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Petroglyphs and pictographs

About 30,000 years ago: Earliest known Australian rock art

National Museum of Australia
Earlier 1700
Year level

4

7

Learning area

History

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Where should the balance lie between preserving rock art and developing resources in Australia? The Western Australian Burrup peninsula rock art is an example of this. Research and discuss it further.

2. Examine these images from the National Museum of Australia’s ‘Painting on Country’ exhibition. How does this exhibition re-interpret rock art?

 

National Museum of Australia

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the first rock art is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

2. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>A scientist and an Aboriginal ranger collect a sample of Gwion Gwion rock art for dating, Northern Kimberley</p>
Sven Ouzman

In a snapshot

Rock art is an extremely important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait culture in Australia. There are more than 100,000 rock art sites in Australia. Aboriginal people consider many rock art locations to be sacred sites. Viewing and studying rock art helps us understand how people lived in Australia since they arrived at least 65,000 years ago.

A scientist and an Aboriginal ranger collect a sample of Gwion Gwion rock art for dating, Northern Kimberley

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What are the major types of Australian rock art? How are they different?

2. What is the main purpose of rock art?

3. Why is rock art important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

What is rock art?

Rock art is the oldest human art form that survives today. The first humans arrived in Australia at least 65,000 years ago. Aboriginal rock art has been dated to around 30,000 years ago. But there might be much older rock art sites on the continent. Aboriginal people created and continue to create different kinds of rock art. Petroglyph and pictograph rock art are the two main forms.

To create a petroglyph, people engrave rock by pecking, hammering or chipping away at a surface to make an image. These images have shapes like circles, arcs, dots or animal tracks.

To create a pictograph, people paint minerals like charcoal, clay, chalk and ochre on a rock surface. People can use dry or wet colours to create pictographs, by using their fingers or brushes (made from chewed sticks or hair) to paint with. In pictographs, you see images you can recognise more easily, like humans or animals. Petroglyphs can be found around Australia, but pictographs survive only in sheltered areas like caves.

Rock art can be simple or very complex. The type of artwork used depends on the individual artist and their cultural group.

‘Our story is in the land. It is written in those sacred places.’

Bill Neidjie, Kakadu man
<p>A scientist studies rock art in the Drysdale River region in the Northern Kimberley</p>

Peter Veth

<p>A scientist studies rock art in the Drysdale River region in the Northern Kimberley</p>

Why is rock art important?

All cultures on earth use pictures to tell stories. From the time they arrived in Australia, Aboriginal people used artworks in sacred and public places to record their stories.  

Aboriginal Australians continue to pass down knowledge about rock art today. This tradition has continued for thousands of years, sometimes directly from the original artists themselves. Aboriginal people consider many rock art locations to be sacred sites.

Rock art is therefore an extremely valuable historic, artistic and spiritual resource.

 

What will happen to Australia’s rock art?

Rock art is an important part of Aboriginal life and culture, and needs to be protected.

There are seven rock art sites on Australia’s National Heritage List. These are the Dampier Archipelago, Grampians National Park, Kakadu National Park, Koonalda Cave, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the West Kimberley. All of these sites are protected under Australian laws.

If we protect and care for Aboriginal rock art, all Australians can appreciate it for generations to come.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task

 

On a map of Australia, mark the seven rock art sites on Australia’s National Heritage List. What does the location of these sites tell you about Australia before Europeans arrived?

Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

 

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What are the major types of Australian rock art? How are they different?

2. What is the main purpose of rock art?

3. Why is rock art important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?