Looking Up and Looking Down: Pigment Chemistry as a Chronological Marker in the Sydney Basin Rock Art Assemblage, Australia

By Huntley, Jillian | Rock Art Research, November 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Looking Up and Looking Down: Pigment Chemistry as a Chronological Marker in the Sydney Basin Rock Art Assemblage, Australia


Huntley, Jillian, Rock Art Research


Introduction

Researchers continue to infer the possible antiquity of pigment motif production based on the similarity of colour between pictograms and ochres from excavated sediments (cf. David 2002; David et al. 2011:75; David et al. 2013:7). Here, I have used portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometry to examine if there is geochemical evidence to support these types of assertions. I have characterised rock art and the stratified pigments recovered from archaeological deposits at two sites in the Sydney Basin, New South Wales (Fig. 1). Ochres from archaeological deposits at Dingo and Horned Anthropomorph and Yengo 1 rockshelters (now housed in museum collections) have been argued to be contemporaneous with the production of pigment art on the shelter walls and ceiling. In the first attempt to assign a numeric age to rock art in Australia, Macintosh (1965: 85) argued at Dingo and Horned Anthropomorph rocksheiter, the stratified pigment sequence was evidence of chronologically successive, distinct rock art panel compositions. At Yengo 1, McDonald (2008) presented a broader argument. She proposed that pigment art was produced in association with the period of most intensive shelter occupation, represented by the largest numbers of artefacts in the deposit, including not only pigment, but also knapped stone, edge ground stone implements and hearths.

Some points of definition are pertinent here. What these researcher are arguing is comparable are natural pigments or ochres, unprepared nodules from shelter deposits and crushed ochres used as paints to create rock art. Most definitions of ochre restrict the term to iron-oxides minerals (Popelka-Filcoff et al. 2007; Bonneau et al. 2012; MacDonald et al. 2012). Here, I adopt a more inclusive definition of ochres as natural earth pigments, recognising that Aboriginal Australians include numerous natural earth pigments (clay and calcite materials) in their use of the term ochre (Clarke 1976; Clarke and North 1991; Crawford and Clarke 1976; Attenbrow 2002). The pigments examined in this study comprise:

* 'Prepared' white, pink, orange, yellow and red rock art pigments extant on shelter walls and ceilings;

* Different textured nodules of red, purple and white ochres from subsurface contexts;

* And stratified bright to deeper red iron-stained sandy sediments (detrital sandstones) from Dingo and Horned Anthropomorph site that were referred to as 'ochres' by Macintosh (see below, Fig. 2).

Dingo and Horned Anthropomorph

Dingo and Horned Anthropomorph (D&HA) is a Hawkesbury Sandstone shelter located near Mt Manning in the Mangrove Creek catchment of the central coast hinterland of New South Wales (Macintosh 1965; Attenbrow 2004: 86). The shelter is made up of two overhangs where spatially distinct floor deposits are separated by a protrusion of bedrock in the centre of the scalloped tafoni. Macintosh referred to these as the southern and northern shelters. pXRF analyses were undertaken on a red horned anthropomorphous figure in the southern overhang (motif 6, Macintosh 1965: PI. 1) and a red 'eel' motif in the northern overhang (motif 31, Macintosh 1965: Pl.l). These motifs represent a sample of the relative temporal sequence described as:

Six dark red ochre paintings in the southern shelter comprise a male and female anthroporph each with cephalic cornua, a male and female dingo, a male and female echidna. This ritual group is deduced, from radiocarbon analysis of charcoal associated with matching ochre in the floor deposit, to have been painted approximately A.D. 1400.

In the Northern Shelter, successive series of paintings in light red ochre, charcoal and white, depicting mainly the local fauna and some hand stencils, are similarly deduced to have been painted between A.D. 1750 and A.D. 1830 (Macintosh 1965: 85).

When in situ analyses were conducted in 2011, the yellow and white chalk outlines applied between 1930 and 1961, and the white 'pipe-clay' eyes Macintosh recorded on the horned anthropomorph (1965: 87, 89) were not visible. …

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