Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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A Painted Land Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Margaret Grove

The rock canvasses of Australia's Aboriginal artists celebrate the beliefs of a people steeped in ancestor worship.

[image] Blue-faced dingoes cavort in this artwork from the northwestern Kimberley region. (Margaret Grove) [LARGER IMAGE]

Across the warm, weathered sandstone of the northern Australian coast, extinct Tasmanian tigers prowl and hippopotamus-like marsupials graze, bright blue dingoes playfully wrestle, giant cranes gather at sacred breeding grounds, and ceremonial figures--humans with attributes of animal and insect bodies--engage in exotic rituals. These are among the region's thousands of paintings, some created over 50,000 years ago, others as recently as the 1950s. Archaeological science finds them difficult to date with confidence or precision.

The north Australian terrain, created by Ancestor Beings eons ago during what the Aboriginal people know as the Dreamtime, is so rugged that many sites remain unknown to outsiders. Nonetheless, new discoveries, like those on these pages, occur every dry season. Aboriginal landowners accompany researchers on explorations by foot, four-wheel drive, or helicopter. Last year's research season yielded 24 new sites in less than a week.

Margaret Grove has done rock-art research in Australia for the past seven years. She is an associate professor of women's spirituality at New College of California in San Francisco, where she teaches Archaeomythology, a combination of archaeology and oral traditions.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America