An international team of scientists and photographers are conducting some of the most systematic research ever undertaken on Western Australia's Bradshaw rock paintings, in an effort to further understand aspects of the social culture and physical environment that accompanied the creation of these art forms.
The International Rock Art Research Team (IRART) has been working to collect data on and provide analysis of the Bradshaw rock art system since 1998. With IRART's continuing efforts and publications to date, the team hopes to move this field of research ahead and gain public attention for this unique heritage. A new expedition is being planned at present to document more Bradshaws and to revisit some for further investigation.
Scattered over a 50,000 sq. km expanse of the rugged Kimberley region in northwestern Australia, the Bradshaws comprise a highly sophisticated art form believed to be painted largely by Ice Age hunter-gatherer tribes. An estimated 100,000 Bradshaw galleries exist in the Kimberley, ranking among the world's oldest depictions of religious behaviour and illustrating some of humankind's earliest garments.
Bradshaws are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning, characteristics uncommon to most rock art systems. Joseph Bradshaw stumbled upon the unique rock art in 1891, and while the term Bradshaw is entrenched in the literature, the Bradshaws span an area home to several Aboriginal nations each of which uses a different name for the paintings.
Some experts believe Bradshaw rock art may be up to 60,000 years old, however dating the Bradshaw rock art system is a notoriously difficult task. To date, two different techniques have been used: thermoluminescence and radiocarbon dating. Analysis of single quartz grains embedded in a mud wasp nest using the luminescence method have provided a minimum date of 17,500 (±1,800) years before present (BP).
The second technique using the radiocarbon method has indicated more recent dates of 1,450 to 3,900 years BP. The vast time span represented by these dates may either mirror problems with utlized dating techniques, or may genuinely reflect a long-lived art tradition in Kimberley stretching across hundreds of generations. The abundance of Bradshaw paintings, coupled with the presence of four distinctly different painting styles and evidence of artwork restorations, might support this idea.
On craggy rock faces clustered around northern Kimberley's seven major river systems, the predominantly reddish figures strike elegant running poses, hunt with boomerangs and spears, or seemingly float in space. Some even carry out ritualistic movements, such as bobbing up and down, adorned with elaborate headdresses and body ornamentation.
IRART believes that Bradshaws can provide unprecedented insight into the social structures, belief systems, and material culture of the Ice Age hunter-gatherers previously inhabiting the Kimberley region.
Work by the multi-disciplinary team from the United States, Canada, and Denmark indicates that spirituality and religion was alive and well within the Kimberley hunter-gatherer tribes. Most Bradshaw figures are depicted genderless, possibly suggesting a society where men and women were somewhat equal. The Bradshaw rock art record also suggests a strong link between radical environmental changes during the last glacial-interglacial cycle and human behavioural patterns. For example, the early Bradshaws are depicted with representations of abundant plant material.
This suggests that the paintings' creators lived in a relatively lush environment. Intriguingly, there is a noticeable increase in weapons depicted in the rock art when comparing the early to the later Bradshaws, possibly an indication of increasingly scarce food supplies due to an increasingly more arid climate.
Results from team-member Peter Paul Biro's image analysis suggests that the Bradshaw figures (usually 10-70 cm tall) were sketched before being filled in, implying well conceived planning. Biro's image processing of certain weathered Bradshaw figures reveal detailed well-painted faces with anatomically correct features. These may be the earliest "portraits" ever discovered.
Four major styles of Bradshaw art have been identified, as indicated:
1. Tassel Figures. which are the oldest styles and are characterized by elaborate body ornamentation.
2. Sash Figures.
3. Elegant Action Figures. which are most often pictured running and hunting.
4. Polychrome Clothes Peg Figures. which are more abstract and are believed to be the most recent.
IRART is using the latest digital camera system to record the art and categorize it into styles based upon the distinct characteristics identified. To date, researchers have only documented an estimated 1% to 2% of the Bradshaws. IRART has documented approximately 80 galleries, mainly in the Drysdale River National Park. At every Bradshaw gallery, detailed dimensions of the Bradshaw figures are carefully recorded in addition to geological and biological features of the surrounding gallery areas.
Results from team-member Peter Paul Biro's image analysis suggest that the Bradshaw figures (usually 10-70 cm tall) were sketched before being filled in, implying well conceived planning. Biro's image processing of certain weathered Bradshaw figures reveal detailed and well-painted faces with anatomically correct features.
These may be the earliest "portraits" ever discovered. Image processing has also revealed that some of the artwork was later retouched and restored, implying that the paintings were well understood and perused over generations, suggesting a long-lived and continuous painting tradition.
Unfortunately the Bradshaws are under the threat of deterioration through weathering and other erosive processes. Their complete protection should be a foremost concern in the preservation of world heritage art. By virtue of extensive research into and catalogueing of these exquisite art forms, IRART hopes to work towards the acknowledgement of the Bradshaw rock art paintings as poising a significant aspect to human development, and consequently justify steps for their preservation.
IRART was formerly led by Dr. Michaelsen of James Cook University, who catalyzed the development of the team and initial research agenda in 1998. IRART is now comprised of an group of multi-disciplinary researchers who form the core of the International Rock Art Research Team.