Dating painted Panel E1 at Nawarla Gabarnmang, central-western Arnhem Land plateau

Bruno David, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Robert Gunn, Emilie Chalmin, Geraldine Castets, Fiona Petchey, Ken Aplin, Magen O'Farrell, Ian Moffat, Jerome Mialanes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Bryce Barker, Benjamin Sadier, Margaret Katherine, Meropi Manataki, Ursula Pietrzak

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The southern Arnhem Land plateau contains a rich mosaic of thousands of rock art sites located in outcrops of Proterozoic Marlgowa Sandstone of the Kombolgie formation (Carson et al. 1999) (Figure 11.1). Within this region in Jawoyn Country can be found Nawarla Gabarnmang, an impressive rockshelter exhibiting a gridded network of pillars that supports a thick ceiling of 10 cm to 40 cm thick cross-beds of hard sandstone and quartzite (Figures 11.2 and 11.3; see also Chapter 10). The inter-layer joints and fissures between these compact and poorly soluble quartz-rich sandstones and quartzites have witnessed geologically slow dissolution of the bedrock, resulting in a hollowing out of the rock in a process known as ‘ghost rock’ formation or ‘phantomisation’ (Quinif 2010), a particular cave-forming process causing the regular grid-shaped structure of underground cavities and pillars (for details of site formation processes, see Chapter 13).

The remnant pillars supporting ceiling rock strata at Nawarla Gabarnmang are an anthropic cave structure (Delannoy et al. 2013; see Chapter 10): in addition to the slow geological dissolution of the rock along layer planes and fissure lines, people have also entirely or partially removed individual pillars, and possibly ceiling strata, over a period commencing sometime after the site was first occupied around 50,000 years ago (e.g. David et al. 2011, completed manuscript). What catches one’s attention at Nawarla Gabarnmang are the voids between the pillars, typically c. 1–2 m apart in the southwestern corner of the site, but more than 8 m apart in the central-eastern portion. In that noticeably more open central-eastern area, a large, sub-horizontal and flat ceiling is supported by some 20 sparsely distributed pillars. Here, as in most other parts of the site, the floor of the sheltered area is generally flat and sub-horizontal, consisting of ashy sand with sparsely scattered, relatively small blocks of rock originating from the ceiling but not in their original fallen positions (these blocks have all, without exception, been moved by people). Within the fill across the site are rich archaeological deposits including stone artefacts, ochre pieces and animal bones, as revealed in the archaeological excavations (David et al. 2011; Geneste et al. 2012). What we see today in the shelter are the results of tens of thousands of years of human occupation, modification of rock surfaces and site use that express well the notion of ‘dwelling’ and ‘inhabitation’ (e.g. David et al. 2013, 2014; Delannoy et al. 2013; Geneste et al. 2010; cf. Ingold 2000; Thomas 2008).

Nawarla Gabarnmang is of special interest for rock art research because it has a rich and especially well preserved record of paintings under its well-protected overhang and, to a lesser extent, on its rock pillars (e.g. Figure 11.3). This art is, in some parts of the site, represented by expansive and overlapping concentrations of paintings (with minor quantities of other kinds of artworks also being present, such as cupules, beeswax designs and stencils). Elsewhere in the shelter, more or less discrete art panels usually have multiple and complex patterns of superimposition.

Gunn (2016) has divided the shelter’s ceiling into 41 sections with pigment art (Figure 11.4), each section representing a more or less spatially discrete area of art. A total of 1391 images have been recorded in up to 49 layers of superimposition from the ceiling alone. The area reported in this chapter is Panel E1, located immediately above archaeological excavation Square P (Figures 11.4 and 11.5). While the complex superimpositions in Panel E1 reveal a chronological sequence of painted images, detailed three-dimensional (3-D) laser mapping of the site, geomorphological investigations and excavation of Square P have revealed surface and in situ buried information that individually and together enable us to understand better the ages of these sequential layers of artworks on the ceiling above.

The aim of this chapter is to cross-correlate information obtained from the painted ceiling at Panel E1 with geomorphological details and archaeological evidence buried immediately below the art panel in Square P. In this way, the information immanent in the rock art and in the strata below it are combined into an integrated understanding, in a way rarely attempted when studying Australian rock art.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Archaeology of Rock Art in Western Arnhem Land, Australia
EditorsBruno David, Paul S.C. Taçon, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Jean-Michel Geneste
PublisherANU Press
Number of pages58
ISBN (Electronic)9781760461621
ISBN (Print)9781760461614
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameTerra Australis
PublisherANU Press

Bibliographical note

'This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).'


  • Archaeology
  • Rock art
  • ground penetrating radar
  • Arnhem Land


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