This month in Archaeology: Blue Mountains rock art galleries threatened by fire
Less than 100 km to the west of Sydney, a phenomenal rock art record survives in thousands of Blue Mountains rock shelters. These rock art sites hold significant cultural and heritage values and high research potential.
Fire and rock art
The Blue Mountains have recently been ravaged by fire. The fires burnt many important rock shelter sites which contain significant collections of rock art and wall carvings. These rock art sites are threatened by increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, due to climate change, and both the fires and efforts to control fires can damage or destroy rock art sites.
Who speaks for country?
There are six distinct language groups who have traditional rights and custodial responsibilities for the Blue Mountains region. They are the Darug, Gundungurra, Eora, Wiradjuri, Darkinjung and Dharawal people.
The Blue Mountains were, and continue to be, a meeting place for many First Nations Groups. As highlighted by Brown and Clarke (2019), “Our place is still a cultural landscape filled with story and heritage.” In terms of rock art, influences from the Woronora to the south, the Hunter and central coast to the northeast, Kamilaroi country to the north/north-west and Wiradjuri country to the west can be detected, in addition to some early influences from the far northwest or even central Australia. This makes it a unique ‘junction’ or crossroad, which is very different from any other part of Australia with rock art. It also is one of the few well-preserved areas with both lengthy engraved and painted traditions. Furthermore, there is extensive oral history that relates to landscapes, places, sites and images and numerous contemporary Aboriginal connections (Taçon et al. 2007).
How long have First Nations people lived in the Blue Mountains?
Aboriginal people have lived in the Blue Mountains for more than 30,000 years, adapting to multiple episodes of extreme climate change, including the last ice age. However, this long history of occupation remains less well known than in the coastal areas around Sydney, due to the ruggedness of the country.
Why these art sites so important
Rock art provides a tangible link to country and ancestors for First Nations people. These sites also remind all Australians that people flourished in this landscape under a different way of life for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived. The First Nations groups in the Blue Mountains continue to care for country and practice ceremony today.
The Australian Museum’s history of archaeological research in the Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains have formed a focal point for Australian Museum archaeologists since the Australian Museum’s first archaeologist Frederick McCarthy conducted the first excavations in this region in the 1940s. These collections are housed in the Australian Museum. Dr Val Attenbrow, during her time as Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum (from 1989, currently an AM Senior Fellow), conducted new research in the Blue Mountains, excavating several sites and re-analysing key Blue Mountains collections using new techniques. This resulted in multiple publications, including the book ‘What’s Changing: Population Size or Land-Use Patterns? The archaeology of Upper Mangrove Creek, Sydney Basin’. In the early 2000s Paul Taçon, Australian Museum Principal Research Scientist from 1991 to 2005, together with Blue Mountains custodian Wayne Brennan led an extensive program of site discovery in the Wollemi region of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. They recorded over 200 previously unknown sites, including several rock art galleries which rival northern Australian rock art sites for complexity and beauty.
What can be done to protect these sites?
Today, Dr Amy Mosig Way, Australian Museum archaeologist, is continuing this work with Wayne Brennan (Gamilaraay, Blue Mountains custodian), Dr Duncan Wright (ANU) and the Blue Mountains First Nations communities. From the beginning, this has been a shared project with all aspects jointly managed and conducted by individuals of both the Aboriginal and archaeological communities. Together we hope to record and conserve these phenomenal sites.
Dr Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.
Attenbrow, V. 2007. What’s Changing: Population Size or Land-Use Patterns? The archaeology of Upper Mangrove Creek, Sydney Basin. Terra Australis 21. http://doi.org/10.22459/WC.02.2007
Brown, K. and T. Clarke. 2019. ‘Prologue: A Living, Cultural Landscape’ in K. Knox and E. Stockton (eds.) Aboriginal Heritage of the Blue Mountains: Recent Research and Reflections. Blue Mountain Education & Research Trust, Lawson, [N.S.W.]. ISBN: 9780994155580.
Kelleher, M. 2009. ‘Aboriginal Art in the Blue Mountains’ in E. Stockton and J. Merriman (eds.) Blue Mountains Dreaming, second edition. ISBN 0-646-14883-4.
Taçon, P., Hooper, S.B., Brennan, W., King, G., Kelleher, M., Domicelj, J. and Merson. J. 2007. Assessment of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Values of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area A Report for the Department of Environment and Water Resources. © Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute & Griffith University.
Valentine, J. 7 June 2020. ‘The summer bushfires exposed Indigenous artefacts protected by bushland. The race is on to save them from neglect’ ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-07/bushfire-exposed-indigenous-art-we-must-save-from-neglect/12322258