The rock art of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II)
MetadataShow full item record
The western Arnhem Land site of Madjedbebe – a site hitherto erroneously named Malakunanja II in scientific and popular literature but identified as Madjedbebe by senior Mirarr Traditional Owners – is widely recognised as one of Australia’s oldest dated human occupation sites (Roberts et al. 1990a:153, 1998; Allen and O’Connell 2014; Clarkson et al. 2017). Yet little is known of its extensive body of rock art. The comparative lack of interest in rock art by many archaeologists in Australia during the 1960s into the early 1990s meant that rock art was often overlooked or used simply to illustrate the ‘real’ archaeology of, for example, stone artefact studies. As Hays-Gilpen (2004:1) suggests, rock art was viewed as ‘intractable to scientific research, especially under the science-focused “new archaeology” and “processual archaeology” paradigms of the 1960s through the early 1980s’. Today, things have changed somewhat, and it is no longer essential to justify why rock art has relevance to wider archaeological studies. That said, archaeologists continued to struggle to connect the archaeological record above and below ground at sites such as Madjedbebe. For instance, at this site, Roberts et al. (1990a:153) recovered more than 1500 artefacts from the lowest occupation levels, including ‘silcrete flakes, pieces of dolerite and ground haematite, red and yellow ochres, a grindstone and a large number of amorphous artefacts made of quartzite and white quartz’. The presence of ground haematite and ochres in the lowest deposits certainly confirms the use of pigment by the early, Pleistocene inhabitants of this site. However, we know very little about what the materials were used for. Many of the earliest occupation sites in Australia, including Madjedbebe, have revealed finds of ochre with ground facets, sometimes in considerable quantities (Clarkson et al. 2017; Davidson and Noble 1992:139), and it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that the haematite and other ochres were used for cultural ‘business’, such as body art, decoration of objects (spears, dilly bags, etc.), the production of rock art or other such activities. Whatever the case, here we argue that the rock art is an important part of the archaeological story of Madjedbebe, and it deserves particular attention. In this chapter, we focus on the 1068 paintings, stencils and beeswax figures that exist above current ground level at Madjedbebe. Our work draws on environmental, archaeological and ethnographic evidence to place the art and the site in their wider regional contexts.
The Archaeology of Rock Art in Western Arnhem Land, Australia
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeology