Discovering Kimberley Rock Art with Dr Mike Donaldson OAM
28 July 2022 by Dr Mike Donaldson OAM
Growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches, I was aware from an early age of numerous life-sized images of whales, fish, kangaroos and emus pecked into sandstone platforms by the early Aboriginal inhabitants. Later, as a mineral exploration geologist working in the Western Australian goldfields, I came across scattered examples of Aboriginal paintings in low rock shelters, mainly simple geometric designs or handprints.
More elaborate rock art, predominantly petroglyphs pecked into granites and other hard igneous rocks, is prolific in the Pilbara. But I soon learned that the most spectacular rock art in the country, if not the world, occurs in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land.
I have now spent over 30 years exploring and documenting the Kimberley’s incredible rock art heritage that dates back more than 20,000 years. Although stories associated with some of the earliest art have largely been lost, there are continuing connections with Wandjina sites that have been shown to be over 3,000 years old.
Some 20 years ago, ‘amateur’ rock art enthusiasts established a relative chronology for Kimberley rock art styles in the absence of precise age determinations. This has largely been confirmed by more-recent observations and precise age determinations for some of the art styles.
It is remarkable that paintings on rocks exposed to daylight, weather and surface biological activity such as termites, insect and birds nests can survive for thousands of years. An important factor in this survival is geology, and I like to preface any discussion on Kimberley rock art with a brief explanation of the host rocks and changes in climate and sea level that have occurred since people inhabited Australia about 50,000 years ago.
After 30 years of bushwalking the Kimberley’s wild rivers and exploring parts of the coast, people often ask, where is my favourite place? The answer: too hard to choose! There are the spectacular waterfalls on the Mitchell, King George & Drysdale rivers, the cliff-lined Glycosmis Bay on the northern coast, the awesome gorges on the Charnley & Isdell rivers and the twin rock prominences – once Wandjinas – at the mouth of the Hunter River in Prince Frederick Harbour.
On top of that, there’s the art sites – so many great Wandjina and Gwion paintings scattered over the mainly inaccessible Kimberley. The Bigge Island site is particularly impressive due to its remote island location and intricate cave formations, the large Wandjina paintings and the intriguing figures that may represent early Dutch sailors.
The Kimberley art sites represent an important part of Australia’s heritage, and we are privileged to be able to visit them and learn something of the cultures that produced them. I think it is important for Australians to see these works of art and appreciate the stories behind them that connect Aboriginal people to their lands.
The sophistication of the composition and execution of Kimberley paintings comes as a surprise to many Australians who have grown up thinking that all Aboriginal art is typified by simple stick figures, circles or wavy lines. I think more people seeing and learning about the art will lead to greater appreciation of the heritage embodied and help to protect it into the future.
Mike Donaldson OAM will be joining us on our ‘Art of the Kimberley & Tiwis: Special Edition’ voyage as a Guest Lecturer. On expedition, Mike will offer expert guidance and interpretation as we visit some of these art sites of the Kimberley and Tiwis.
Mike was born in Sydney in 1945 and grew up at Warriewood Beach, one of Sydney’s northern beaches. A latent interest in Aboriginal rock art took him to the Kimberley in 1989, followed by extensive bushwalks along the area’s wild rivers almost every year since.