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Kimberley Visions: Rock art dynamics of northern Australia

Kimberley Visions,  a  landmark study mapping the rock art and occupational history of the Northern Kimberley, completed its 6-years in December 2021.  It examined shared art styles across northern Australia and explored questions of regionalism and identity. Did similar styles occur between the Kimberley and Arnhem Land? What are our current understandings about shared traditions and why might they have changed through time?

Rock art as a living tradition is realised through a research collaboration with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) and their Healthy Country Plan. More than 1,200 sites have been located and recorded; 80,000 photographs and several thousand ‘meta-data’ records are being researched with an access-controlled database. These sites include rock art, historic campsites, ochre sources, stone arrangements, quarries and living sites.


COVID-19 ADAPTION Kimberley Visions has postponed its final fieldwork season until mid-2021, refocusing energies on data management, analysis and research. The team has a series of publications underway led by both the UWA and Monash hubs, including papers on cached metal objects from the pastoral period, excavations, and the Kimberley rock art style sequence. The 4 PhD students are in intensive analysis and writing phases.

Rock Art Dating Project (RAD-2)

A decade ago Traditional Owners in the Kimberley were asking us ‘how old is the rock art?’  The lack of reliable dates for both recent and old art in the Kimberley and the myriad questions raised by TOs, archaeologists, geochronologists, and historians amongst others led to what has become the most innovative rock art dating project of its kind. Never has dating rock art been attempted on this scale and with this wealth of expertise and dating techniques.

The Dating project, now in its 2nd phase, 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.

An extended dating project “An absolute timescale for the Aboriginal rock art of the Kimberley region – landscape processes and multiple chronometers” follows the pioneering work undertaken in the first Kimberley Rock Art Dating project (2014-2017).

The project will run for four years from 2018 and has been awarded a major Linkage Grant by the Australian Research Council with support from Rock Art Australia.

A large group of researchers and Traditional Owners carried out fieldwork on the Barton and Drysdale River. Approximately 160 new rock art sites were documented in collaboration with Kimberley Visions and sampled for dating in this area which had not previously been surveyed.


COVID-19 ADAPTION  The Covid-19 restrictions have limited access to laboratories but proved manageable as no fieldwork was planned for 2020. The focus switched to analysis of existing sample materials from previous field seasons and writing up the exciting results for publication. Within the lockdown period two manuscripts were submitted for review and several others are in preparation. These include papers by Green et al., focussing on research into the origins and dating of engraved mineral glazes and their potential as paleoclimate archives in the Kimberley, and Finch et al., focussed on radiocarbon dating of mud wasp nests in association with the Irregular Infill Animal art style. Masters student Jenna Hoy submitted her thesis in June, presenting her final report over Zoom. PhD student Damien Finch will be submitting his PhD thesis in the coming months.

The team remains in contact with the remote Kimberley communities, sharing photos and phone calls with friends and colleagues. Everyone is looking forward to resuming work in the field with Aboriginal partners on country.

Unlocking Environmental Archives

Research to establish a series of long-duration paleo-environmental and paleo climate reconstructions for the Kimberley region spanning the last 60,000 years has been awarded an Australia Research Council grant of $460,429. The project was seed funded by Rock Art Australia.

The project aims to provide new understanding of the causes of environmental change and impacts on Australia’s Kimberley region since the arrival of Australia’s earliest inhabitants, and to inform conservation policy that will preserve the region’s globally significant rock art against environmental change and economic development. Ultimately all researchers in the Kimberley will be able to access a paleo-environments and paleoclimate e-atlas for the Kimberley.