Gabarnmung - a site of significance
In June 2006, the Jawoyn Association's Ray Whear and pilot Chris Morgan made an astonishing discovery during a routine aerial survey on the Arnhem Land plateau.
They spied an unusually large rock shelter, landed the helicopter and on walking into the open cave, found themselves at a stunning gallery of hundreds of rock paintings.
Anthropological work with senior elders Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya enabled the Jawoyn to learn the name of the site - Nawarla Gabarnmang. The two men had both visited when they were children, and told of it being an important site where people camped on route to ceremony on Jawoyn country.
They also identified the Jawoyn clan Buyhmi as the traditional owners of the site. When Buyhmi traditional owner and elder Margaret Katherine was taken to the site, she cried out to her ancestors and wept for a place and family she had never known.
Since the rediscovery, extensive research has been carried out at Gabarnmung. Rock art specialist Robert Gunn has been recording every motif at the shelter - photographing and studying up to 600 individual motifs, along with petroglyphs of birds feet and ancient cupules.
In May 2010, an international team of archaeologists conducted an excavation at the site. They studied the paintings, the shelter formation, and dug two small pits. The group, including Monash University's Bruno David and France's foremost rock art archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste and geomorphologist Jean-Jacques Delannoy, uncovered a wealth of cultural material, including stone flakes, knives, axes, ochre palettes and animal bones.
Among those found, was a fragment of a ground-edge stone axe. Carbon dating around the entire piece returned a date of 35,500 years, making it the oldest of its type in the world. Recently, charcoal taken from the bottom of one of the pits has been carbon dated, revealing Aboriginal people were visiting the site more than 45,000 years ago. The archaeologists will return to the site over the next four years.
In early December, a group from Oprah's Ultimate Adventure travelled to the site to see its paintings and hear stories from elders Margaret Katherine and Lily Bennett, who is the traditional owner of land nearby. They rated the visit the highlight of their experience in Australia.
Gabarnmung is also the subject of an independent documentary and art project by Australian journalist and filmmaker Emma Masters and Canadian artist and filmmaker Adrian Buitenhuis.
Since we first began recording and documenting Jawoyn sites of significance, more than 4,000 rock art sites have been rediscovered on country - and we keep finding more.
Places of ceremony, areas connected to creation and dreaming stories and rock art sites are the focus of the Jawoyn heritage program.
The sites' provide detail in the form of art, artefacts and stories that depict the entire history of the Jawoyn people, their culture, ceremonies and lifestyle.
The rediscovery of thousands of rock art sites, and the ongoing uncovering of more, has required significant emphasis and resources.
The sites' art, artefacts and stories depict the entire history of the Jawoyn people, their culture, ceremonies
Returning to country
It has become clear that unlike many of the areas in the Northern Territory, almost all the sites rediscovered on Jawoyn Lands are unknown to present day Jawoyn people.
This may be attributed to the extreme remoteness of these sites and the fact they may not have been visited for many hundreds or thousands of years. The pristine condition and art styles of the naturally protected sites and the lack of contact period artefacts indicate this scenario may be the case.
Senior elders from Jawoyn and nearby lands are being taken to the sites as part of oral history recording and research into the site's significance and stories.
Many elders who have been taken to these magnificent places in recent times have been overcome with emotion and a number have changed their lifestyle after visiting these areas.
The Jawoyn Association is also using these places for the education of younger Jawoyn people by elders and seeing more evidence of pride in history.
Rock art recording
While more than 4,000 rock art sites have been rediscovered in recent years, just 90 complexes, 663 sites and 72 ceremonial/secret and other sites had been fully documented by June 2010. It is a time consuming and resource heavy process.
Our work has involved the documenting, recording and drawing of 12,861 motifs with over 20,802 photographs taken and entered into a database, the Jawoyn Cultural Heritage Management System, to which Aboriginal interpretations, custodial data and any other knowledge and information is added.
Given the sheer number of art sites on Jawoyn country, a site form has been created to enable rapid recording of basic information - it would be unpractical to undertake detailed recording of all sites within a reasonable budget. The form includes noting details about each site's location, using GIS mapping, as well as painting style and content, along with noting any artefacts found in the area.
While the information recorded is not suitable for detailed study of the artwork, the basic data for provides a general picture of the site and its contents, which will allow areas of future research interest to be identified.
Anthropologists and archaeologists who have visited the area believe Jawoyn cultural sites rival or exceed the known sites in the Northern Territory for antiquity, quality and Heritage Listing criteria.
It is our ongoing objective to identify a number of specific areas which meet the criteria for National/Indigenous Heritage Listing.