‘Original Archaeologists’: Traditional Owners of Arnhem Land Take Charge of Inestimable Rock Art | Indigenous Australians


The traditional owners of western Arnhem Land say they are the “original archaeologists” of their country, and now they are taking action to preserve their priceless history on their own terms.

“Many stories are still hidden from non-natives who have learned very little about them,” says Bininj traditional owner Conrad Maralngurra.

“They need to live with us for 10 or 20 years to understand the full meaning of cultural integrity.”

This week, a group of traditional Bininj owners from the breathtaking Stone Country of Western Arnhem Land traveled to Darwin to present a digital portrait of their country and culture focused on the rock art at the annual conference of the Australian Archeological Association.

Rock art at Marebu, near Manmoyi, on the IPA Warddeken.
Native ranger Berribob Watson has modern and ancient technology, a two-way radio, and a stone used to grind pigments for painting.  Warddeken ranger Ricky Nabarlambarl stands behind.
Native ranger Berribob Watson has modern and ancient technology, a two-way radio, and a stone used to grind pigments for painting. Warddeken ranger Ricky Nabarlambarl stands behind.

Berribob Watson, of Manmoyi, and Maralngurra, of Mamadawerre, two small remote stations on the Arnhem Land plateau about 300 km east of Darwin, detailed the work of nearly 200 Aborigines from Bininj and took speech in English and Bininj Kunwok (dialects of western Arnhem Land). ).

“We spoke to them as the original archaeologists of our country,” says Maralngurra.

“We wrote it [history] down from the start, on the rock. The stories on this rock are the law, our heritage and give people their rights. “

The Bininj are traditional occupants of western Arnhem Land, which borders the Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks to the west and southwest. The region’s Kombolgie sandstone has been carved by a cycle of wet and dry seasons over millennia and is one of the most remote and inaccessible areas in the world. Indigenous occupation dates back to the last ice age. Rich rock art is generously scattered on the walls and ceilings of the sandstone shelters.

It is almost impossible to traverse parts of the rugged Stone Country of western Arnhem Land.
It is almost impossible to traverse parts of the rugged Stone Country of western Arnhem Land.
In some places, buffaloes and pigs have destroyed century-old paintings by rubbing against the walls of shelters.  Native rangers erect fences to protect these areas and attempt to depopulate wild populations.
In some places, buffaloes and pigs have destroyed century-old paintings by rubbing against the walls of shelters. Native rangers erect fences to protect these areas and attempt to depopulate wild populations.

It is estimated that there are three or four art sites for every 10 km2 of rocky terrain, potentially over 40,000 sites. Most of the artwork can be found in or near areas where Bininj has lived for thousands of years. While some sites are specific to men or women, most are communal.

In the recent past, rock art research was the domain of non-Indigenous anthropologists and archaeologists employed by government-funded institutions of higher education. Their findings, including interviews with traditional owners, photographs and artefacts from sites, have often remained in the institutions where they were archived. Data rarely reached a community in any form other than a research paper or government document.

However, Bininj reversed this model.

Edna Midjarda in Kuwuleng, near Manmoyi, a large gallery illustrated by her ancestors for thousands of years.
Edna Midjarda in Kuwuleng, near Manmoyi, a large gallery illustrated by her ancestors for thousands of years.

In 2010, former IPA aborigines of Warddeken and Djelke established the Karrkad-Kandji Trust to seek other sources of funding for land management and cultural projects. The trust approaches Australian and international philanthropic organizations and individuals.

The KKT set up a $ 5 million rock art project in Arnhem Land, with the main contributor being the Ian Potter Foundation. Bininj hired its own support staff – Claudia Cialone and Chester Clarke – to live in their communities and coordinate a program to help Bininj locate, record, preserve and maintain the sites and works of art.

A barramundi and female spirit figure painted in a white pigment called huntite, a rare mineral mined, marketed and highly regarded by Bininj.
A barramundi and female spirit figure painted in a white pigment called huntite, a rare mineral mined, marketed and highly regarded by Bininj.

“We have employed these people because we want them to help us preserve the stories through Balanda [European] manners. We also want to share the stories, but we want to take control and have legal ownership of the knowledge. We want to maintain it, preserve it and protect it for the good of our own country and our people, ”said Maralngurra.

The rock art program has an annual budget of $ 800,000 and employs over 50 traditional owners and 100 native rangers, who spend much of their time traveling to remote areas to locate sites. Art is recorded by camera and video, and affected landowners are interviewed. Information is stored digitally for future generations.

Senior landowner Ricky Nabarlambarl explores an area near the remote resort of Manmoyi where Bininj has lived and sheltered for thousands of years.
Senior landowner Ricky Nabarlambarl explores an area near the remote resort of Manmoyi where Bininj has lived and sheltered for thousands of years.

According to Claudia Cialone, Warddeken Land Management has formed a unique rock art conservation team.

“One academic article is not enough to express Bininj’s passion and interest in rock art, so they decided to create their own story and disseminate it to the world,” Cialone explains.

Maralngurra said there was interest in the program across western Arnhem Land and that residents of large settlements, who have not returned to their traditional countries, are calling for their return.

“Rock art is at the root of our society,” he said. “This is where we get the stories from. There is a lot of enthusiasm for people to go back and see where their story was established.

There are over 125,000 known rock art sites in Australia, from the Torres Strait to Tasmania.

Some contain large elevated galleries while others may contain a single faded image on a rock face or secluded cave wall. Artistic styles include paintings, rock carvings (petroglyphs), and beeswax patterns and designs. Scientists believe that some examples are 30,000 years old.

Rock art hotspots include Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and the Pilbara.


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