. For some reason however, the artist(s) suspended the work (deterred, distracted, dissatisfied, or ran out of ochre), never to complete the composition.

The lack of any other motifs from subsequent periods on this very stable ceiling further suggests that the site was either not required, or considered unsuitable for further use. However, this situation is not uncommon on the plateau, where in many instances the smaller shelters contain only a single period of rock art. No satisfactory explanation for this pattern of use has yet been proposed but it is likely, at least indirectly, to have to do with the marking of territory (cf. Haskovec and Sullivan 1989).

This and an adjacent shelter are the smallest within the complex and contain the lowest number of paintings. The two major shelters (B1 and A3), contain a large array of early red and yellow, 'mimi' paintings (yam and pre-yam styles). Shelter A3 also contains a panel of Dynamic figures painted in a similar brown-red pigment to the colour used in the over-painting of the drawing in shelter C1.

The Dynamic style and drawings

'Dynamic' figures have been long recognised as a distinct style in the rock art of Western Arnhem Land (Brandl 1973; Chaloupka 1982, 1984, 1989, 1993a, 1993b) and are now generally accepted as a chronologically specific art tradition (Chaloupka 1993a; Lewis 1997; Chippindale et al. 2000). Recently, surveys by the Jawoyn Association (Gunn 2006), have extended their southern distribution to the limit of the quartzose sandstone, a further 30 km south of the extent reported by Chaloupka (1993a: 106), and they can now be expected anywhere across the Arnhem Land plateau. Following fine art definitions (cf. Rawson 1969), Chaloupka terms all Dynamic Figures 'drawings', because of their fine calligraphic brushwork. However, as they are painted with a wet pigment, in archaeological terms they should be designated as paintings (cf. Maynard 1977; Gunn 1984), albeit exceptionally fine paintings compared to the standard of most paintings from the more recent Arnhem Land rock art styles.

No other drawings in this style have been identified although dry pigment drawing is not uncommon in the art of Arnhem Land, where it is usually produced with either red ochre crayons or sticks of charcoal. Subjects depicted are usually amorphous scribble areas, long lines and occasional small animals or mythological figures. Although undated, most occur superimposed over recent period styles and therefore cannot be of any great age. Consequently, the present drawings appear to be a unique aspect of the Dynamic Figures style.

The age of the Dynamic style has not been clearly identified but most researchers agree that it predates the rising sea level that occurred around 6000 BP. In the most recent review of the rock art's chronology, Chippindale and Tacon (1998: 107) suggest an age of around 10,000 years for the Dynamic figures and between 6000 and 10,000 years for the 'Post-dynamic' style (see also Chippindale and Tacon 1993).


These dry pigment Dynamic figures are the only examples of this type known to date from the hundreds of sites recorded with Dynamic figures (George Chaloupka, pers. com. 2006). Hence, as a single example, and most likely the work of a single individual, it is possible that these preliminary sketches may be an aberration of standard practice. The implication, however, is that other examples may yet be recognised in this Dynamic/post-Dynamic phase, in subsequent phases of Arnhem Land plateau rock art, and also in regions elsewhere in Australia. It is recognised that drawing, being dry pigment attached loosely onto the surface particles of the rock, will not survive as well as painting, where the liquid pigment bonds to the rock by penetrating deeply into the surface fabric (Rosenfeld 1985, Gunn 1984, 2005). In some cases however, the dry pigment can become impregnated with silica from the rock surface, thereby affixing it more firmly to the rock surface and making it as stable as some wet pigments (McDonald et al. 1990: 90).

Among more recent Aboriginal rock painters, the technique was usually to delineate the figure directly with paint and then to infill this shape (eg. Brandl 1973: 125-126; Jelinek 1979). A similar technique is used by contemporary Arnhem Land bark painters (Breedon and Wright 1989: 160-162; pers. obs.). Drawing is not used to organize the composition or prepare the proportion of the figures, as the image is seen either fully prepared in the mind of the artist or developed as the work progresses. This suggests that the example under discussion may not have been standard practice, but rather something extraordinary.

Another example of post-Dynamic figurative art from a nearby site complex (Figure 8) shows that drawing was not an essential preliminary to painting. Here, the single-line brushwork was clearly executed without any preparatory sketches or guidelines. The result is a work of confident calligraphy, produced by a very sure hand from a purely mental template. As Chaloupka mentions, many of the figures from this period are 'masterpieces ... of outstanding aesthetic quality' (1993a: 106). These two works then, from sites 0014 and 0040, suggest that the two painters had different levels of artistic proficiency. This in turn begs the question of whether the drawn sketches were done by a 'master painter' for a less competent painter to complete and further suggests that the site may be an example of pupil tuition. Again as it is only a single example, no firm conclusion can be proffered, but the idea is now raised for further consideration.


Chippindale et al. (2000) suggest that Dynamic Figures derive from 'clever men' during or following periods of altered states of consciousness. The use of preliminary sketches and the subsequent finesse of the paintings suggest that, if the works related to altered states of consciousness, then they would have to have been produced after and not during the experience (cf. Lewis-Williams 1992). Work produced during trance is direct, haptic, and 'unprepared', and artists lack the motor control to produce finely executed and arranged motifs (pers. obs). These works suggest that, whatever the motivation, their production was carefully transferred through a strong and culturally directed paradigm.

The incompleteness of these drawn figures also draws attention to another aspect of Arnhem Land rock art: that of partial or apparently incomplete figures and roughly sketched figures, which are a common but rarely noted feature (pers. obs). While many of these display considerable artistic skill, they have been generally overlooked in favour of more complete, complex and ornate motifs. I have often wondered why such 'unfinished' motifs occur and put it down to the artists simply having made their point, a minimalist statement, and therefore not needing to develop the work any further. Discussions with elders in both northern and southern Arnhem Land indicates that such paintings are not considered as important as those highly finished, decorative motifs, although no reason was proffered as to why they were 'unfinished'. Although we will never know the reason for the non-completion of the drawn/painted figures, it is clear that these drawn sketches are not fully realised works. Consequently, the impetus that prevailed upon the artist(s) to abort their work here may also have impacted on other artists at other sites and times throughout the Arnhem Plateau.

It is also likely that disturbances to artists may have prevented the completion of other apparently, or unrecognised, unrealised motifs (paintings and petroglyphs) elsewhere in Australia. In many rock shelters in Arnhem Land, roughed-in, partial figures are encountered in a range of different styles. These include figures with only essential representational keys, adjacent to highly finished motifs with delicate infill (Figure 9). Is it possible that such less complete motifs are indeed 'unfinished'? Although this question is unanswerable, it is a matter that needs to be pondered when defining styles within Arnhem Land rock art. Influencing factors could be a lack of sufficient pigment, the arrival of friends or relatives, a chance to win game, or simply the cessation of the rains that brought the artists into the shelter (see Mulvaney 1996).


Yet another assumption to be considered is the time taken to produce particularly the larger paintings. Could some have required more than one day's painting? In this case some may never have been completed, while others were subsequently completed by the (or another?) artist. This consideration may also be applicable to other rock art regions of Australia.

Less frequently, partial figures, such as kangaroo heads (some with heart and lungs attached) and kangaroo hind legs, are encountered (Figure 10). In general these appear to be complete motifs, although their meanings are unknown, and hence they should not be confused with the partial 'incomplete' figures discussed above.


A further implication of these Dynamic drawings refers to the age of drawn rock art. Ochre and charcoal drawings are generally considered to represent a late Holocene/ Contact phase in the Australian repertoire (Basedow 1925: 337; Gunn 1984, 2000; McDonald et al. 1990; Frederick 1999; McDonald 2000; Rosenfeld and Smith 2002; Ross 2003). As this current find is directly related to a style accepted as greater than 6000 years old, and possibly >10,000 years, the general association of the technique with the more recent periods (<3000 years old) may well be a feature of taphonomy (cf. Bednarik 1994, 2001). Unfortunately as the motifs discussed here are drawn in red ochre rather than charcoal, they cannot be directly dated. However, as Paul Tacon suggests, it is possible to reverse the argument and see the drawing as a recent copy of an early Dynamic figure. Only the finding of further datable examples both in Arnhem Land and elsewhere in Australia will assist in clarifying these issues.


The partial over-painting of a red ochre drawing in south-western Arnhem Land suggests that other Dynamic/Post Dynamic figures may have been drawn prior to their final, calligraphic painting. It is also possible that this example documents a master-pupil relationship from the Dynamic/ post-Dynamic period. The incompletion of this example also suggests that many other paintings of 'partial' figures throughout Arnhem Land, and elsewhere in Australia, may in fact be paintings left incomplete by the artists due to other more pressing commitments.


Our thanks to the Jawoyn Association and Senior Custodian Peter Bolgi for permission to present this paper. Leigh Douglas, Ken Mulvaney, George Chaloupka, John Clegg, Peter White and Paul Tacon commented on the draft manuscript and made numerous positive suggestions. The conclusions presented however, remain our own responsibility.


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