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Dating the Aboriginal rock art sequence of the Kimberley in NW Australia

ROCK ART DATING (RAD-2).   ARC LP170100155

This project formally began on 26 April 2018 and will continue for four years. It is a direct continuation of the pioneering work undertaken in the first Kimberley Rock Art Dating project (2014-2017).

The RAD-2 project applies new knowledge of complex processes on sandstone surfaces across the north Kimberley and uses an innovative combination of four scientific dating methods developed in the earlier work.


While development work continues, many new dating results for different Kimberley rock art styles have now being produced and a series of landmark research papers detailing our findings are being published. The project is establishing a well-dated sequence for Kimberley rock art based on replication of results and confirmation across different methods, all conducted in collaboration with Traditional Owners.

RAD Research Team

The Dating project is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project led by the University of Melbourne’s Earth Sciences department. Rock Art Australia is the primary funding Partner Organisation with the ARC. Partners include the University of Melbourne (Administering Organisation), the University of Wollongong, the University of Western Australia, ANSTO, Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation and Rangers, Dunkeld Pastoral Company, Rock Art Australia and the WA Department of Biodiversity and Conservation.

The project is led by Prof Andy Gleadow together with Profs Janet Hergt, Jon Woodhead and Drs Helen Green, John Hellstrom from the University of Melbourne, Prof Peter Veth and Dr Sven Ouzman from the University of Western Australia, Prof Bert Roberts and Dr Tibi Codilean from the University of Wollongong, Dr John Moreau from The University of Glasgow (UK), Prof Roy Goodacre from The University of Liverpool (UK), Dr David Fink from ANSTO, Cecilia Myers from Dunkeld Pastoral Company and Pauline Heaney from RAA/Lettuce Create. Current students on the project include Damien Finch (PhD), Jenna Hoy (Masters-Submitted) and Sam Drew (Masters). The project also collaborates closely with Traditional Owners from remote communities at Kalumburu and Wyndham including; Ian Waina, Uriah Waina, Lucas Karadada, Ethan Karadada, Augie Unghango, Scottie Unghango, Trinity Unghango, Gareth Unghango, Jeremy Unghango, Patrick Tataya, Rowan Waina, Mark Unghango, Adrian French, Ambrose Chalarimeri and Balanggarra Rangers: James ‘Birdy’ Gallagher and Wes Alberts. The project also works closely with the Kimberley Visions team to share knowledge and resources.


New dating techniques reveal Australia’s oldest known rock painting, and it’s a kangaroo

Researchers from the Rock Art Dating and Kimberley Visions project together with Balanggarra Traditional Owners have successfully dated a 17,300 year old kangaroo painting in the Kimberley.

The rock art painting is on the Unghango clan estate in Balanggarra Country in the north-east Kimberley. The kangaroo motif is painted in the style of the older rock art paintings in the Kimberley with long irregular brush strokes. The 2 metre naturalistic looking roo is painted on the surface of a collapsed rock shelter ceiling. The roo was painted in ochre used from iron oxide in a red mulberry colour. There is no scientific dating method to date when the paint was applied to the rock surface but the fossilised mud wasp nests built over and under the painting can be dated.

“The dating of this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians and is an important part of Australia’s history,” said Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.


12,000 year-old Aboriginal rock art from the Kimberley region, Western Australia

A landmark paper detailing the methods developed by Damien Finch in conjunction with ANSTO for radiocarbon dating of minute particles of charcoal in remnants of mud-wasp nest s was published in Quaternary Geochronology in March 2019.  This outcome from Damien’s PhD work is an important basis for his subsequent papers describing the application of these methods to dating the various Kimberley rock art styles.

This paper by Finch et al., detailing the radiocarbon dating of wasp nests associated with the Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) period art was published in the leading international journal Science Advances in February 2020 and created major national and international media interest.  Download paper. Lead author, Damien Finch and Traditional Owner Ian Waina participated in multiple media interviews from news outlets around the world (see summary at foot of page).


BBC film crew and Sir Antony Gormley visit the field camp

The July 2018 field camp hosted a BBC film crew with noted British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley.

The documentary ‘How Art Began’ subsequently aired on BBC2 in the UK in 2019. Sir Antony uses the Kimberley rock art sites he visited as the culmination and highlight of this program tracing the origins of art in rock paintings throughout the world.

International Rock Art Congress, Italy.
Another highlight in 2018 was the presentation by project researchers of five papers at the IFRAO 2018 International Rock Art Congress in Valcamonica, Italy. This was followed by a keynote presentation by Andy Gleadow about the project to the major International Conference on Thermochronology at Quedlinburg, Germany.


Drysdale River camp 2019

A major field camp was set up on the banks of the Drysdale River in July 2019, about 90 km north of our previous camps at Barking Owl Camp and south from the Barton River Camp operated in 2018.  The camp was home to 25 people including researchers, Traditional Owners and support personnel from all of our participating organisations.

We were joined in 2019 by our Partner Investigator, Prof Roy Goodacre from the University of Liverpool who brought his expertise in the use of nondestructive portable optical spectroscopy methods to test their utility in understanding the rock art and mineral coatings.  Further survey work led to the discovery of many new rock art sites in the Warton Sandstone above the Carson Escarpment, filling in a large gap in coverage between our work in previous years.

Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating

Dating large mud-wasp nests from rock shelters in the northern Kimberley by our University of Wollongong group (Profs Bert Roberts and Zenobia Jacobs) using OSL measurement on quartz sand grains extracted from within the mud. Field work in 2019 included sampling many modern mud-wasp nests to ensure the validity of the important assumption that nests have a zero-age when first formed. Nests sampled for dating are mostly constructed on top of rock art and, therefore, provide minimum ages for the underlying paintings. Conservatively, the nest ages range from as recent as 1,000 years to more than 18,000 years, the latter obtained from two nests built on top of an animal motif (possibly a macropod), providing further support for the Kimberley rock art sequence extending well into the Pleistocene. Measurements on the recently-constructed nests has now been completed and the results are being analysed.

Mineral accretion dating

Helen Green continues to progress her work on Uranium-series dating of mineral accretions associated with rock art as detailed under her Fellowship report. This work has taken an exciting new direction with the installation of a powerful new ATTOM instrument at the University of Melbourne, an enhanced sensitivity high-resolution mass spectrometer, which should minimise previously experienced problems with environmental contamination of samples by detrital thorium. Trials of in situ laser ablation U-Th dating in layered mineral accretions continue to progress with the latest trial completed in June 2020 once restrictions on access to University facilities were eased.

Another branch of Helen’s research has focused on determining the composition and internal structure of sulphate-oxalate glazes, often associated with rock engravings. Oxalate-rich layers can be radiocarbon dated using previously developed micro-milling techniques enabling the engravings to be dated and new microbeam techniques are also being investigated to assess the internal distribution of carbon in the mm scale deposits. A particularly exciting prospect is that these strongly layered surface deposits may not only be useful for dating engraved art, but may also contain a paleoclimate signature that can help in reconstructing past conditions through the period represented by the rock art.

A manuscript detailing the successful radiocarbon dating of matched layer sequences within the internal layers of these deposits has been submitted during the lockdown period and Melbourne University student Jenna Hoy recently passed her Masters with a First Class thesis on the oxalate-rich glazes. Masters student Sam Drew is also engaged in this project area at the University of Melbourne under supervision from Helen Green, Andy Gleadow and John Moreau.

Radiocarbon dating

Publication of the radiocarbon methods paper was an important prerequisite for publication of age estimates for rock art based on 75 dated wasp nests that were either under or overlying paintings. A second paper summarising the findings as they apply to paintings in the Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) style has now also been published and a third, on the Irregular Infill Animal style is in currently under peer review. Damien Finch has submitted his PhD Thesis at the University of Melbourne following which he will join the project in a postdoctoral capacity.

Cosmogenic Radionuclide (CRN) dating

The CRN rock-shelter dating group (David Fink, Reka Fülöp, Gael Cazes and Alexandru Codilean) has been working through the processing and analysis of sample materials collected during the successful 2018 and 2019 field campaigns in the Barton and Drysdale River regions. Samples have included material from new rock art shelters in order to date the formation ages of the rock shelter surfaces, along with sediment samples and profiles down vertical cliff faces to measure the overall rates of catchment erosion and the pace of escarpment retreat. These samples will help quantify the scale and tempo of Kimberley landscape change and substantially increase the number of rock art shelters being dated by the cosmogenic radionuclides 10Be and 26Al. This world-first approach to dating the rock walls is providing maximum ages for the rock art by dating the time of rock shelter formation. These ages show that some rock shelters have existed for as long as 230,000 years, long before people arrived in the area but others are as young as 9,000 years, showing that some rock shelters have only formed within the period that rock art was being produced. Reka Fülöp, has now joined the project as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in CRN dating (with additional support from ANSTO and University of Wollongong. Reka has now also commissioned a new in situ cosmogenic radiocarbon sample preparation facility that will provide a third cosmogenic radionuclide which will improve our ability to date young rock art shelters. Gael Cazes is currently writing up his PhD thesis at the University of Wollongong.



Gwion paintings were created around 12,000 years ago

Four Kimberley rock art Dating Techniques

Prof Andy Gleadow talks about the Traditional Owners involvement in the project.