Bigge Island …

Another big day in the Kimberley. May 3rd started out with a boat trip past Crocodile Rock …

Crocodile Rock

to a little cove …

in which, at low tide, there is the entrance to a natural cavern …

Cathedral Cavern

It was a day spent in the vicinity of Bigge Island, not a lot of other people around but a place of significance to people for probably some 65 000 years. Here is a ceremonial ground, a place where initiations and significant cultural activities would have occurred …

Ceremonial Ground

In that one day we were able to see three styles of rock painting. The Wandjina style is a living tradition, the most prominent theme is the Wandjina itself …

Wandjina

… but other dream time figures and animals are also depicted. Hands are popular.

Hands

These in-filled kangaroos are beneath an overhang that is not suitable for habitation and may be an example of an older style …

Kangaroo

Most intriguing of all though are the Bradshaw figures. Not only are they elegant, they are shrouded in mystery and have an interesting recent history. There existence was made known to the European world by Joseph Bradshaw who discovered them in 1891 whilst searching for a suitable place to run some cattle. He was familiar with the Wandjina style and recognised these figures as something quite different.

He wasn’t carrying a camera and the exact location was hard to record. The pastoral enterprise came to nought and so when he later came to address the Victorian branch of the Royal Geographic Society all had to show was his sketches. His enthusiasm for the fine detail and an aesthetic worthy of ancient Egypt elicited a lukewarm response.

American archaeologist Daniel Sutherland Davidson in a survey of Australian rock art published in 1936 was dismissive, pointing out that Bradshaw’s encounter with this art was brief and lacked any Aboriginal interpretations, his sketches were likely inaccurate and drawn from a Eurocentric bias.

Bradshaw’s discovery didn’t reach the mainstream until the 1950’s. Rediscovery of his original gallery has shown his sketches to be remarkably accurate.

And what of the Aboriginal interpretations? When archeologists began to ask  about the figures they found that the local people did not hold them in high regard, tastes had changed. They have explanations for the origin of the paintings but, unlike Wandjina art, no stories that bring them into the fabric of their lives.

The paintings mostly depict human silhouettes in a dynamic style that suggests running, hunting or dancing. They are often dressed in elaborate head ornamentation and often have tassels or sashes at the waist.

Bradshaw figures

An enormous amount of research has been carried out by amateur archaeologist Grahame Walsh between 1977 and and his death in 2007. But for all that we know little about the people who made these ancient and evocative images and exactly when they were painted.

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