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archaeologist’s perspective on Mutawintji National Park

NSW Department of Education and Training Sites and Scenes 1999

Mutawintji National Park is an important Aboriginal site. It is the traditional tribal area of the Malyankapa and Pandijkali people. However, Mutawintji has strong cultural associations for its original owners and also for Wiimpatja from a wide regional area. Mutawintji historic site is particularly significant as it functioned as a ceremonial ground and was also a creation place. According to William Bates, Mutawintji has always been used for cultural tourism purposes. Oral history indicates that it was the site of big multi-tribal meetings that had many functions. For example, initiation rites took place at Snake Cave, while nearby Mushroom Rock had religious purposes. Other places within the park were used for rain making ceremonies and were women’s sites.

Over three hundred Aboriginal archaeological sites have been recorded at Mutawintji National Park, although more exist and as yet, are unrecorded. These include rockart examples, campsites with hearths and scatters of artefacts, scarred trees, stone arrangements and quarries. These archaeological artefacts and remains date from over 8000 years ago, and tell us a lot about how local Aboriginal people have lived at Mutawintji since this time. All the artefacts at Mutawintji are protected by the National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1974 and are of considerable cultural and scientific value.

As an archaeologist, my role is to record examples of rockart and artefacts found on site using photographic and written documentation. After the process of recording is completed, I suggest ways in which these archaeological sites should be managed and preserved, in consultation with local Aboriginal people. Using the rockart as an example, I will demonstrate one aspect of my work.

Rockart at Mutawintji dates from over 8000 years ago and ranges from carving and engraving to painting and drawing. Rockart tends to be located close to the rockhole gorges, in either sheltered locations or on exposed rock surfaces. Various objects and shapes are represented across all mediums, including human figures, animals, weapons and even pipes. Mutawintji’s rockart has aesthetic and scientific value, but is especially significant to local Aboriginal people because it represents a direct link with their ancestors and land.

In 1925, Mutawintji’s rockart came to the attention of the Barrier Field Naturalists Club, who lobbied for the surrounding area to be reserved as crown land. They took photographs of the rockart, and members of the Club, such as Robert Pulliene, gave talks at the Royal Society of South Australia. The Barrier Field Naturalist Society was interested primarily in the ancient engravings found at Mutawintji historic site and are referred to as petroglyphs. Petroglyphs, which are said to be over 8000 years old, are shapes or patterns that have been pecked into the soft sandstone with sharp implements. More recent types of engraving at Mutawintji tend to be located on open rock surfaces but are also found in caves. As with the petroglyphs, stone tools have been used to carve images into the sandstone rock-face.

Mutawintji is one of three engraving sites in New South Wales; other rock engraving sites are in the Sydney Basin and Clarence River regions. In comparison, painting sites are more common within New South Wales. At Mutawintji National Park, paintings usually occur in sheltered locations such as caves, rock overhangs or ‘galleries’. Paint was made from a variety of pigments, including ochre and gypsum (transported from the Flinders Ranges) which were mixed with egg white, water or urine. Three methods were used to apply paint to rock surfaces: stencilling, drawing or painting, and imprinting.

There are many stencils within Mutawintji National Park, mainly in caves and rock overhangs. Stencils were made by the artists spraying a mixture of paint from their mouths over objects, such as shears and boomerangs, or parts of their body, particularly hands and feet. Another method used was painting or drawing, where the artists applied paint directly on to rock surfaces using their fingers or chewed twig brushes. A third, less usual type of rockart found at Mutawintji is imprinting. This method of applying paint required the artists to dip objects or their hands into paint and press them against rock surface.

Mutawintji’s rock-art sites are very fragile, partly because the rock surfaces on which they have been painted or engraved are flaking off because of extreme weather conditions. As a result, it is important that the impact of visitors on these artworks continues to be monitored. I will be giving a talk in six months to discuss the outcome of our findings for the EIA.

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