Recording and Managing Indigenous knowledge (case)

12th September 2013

We have never thought of our rock-paintings as ‘Art’. To us they are IMAGES. IMAGES with ENERGIES that keep us ALIVE – EVERY PERSON, EVERYTHING WE STAND ON. ARE MADE FROM, EAT AND LIVE ON. Those IMAGES were put down for us by our Creator, Wandjina, so that we would know how to STAY ALIVE, make everything grow and CONTINUE what he gave us in the first place. We should dance those images back into the ground in corroborees. That would make us learn the story, to put new life into those IMAGES.

Mowaljarlai et al. (188:691).


Indigenous knowledge’s are unique to given cultures, localities and societies…, [they are] knowledge’s… which are acquired by local people through daily experiences (Sefa Dei, 2008:19),  they are knowledge’s which advocate  holistic approaches linking the culture, group, and individual with a transmitted understanding of the continuous interaction which occurs between the people and their environment. Indigenous knowledges for this reason, in all their forms, express a deep attachment not only toward an occupation of the physical realm, but also to one within the spiritual landscape in which they exist. This existence and the subsequent development of knowledge is passed on, across generations, whilst still allowing for perpetual adaptation to ever changing environmental and socio-cultural factors.

Within the field of archaeology, such knowledge, as is recorded in the form of rock art, holds a particular significance in that it is “the most direct material expression of aesthetics and symbolism that we have access to for the distant past” (David, 2013:3). Until recently, despite the ability of Indigenous rock art to provide insights into the cognitive evolution of the human species, the inherent difficulties which exist in rock dating, and by extension the difficulties in being able to situate it in time, had resulted in its archaeological marginalization. The focus of this paper centers on the lands of the Jawoyn People in South Western Arnhem land and the recording and archaeological project undertaken at Nawarla Gabarnmang, one of many projects hosted by Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation and conducted through ‘The Connecting Country project’ which:

“aims to present the Jawoyn community with renewed opportunities to engage with their own historical places at a time of rapid global change, where community-run cultural eco-tourism allows Jawoyn clans to renew connections with remote ancestral places, maintain the integrity of cultural sites through appropriate visitation and engagement, inform the world about Indigenous traditions in a culturally appropriate way, and to create community employment as an opportunity to ‘look after country’ – that is, to help maintain the health of ancestral places by continued visitation, engagement and the sharing of knowledge” (Barker, 2012; Connecting Country)


Bryce Barker / AP FILE PHOTO

Project details:

Attention first began to focus on Nawarla Gabarnmang when in June of 2006, during a routine aerial survey flight over the Arnhem Land plateau, Jawoyn Association’s Ray Whear, and pilot Chris Morgan sighted the unusually large rock shelter (David, 2011:73). The ensuing anthropological discussions held with senior elders Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya disclosed that the site is known to the Aboriginal people as Nawarla Gabarnmang, nawarla meaning “place of” and gabarnmang meaning “hole in the rock” and that both these elders had visited the shelter when they were children, being told that it was an important camping site for their people en-route to ceremonies on Jawoyn Country (David, 2011:73-4; Connecting Country). Subsequent activities commenced at the request of the Katherine based Jawoyn Association, following the identification of Jawoyn clan Buyhmi as the traditional owners and a visit was made to the site by clan elder Margaret Katherine (David, 2011:74). The Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation was established in 1985 as the representative body for the Jawoyn Aboriginal traditional owners under the mission of representing and advancing “the views and aspirations of the Jawoyn people over the management, protection, control, and development of traditional Jawoyn lands” (Jawoyn Association, 1989). It was with their expressed permission, that this and other Jawoyn ancestral sites, including the rock art, are able to be documented and investigated for what it can tell about the history of their culture (Barker, 2012; Connecting Country).

Nawarla Gabarnmang (12°10′6.6″S, 133°50′0.67″E; -12.1685, 133.83352) is a large rock shelter located in remote Jawoyn Aboriginal country in southwestern Arnhem Land, and only accessible by a 90-minute helicopter journey from the town of Katherine. Within this remote shelter exists Australia’s oldest confirmed, radiocarbon dated painting alongside others depicting interwoven shapes of “everything from fish, kangaroos, all the animals they ate, crocodiles [and] dingoes, to people [and] mythical figures” (Barker quoted in Paull, 2012) all of which appear as painted representations, indicating generations of artworks, and attest to the cave’s social engagement for periods of time spanning thousands of years. Descriptions in frequent news articles commend the Narwala Gabarnmang site as the ‘Sistine Chapel of rock art sites’ (Paul, 2012; Williams, 2012) and as one of the most extensive indigenous rock art sites in the world and definitely Australia’s richest (The Chronicle, 2012). Barker maintains that, although “rock art is notoriously difficult to date, and although we know that people had occupied this site at least 45,000 years ago1 we did not know how old the art was” (Williams, 2012; also 1Delannoy, 2013:20; Barker, 2012; Connecting Country). In 2011 Professor Barker identified a small flat, tubular piece of charcoal etched quartzite among the samples returned to the UQS laboratories for processing. Although the charcoal artwork could not directly be reliably dated, chrono-striatigraphic association alongside the radiocarbon dating of ash found on its reverse returned a date of 22,965+/-218 RCYBP, calibrating to 26,913-28,348 cal BP (David, 2012:2494-8). The ceiling then, researchers conclude, must have been painted during a period prior to 28,000 cal BP and still remains possible that other artworks could in fact be much older than this. The site also provides evidence toward the earliest human use of ground-edge axes at 35,000 years ago (Geneste et al. 2010, in press, cited David, 2011:73; Connecting Country) — a stone tool technology not developed elsewhere in the world until much later (Barker, 2012; also quoted in artsHub, 2012).

The entrance to the Nawarla Gabarnmang cave complex is situated approximately 400 meters above sea level on top of the Arnhem Land plateau. This places it about 180m above the surrounding plains. The caves bedrock is part of the Kombolgie Formation, with the creation of the caves double opening as the result of in situ erosion of horizontally stratified, hard orthoquartzite bedrock interleafed with layers softer sandstone (David, 2013:2497). The result is a 19m long by 19m wide gallery type, cave structure with a sub-horizontal ceiling ranging between 1.75 to 2.45m above the floor level that exits directly to the north and south and, “shelters expansive culturally-bearing sediments entirely protected from rainfall” (David, 2013:2497)

Across the more openly accessible portion of the structure is a “grid-shaped alignment of 36 stone pillars” (David 2013:2497), which although predominantly the result of the erosive effect on fissure lines within the bedrock, archaeological determinations suggest that a number of the pillars has at some stage been removed, likely following their collapse, while others showed signs of having been reshaped or even moved from their initial location (Delannoy, 2013:23). Tool marks on the ceiling and pillars, despite the extensive painting, imply that the purpose for the modifications, was in part at least, to facilitate quarrying for stone artifacts (Delannoy, 2013:23). According to Delannoy, (2013:27) archaemorphological studies of Nawarla Gabarnmang reveals that the shelter cavity was a purposely created space such that the site “can no longer be understood as the exclusive product of natural processes that seem to betray the basic laws of nature, but as a place fashioned by people in the depths of time”.

The collation of knowledge

Researchers through their work at the Narwala Gabarnmang site have determined that human occupation of the area dates back to around 45,000 years ago, an age that determines this as one of the earliest sites of human occupation in Australia (Barker, 2012; Connecting Country). Additional studies performed such as those outlined above result in evidence that not only during their occupation did Indigenous inhabitants of these areas modify their natural environment but they also modified, purpose specific, their domestic environment.

Additionally, the Jawoyn Society (1989) believe that it has become clear that, unlike many other areas in the Northern Territory, there is a predominance of sites rediscovered on Jawoyn Lands that are unknown to the present day Jawoyn people. It is plausible that this may be attributed to the extreme isolation of many these sites coupled with the fact that, in many cases, it is likely that they have remained unoccupied for many hundreds or even thousands of years. The pristine condition and variation in art styles observable in these naturally protected sites, alongside the lack of contact period artefacts, appears indicative of this being a likely scenario. Since they first began the recording and documentation of Jawoyn sites of significance, upward of 4,000 rock art sites have been rediscovered. Senior elders from Jawoyn and neighboring communities are frequently transported to the sites as part of the oral history recording process, furthering research into the site’s significance and stories. Barker commented that the research team was assembled by members of the local Indigenous population as a means of utilizing scientific research as a complement to their own oral histories. Ceremonial locations and areas connected to a time of creation known as buwurr, commonly known in English as the Dreaming, along with rock art sites are the primary focus of the Jawoyn heritage program who maintain and utilize these areas for the education of Jawoyn youth by their elders (Connecting Country).

In recent years however, only a small percentage of these locations have been fully documented, 117 site complexes, 921 sites and >44000 individual artworks (Gunn et al. 2010; Gunn and Whear, 2008 cited David, 2011:73), each of which provides a wealth of knowledge and detail in the form of art, artefacts and stories that depict a unified historical account of the Jawoyn people, their culture and social organization, their oral traditions, belief systems, origins, beginning with the migration of humans through southern Asia to Australia more than 50,000 years ago, occupation and connection to the land. Reflected in the form of rock art and other cultural artefacts excavated at archaeological sites, scientists also attempt to determine and define the effects of climatic fluctuations on the flora, fauna, the landscape and its people, the impact of humans, including their fire burning practices, on flora fauna, and the landscape, and adaptations of early occupants to other environmental challenges that occurred. This includes internal migrations, occupancy patterns, the determining role of fresh water availability, and linguistic diversity.

The use of knowledge

Through the course of the many projects undertaken by Connecting Country on behalf of and with the Jawoyn Association, a database has been developed to store the voluminous amounts of data and cultural information gathered and recorded. This information traverses a variety of media including photographs, stories, audio and video recordings, research publications[1], news items and other relevant information (Jawoyn Association, 1999). The sheer number of culturally significant sites identified to date, and the ongoing drive to rediscover more has proven to be both a time, and resource intensive process, which has involved the digital documentation, recording and drawing of in excess of 12,800 motifs and over 20,800 photographs. Although the vast majority of the information recorded would be deemed unsuitable for any detailed study of the artwork, the basic data available provides a broad overview of the various site and specific content within each, sufficient to enable the identification of future areas of research and points of general interest. The aim of the database, known and referred to as simply, the ‘Jawoyn Cultural Site Management System’, to which Aboriginal interpretations, cultural information, custodial data and any other knowledge has also been added, is to provide an inclusive diversity of relevant information to the Jawoyn people in a format that is both an easily understandable and accessible (Jawoyn Association, 1999).

According to the Jawoyn Association (1999) the initial design for the database system was as the ‘Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Site Management System developed in conjunction with the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Water and the Arts, through support from the Indigenous Heritage Program’. A replication of this system was adopted, redefined and broadened to address the requirements of Jawoyn people and Jawoyn Lands in delivering differing access at various levels. The ‘improved’ system requires the user to enter an individual’s demographic information, which then affords access to predetermined suitable materials based on these details. This the Jawoyn Association (1999) assures, enables the provision that appropriate cultural information is made available only to those of the right position or privilege to view it. For example, access to information concerning the specific locations of secret men’s sites is restricted to Jawoyn men who have attained a certain age. It is intended that access will be made available through information stations proposed for Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park as well as in other remote communities.

Upon completion, it is envisioned that this database has the potential to be the largest, community accessible, single cultural heritage database in the world; an exceptionally valuable resource not only for Australia and Aboriginal people but for future generations, regardless of nationality, around the world (Jawoyn Association, 1999).  In this way the understanding of culturally significant sites provides the Jawoyn people with an ability to adapt and direct regional, future sustainable planning and management strategies as a means of ensuring long term preservation. Such sites are identified for their heritage value and as such the ability to interpret and maintain a record of culturally significant sites provides custodians with essential information to enhance dealings with government, industry and tourism bodies. Similar information gathered may also be used to inform different areas of land management. Alternately, data based systems may provide a useful tool for the reconnection of a group’s with their own traditions or ceremonies.

Furthermore, through the effective communication of research findings and professional journal publications to the wider public, it is possible to anticipate that such a diversity of cultural information could be used to inform both policies and practical measures leading to better protection and preservation of rock art, information which may also contribute to the recommendation and implementation of measures applicable to discovering an optimum balance between the opposing issues of access and conservation.

The relationship of knowledge

Despite the overarching prominence that western knowledge structures extend over mainstream society, western-based formal systems of knowledge remain only one of a multitude. As a means of expanding this knowledge the necessary consideration and inclusion of indigenous, local or traditional, knowledge systems, sometimes referred to as non-formal knowledge, needs to be addressed. Acknowledgment of these ‘other’ knowledge systems perpetuates a reconsideration of many fundamental notions concerning education, development, environmental and heritage conservation and protection, as well as the access to information. Indigenous knowledge refers to an holistic body of understandings, interpretations and practices, maintained and developed by people with extended histories of interaction within their natural environment, that are part of a complex cultural matrix encompassing language, classification systems, resource usage, religion, ritual, and worldview that provide the basis for making decisions concerning many of the underlying aspects of daily life. Non-formal knowledge, as is distinct to formal knowledge, is orally transmitted across generations and is therefore, unfortunately rarely documented

In considering this view of defining indigenous knowledge, such studies and findings lend greater importance to the task of documentation because Australia’s story of her initial settlement is still an ill-fitting and a poorly known piece of the complete picture. The rediscovery and documentation of rock paintings can act as a means toward providing information concerning how and when people arrived, about the environment at the time, how they lived and adjusted to changing climactic conditions, and something of their beliefs. It could fill the gap in our knowledge of what is known of human migration once Homo sapiens left Africa and provide clues and answers that are central to both the telling and understanding of that story

Building on earlier archaeological investigations, this research could ultimately provide insights into how not just early Australians, but early humans, as a collective, viewed their world.


artsHub 2012, ‘Australia’s oldest rock art discovered’, 19 June, Accessed: 3 September 2013, <>.

Barker, B, 2012, ‘Australia’s oldest rock art discovered by USQ researcher’, USQ Media Office – News and Events, 18 June, Accessed: 1 September 2013, <> also <;.

Connecting Country: The Jawoyn Homeland Project, Programme for Australian Indigenous Archaeology, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Accessed: 1 September 2013, <>.

David, B, Geneste, J-M, Whear, RL, Delannoy, J-J, Katherine, M, Gunn, RG, Clarkson, C, Plisson, H, Lee, P, Petchey, F, Rowe, C, Barker, B, Lamb, L, Miller, W, Hoerlé, S, James, D, Boche, E, Aplin, K, McNiven, IJ, Richards, T, Fairbairn, A, and Matthews, J 2011, ‘Nawarla Gabarnmang, a 45,180±910 cal BP site in Jawoyn Country, southwest Arnhem Land plateau’. Australian Archaeology (73):73-77.

David, B, Barker, B, Petchey, F, Delannoy, J-J, Geneste, J-M, Rowe, C, Eccleston, M, Lamb, L, and Whear, R. 2013, ‘A 28,000 year old excavated painted rock from Nawarla Gabarnmang, northern Australia’. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(5):2493-2501.

David B, Geneste, J-M, Petchey, F, Delannoy J-J, Barker, B, and Eccleston, M 2013, ‘How old are Australia’s pictographs? A review of rock art dating’. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(1):3-10.

Delannoy, J-J, David, B, Geneste, J-M, Katherine, M, Barker B, Whear RL, and Gunn, RG 2013, ‘The social construction of caves and rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)’. Antiquity 87(335):12-29.

Jawoyn Association 1989, Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation, Katherine, Northern Territory, accessed: 31 August 2013, <>. .

Katherine Times, 2012, ‘Rock art rediscovered within Jawoyn land’, Archaeology Daily News, 29 September 2010, Accessed: 4 September 2013, <>.

Mowaljarlai, D, Vinnicombe, P, Ward, GK & Chippindale, C 1988 ‘Repainting of images on rock in Australia and the maintenance of Aboriginal culture’ Antiquity (62):690-6

Paull, N 2012, ‘Rock art find sparks hope for archaeological treasure trove’, Brisbane Times, 19 June, Accessed: 1 September 2013, <>.

Sefa Dei, GJ, Hall, BL and Rosenberg, DG 2008 Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of Our World, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.

Semali, LM and Kinchelo, JL 1999, What is Indigenous Knowledge? Voices from the Academy, Falmer Press, New York, N.Y.

The Chronicle, 2012, ‘USQ team in rock art find’, 19 June, Accessed: 4 September 2013, < also>.

The Guradian, 2012, ‘Rock of ages: Australia’s oldest artwork found; Archaeologist discovers Aboriginal rock art made 28,000 years ago in Northern Territory cave’, 18 June, Accessed: 7 September 2013, < also also>.

Williams, B 2012, ‘The ‘Sistine Chapel of rock art’ uncovered by Australian achaeologists’, The Courier Mail, 18 June, Accessed: 1 September 2013, <>.

[1] Connecting Country employs many methods including: Rock art recording and digital enhancement, Geochemistry, Excavation, Subsurface mapping of sites, Geomatics, Radiocarbon dating, OSL dating, Technological, use-wear and residue analyses of stone artefacts, Filming, Geomorphology, Identification of faunal remains, Pollen analysis, Conservation (Connect Country)



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