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The Rock Art of Malarrak

In addition to the site called Djulirri, the subject of "Reading the Rocks" in the January/February 2011 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY, there are 5,000 other rock art sites in the Wellington Range of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. While none of them are quite as large as Djulirri, many offer surprising and unique works that provide additional insight into how the Aborigines saw and reacted to the world around them, especially the changes that came with the arrival of seafarers from Indonesia and eventually Europe. One site not far from Djulirri, called Malarrak, contains 17 discernable layers of paintings, including a number that may depict Southeast Asian subjects. "Every time I return I actually see a new thing," says Paul S. C. Taçon, a rock art expert from Griffith University in Queensland.                                                                                              

  • Patrick Lamilami, youngest son of Ronald, the traditional owner of the land where both Djulirri and Malarrak reside, now sometimes works as a guide to the area’s rock art sites. Here he stands before the central panel at Malarrak, which is dominated by a large painting of a crocodile. There is a similar depiction at Djulirri. The crocodiles may have been painted as markers of culture in a time of great change—when outsiders first arrived.
  • Animals are among the most common subjects of Aboriginal rock art in this part of Australia. The animals on Malarrak’s central panel also document a changing environment. The detailed colored fish suggest a wet climate and the emergence of freshwater wetlands in the area, while the kangaroo between and under them suggests a pervious drier period. Among other subjects, a crocodile and drinking mug are visible at right.
  • Also on the central panel at Malarrak are hints of the presence of outsiders. This painting depicts a distinctive knife in a sheath that would have been brought by the Macassans, who hailed from what is now Indonesia. The Macassans came to the area to harvest sea cucumbers for sale in China, and had a clear impact on Aboriginal life and art.
  • Patrick Lamilami and Australian National University archaeologist Peter Veth discuss a painting of a European ship at Malarrak. It may be a depiction of the HMS Mermaid, a vessel that Admiral Phillip Parker King used to explore the Australian coast in the early 19th century.
  • There are a number of hints that Indonesian seafarers regularly visited the northern coast of Australia far earlier than historical records suggest. One of those hints comes from paintings, like this one of a female figure. (It is flanked by the tail and leg of Malarrak’s large crocodile painting.) She appears to be wearing a sarong—or at least is covered in a pattern reminiscent of Southeast Asian sarong fabric. Dating of such works might show that the first Aboriginal contact with the outside world happened far earlier than is currently thought.
  • Taçon points to a telling detail of this relatively recent painting of a Winchester rifle from a rock shelter near Malarrak’s central panel. It is what Taçon calls an X-ray depiction and clearly shows the bullet in the breach of the rifle. The painting both shows how Aborigines adapted their own art traditions to new subjects and illustrates an intimate familiarity with the inner workings of firearms. “They took the most interesting bits of the new happenings and incorporated them into their longstanding traditions,” says Taçon.
  • X-ray depictions of kangaroos are relatively common in the area, but few are as complete and unencumbered as this one from a rock shelter near Malarrak. The art tradition represents an increasing interest in the natural world and may have been used to teach butchery techniques. The same idea—of showing the inner workings of a subject—can be seen in the steam ship at right (note the steam emerging from the stack), as its interior cargo is visible. These paintings are ineffably representative of the late Aboriginal rock art tradition—old and new subjects side-by-side, a chronicle of a world in flux, from a people whose knowledge and contribution to Australian history is often overlooked.

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