Seeing rock art through the eyes of an elder


Understanding Dreamtime Rock Art

Everywhere in the world that early humans found rocks, they left images carved and painted onto their surfaces. These images continue to inspire the curiosity and imagination of modern people, and researchers struggle to understand them. Unfortunately, any knowledge of the function and meaning of rock art has been lost across most of the world. Northern Australia is one of the last places left where rock art is still a living part of Indigenous culture. For the last seven years, I have studied with Yidumduma Bill Harney, the last fully-initiated Wardaman man, and custodian of his people’s Country, Songs, and Stories. Together we have documented twenty-seven of the rock art sites in Wardaman Country, and all of Yidumduma’s knowledge about them. This knowledge provides many insights into how rock art functioned in the daily and Ceremonial lives of early peoples. Yidumduma and the other Wardaman elders wish to see this knowledge recorded for their descendants, and shared with the rest of the world. Wardaman Country is known as the Land of the Lightning People, where the Lightning Brothers fought, and where the Rainbow Serpent was killed, during the Creation Time.

Finding Yidumduma

I first met Yidumduma Bill Harney in July of 2005, while touring Australia with my wife Charlotte to study the Aboriginal rock art there.  I was aware that the Victoria River District, ancestral home of the Wardaman people, and widely known as the Land of the Lightning Brothers, contained a concentration of fabulous rock art.  At an American Rock Art Research Association conference in May, I had seen one of Bill’s paintings, and heard several people praise his skills as an artist, guide, and master storyteller. Getting in touch with him was not easy, however, and any address or phone number I could find in America directed me to guides who provided full-service cultural tours, stopping at Bill’s station for just one day.

We decided to try to find Bill ourselves when we arrived in northern Australia. Even after locating the phone number to Menngen Station, where Bill lives, it took three days to reach him. He is an extremely busy man, and it’s not easy to catch him at home. Most of his time seems to be divided between managing Menngen Station, guiding tours to rock art sites, painting and carving, and attending or directing one of the never-ending meetings as Wardaman Senior Elder.  When I finally met Bill, I was immediately struck with his graciousness and sincerity. He has a gift for putting people at ease; within five minutes you feel like best friends. He exudes a quiet sense of confidence and consideration in every word and gesture.

We met on the red dirt road leading into Menngen, introduced ourselves, and drove into the station.  He grabbed a loaf of bread and a gallon jug of water, threw his “swag” in the back of his white land rover, and we were off on our tour, going straight to Morradaill-ya (Crab Dreaming). We arrived at the site in the late afternoon, and walked in to the main panel showing Dungdung and Nardi, creation beings of the Dreaming. As Bill told the Creation Story, he could see that I was more interested than the usual tourist, and he had me put down my camera and pick up my notebook. That became our routine for the rest of the four-day tour.  I would listen and take notes, walking around each site for an hour or so with him before taking any pictures.

Bill was especially pleased by my interest in his knowledge about the old ways, and in the engravings, as most people come primarily to see the impressive paintings this region is known for.  In over a decade of research, Bill was the first person I had ever met who viewed rock art as an important part of his life and beliefs.  Native Americans I’ve known consider the rock art an important part of their traditions, but realize that specific knowledge of the rock art sites and the ceremonies conducted there is lost forever.

I understood at the very beginning of our time together that a unique opportunity was being offered to me. The chance to learn from a man like Bill comes only once in a lifetime – if a person is lucky.  Bill’s knowledge included insights into the beliefs and ceremonies associated with rock art that could possibly apply (in a general sense) to rock art elsewhere.  I had already found a series of odd similarities between the rock art in parts of Australia and that in North America.  I believed (and still believe) that people in similar circumstances develop similar world-views and visual systems.  Although I’m a researcher, I believe that science cannot answer certain lines of questioning, and that the Wardaman spiritual beliefs are as valid as any others.  The Wardaman people have been linked to their country for longer than any other culture I’ve studied or lived in, and Bill is as quietly assured of his beliefs as anyone I’ve ever met.

Sitting at night under the wide Australian sky, Bill asked Charlotte and I to help him record the rock art and his stories about it.  I knew that other researchers had worked in the area, but they were focused on things like dating the rock art, trade systems, and relationships to other groups.  In recent years, Bill has co-written two books and has recently been working with others on the Wardaman Dreaming Project, an effort to record Wardaman traditional knowledge.  To go along with this, Bill envisioned a complete record of each site he had grown up in, with all his memories related to the rock art and ceremonies there, as a legacy to his descendants.  Charlotte and I have been documenting and helping to manage rock art in the western U.S. since 1995, and we jumped at this chance to learn from a man like Yidumduma, and to return to the Top End of Australia.

In July of 2006 we were back in the Land of the Lightning Brothers to record Gornbun-ya, a Hawk Dreaming site, and Menngen-ya, the White Cockatoo Dreaming, which Bill inherited from his mother.  With our colleague Brian Birdsall, we mapped, measured and photographed each rock art panel, feature and artifact.  We then filmed Bill going through the site, relating the stories associated with each painting and engraved boulder.  According to Bill, most of the rock art is related to events that occurred during the Dreaming, when the world was formed and the Laws were made. At that time, the world was handed over to people, and they were charged with keeping the Laws and the Stories by caring for the land and by conducting ceremonies to maintain the connection between the people, the land, and the past.

The Top End of Australia is well known for containing one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of rock art.  The Cape York Peninsula, Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and the Victoria River District are all famous for extensive galleries of large painted figures – ancestral beings from out of the Creation Time.  What sets the Victoria River District apart are large concentrations of engraved lines and images, something the other areas lack.  Most of these marks are sets of engraved parallel lines, but there are many examples of these marks forming complex designs that include anthropomorphic figures, circles, and rays emanating out from depressions in the rock. Several areas have bas-relief images of female genitalia, and there are examples of lines of drilled holes forming patterns.  There are also large numbers of deeply incised footprints of humans, birds, kangaroos, and other animals.  Many of these are outlined in white paint or have their interiors painted in red ochre.

Engraved images occur on both large and small boulders, and on bedrock and shelter walls in large rock art complexes.  Engraved lines are often found on panels that include paintings, and occasionally paintings and engravings are superimposed, as they are in the Keep River area to the west.  Some engraved panels consist of just one or two lines, and these are occasionally found on small blocks of sandstone scattered around sites.  Other panels may have up to several hundred lines forming large and elaborate compositions.  There are a few sites that contain pecked images, usually circles, and at several sites there are faces and figures that are reminiscent of petroglyphs in the deserts to the south.  At least one site has pecked anthropomorphic figures holding boomerangs that are, according to Bill, “…dancing during the Ceremony Time.”

Bill was taught that the engravings were made during the Creation Time, when “…all the world was fluid, like mud.”  When the Creation Time ended, and “everything came to still in the Country,” the Creation Beings left their footprints on the walls, and they went into the earth, as it turned into rock.  The ceremonial scars on their bodies were left on the rock as well.  These scars have meanings and stories and Laws encoded into them, specific to the Beings that wore them.  People with affiliations to these specific Beings copy particular compositions of lines onto their bodies, and carry knowledge and stories of those Beings with them for all to see.  The meanings of images, whether engraved or painted, change depending upon the context of that image.  What site is it in?  Where in the site is it located?   What other designs is it associated with?  Groups of engraved boulders sometimes work together to tell more complicated stories.  For instance, at one site (Gornbun-ya), large boulders are covered with markings and contain information about how to care for someone’s body, and how to determine if sorcery is the cause of their death.  Bill is able to relate the knowledge and stories encoded in the engravings because he was taught the stories at these particular sites.  This kind of understanding requires a lifetime of instruction and initiation.

“They said, You gotta take this and keep it strong, all the way, and when you get the mark, they said, you allowed to get married. When you get the tribal mark, you allowed to sing the Ceremony Law. And when you get the mark, they said, you can make the trade-off. When you got the mark, they said, you allowed to put all the burial bones together, and red ochre, and sing songs. You allowed to talk, to remove the bones to the burial site, and you allowed to take the lead, and sing and call out when you comin’ in to make the spiritual happiness. Use your clapstick, make a loud sound, so it goes up in the air, to make the happiness to the cave and the people’s bones, and also the Earth. Everybody can hear the sound, that’s what they told the young ones. They told all of us, anyway, when we was growin’ up, when I became a young boy.” Yidumduma Bill Harney

When we returned to Wardaman Country in 2007, I handed Bill a review copy of the Gornbun-ya report. After leafing through it, he smiled up at me and said, “I knew when I first met you that you meant business.”  I will never forget how good I felt at that moment.  After that, we spent two more weeks in the bush with Bill, recording Gandawag-ya, the Moon Dreaming, and two small sites, Tubul-ya, which tells the story of Warlang the Bat, and the Rainbow Serpent Gorrondalmi and his wives Red-Wing Parrot, and Rainbow Lorikeet; and Wynbarra, where the Kangaroo People shook hands with the first explorers, and told them to throw away their guns and share the land.

On this trip, we also assisted other members of the Wardaman Dreaming Project, musician and educator Paul Taylor, and filmmaker Lenny Glasser, as they filmed Bill singing and telling his “Long Stories.” The Wangga and Gujjinga songs that Bill sang opened up a whole new dimension for us. Each rock art site has one, two, or three songs associated with the stories and Beings there. Like many other peoples, the Wardaman believe that all things began with a song or a sound. Various Creation Beings sang rain, wind, food, fire, medicine, tools, and everything else in the world into existence. Long-tailed Pheasant had a song to make the didgeridoo, Butcherbird created clap-sticks, and Peewee was the dancer. All the other birds and animals came to the Ceremony, to create the Songs and Laws they would carry with them and later give to humans.

During this visit, Bill also took us to Munul-yung, where his mother would hide him after the Welfare Board took Dulcie, his five year-old sister.  Many mixed-race children were removed from their families and long years were to pass before Dulcie saw her brother again. At Munul-yung there were yams, echidna and kangaroo, and turtles in the nearby waterhole.  The shelter is huge, but well hidden in a narrow gorge, and riders passing above see only a thick tangle of vegetation filling a thin crack in the sandstone. The shelter contains many faded paintings, and deep, mortar-like depressions on the cliff face, where Bill was taught that Gummerinjji the Emu pressed his chest into the wet surface as he showed the people how to dance.  Bill told us how he and the other children were taught how to dance and sing here by their grandparents. He showed us the steel axe head his grandfather Joe Jormanjji had hidden and warned him never to show to any “white-fella,” for fear of being accused of theft and punished. The floor of the shelter is littered with stone tools, and when Bill picked up a stone knife and described how it was used, it was easy to picture the little boy skinning a goanna for dinner.

He described his years living here, and his transition into the life of a stockman at a very young age. Later, he was able to visit the ceremonial sites over the years, and as he mustered cattle or mended fences, he maintained his ties to the land and to the Spirits that live in it. Later still, when his chance came, he was able to demonstrate those connections in court, and help regain much of the traditional land of the Wardaman people. His goal is to help his people move back onto their own land and back to a more traditional way of life. He believes that by promoting a cultural tourism business the Wardaman people can develop a stronger pride in their cultural identity, and become economically self-sufficient as well.

Although much of the rock art of Australia and the United States appears very different at first glance, a closer examination brings up many more similarities than dissimilarities. Many researchers have noted the similarities between the predominant rock art styles of the arid regions of both continents. The Panaramitee style in Australia, and the Western Archaic (or Great Basin Abstract) style in America are not only visually alike, but also share many attributes of site context, such as proximity to food, water, and lithic sources.  Even more localized rock art styles like those in the American Southwest and the Top End of Australia share common traits; large fantastical anthropomorphic figures often predominate, for example.

Work being done in Australia, particularly concerning periods of population change, resource use intensification, and the appearance of new rock art styles may shed light on questions being asked about the Coso Range, the Pahranagat Valley, and other areas of the American west. I believe it is possible to make a strong case that people living similar lifestyles and adapting to similar environmental stresses would develop similar worldviews and forms of spiritual and visual expression.  The main lesson I’ve learned from my time with Bill has been that seemingly simple designs and compositions can symbolize extremely complex ideas. Much of the ethnographic literature concerning rock art from around the world supports this belief, and also supports Bill’s claim that increasingly detailed information about those images would be imparted to an individual at ceremonies throughout their life.

Native American worldviews are as rich and complex as those of Australian Aborigines, and there is every reason to believe the functions of rock art in their ceremonies would be just as complicated. It would seem obvious then, that without direct ethnography any interpretation of rock art would at best only be scratching the surface of the meanings ascribed to it by the people who made or used it.  For now, the friendship and trust that Yidumduma Bill Harney has honored us with will drive Charlotte and I to use whatever time, energy, and financial support we can muster to continue helping him to record Wardaman rock art and what he remembers of the Creation stories from the Land of the Lightning Brothers.

All words and pictures copyright 2008 David M. Lee and Yidumduma Bill Harney


2012 Update

We have now been working with Yidumduma Bill Harney for seven field-seasons. We have spent more than a year of our lives living in the bush in Wardaman Country, letting the lessons of the Dreamtime seep into our bones. It has been both a wild adventure and an incredible honor, far beyond anything we could have imagined. The Creator has seen fit to give us a Great Blessing and a Grand Responsibility. Who could ask for more?

We found ourselves at a cross-roads, where the choice was either to continue working in unfulfilling jobs for uninspired and ungrateful bureaucrats, or we could jump off the cliff. Holding hands, we closed our eyes and jumped.

To be able to continue this work we have spent our life savings, we have worked and saved for ten months of every year, and have never regretted a moment of it. We have become good friends with Bill and his family and other fine folks in the Northern Territory, and in other parts of Australia, who have both encouraged and supported us. In many ways our two-and-a-half months in Wardaman Country every year are more real and vital than the other nine-and-a-half months. We built a great life together here in the Great Basin of the western United States, documenting Native American rock art throughout the west, working for and with a wonderful and dedicated group of researchers, land managers and First Nation folks. We have actually (for the time being) found a way to make a living doing what we love, but we would both move to Australia in a heartbeat if they’d let us. Most of the people there (outside of the Big Cities) seem to be having a good day, and it’s been a long time since most Americans were that friendly.

The weight of the dreams and the sounds of the birds and the smell of the River Gums. Knowing the names for the waterholes and the outcrops, and knowing the names and attitudes and exploits of the Spirits who created them and who still live there. And most of all Bill Harney. Learning from him is learning what it is to be human; how to truly see and hear the land, and how to be a part of it.

The work itself has grown by leaps and bounds. As our foundation of knowledge about Wardaman culture has increased, Bill has seen fit to continue to teach us more and more. What started out as a quest to learn about the Wardaman beliefs regarding their rock art has become an effort to document everything Bill can remember about traditional Wardaman knowledge. The paintings, after all, are merely the “shadows” of the Ancestral Beings who walked here during the Creation Time.

I have come to look at rock art sites as punctuation marks on the landscape. Areas of emphasis that serve to frame all the land around them. They are places for people to learn and to teach, and to renew their ties with that land. But that is just one level of explanation for one piece of the puzzle. There are many, many other places across the landscape that are just as important to the Story, but show no evidence of human use. This is true in Wardaman Country, and I suspect is true throughout all Indigenous homelands.

In 2010 I was amazed at one point when Bill drew a map of nearly 100 springs and told us the names in both Wardaman and English, described settings, connecting travel routes, water quality, associated Beings, and how the springs were connected to the Stories and Songlines. All this in under two hours. Then a year later Bill spent thirteen hours discussing nearly three hundred sites on eight of the ten Wardaman family estates. On the first day he decribed the “boundary” sites, again in Wardaman and English, and often in the surrounding languages as well (Bill speaks six or seven languages). And again telling many Dreamtime and historical stories about the sites, the routes between them, their settings and what resources are present there. The next day he talked about the “interior” sites for each family or clan estate, linking them all to the “boundary” sites. Weeks later he spent hours with us locating the sites on a series of maps, until we ran out of both time and maps. Only a fraction of these sites have rock art or habitation evidence, yet they are all equally important to the interwoven fabric of Country and Culture. In describing places, Bill weaves Dreamtime Stories and historical anecdotes together, and emphasizes how every incident or episode has consequences and repercussions. Place, time, action, and actor all become interchangeable at some point.

In 2005, when Yidumduma asked us to come back and help him document Wardaman rock art and all that he remembered being taught about it, we knew we would need to learn a bit about videography in order to be able to film him. And we needed to learn a little about ethnography, even though he would be directing the project, and our goal was to be careful to keep our questions confined to “what would you like to say about this site/panel/image, Bill?” Originally, we hoped to be able to afford to stretch the project for two or three years, but we quickly learned that understanding anything about the rock art meant we had to learn not only about the associated Stories, Songs, and Ceremonies, but also the Country and everything in it and over it and under it. A lifetime of learning for people who are born here; we can ever only hope to scratch the surface. Fortunately the Powers-that-Be have seen fit to help us find a way to continue so far, and we are planning our next trip now, without having any idea how we’ll pay for it.

You can’t really understand much about a people without speaking their language. Someone once said that every language is a unique expression of how each group agreed to describe their individual yet collective view of the world. This has been a problem with our work since the beginning. We are not linguists, and while there was once a Language Center in nearby Katherine, it closed due to (apparent) political infighting several years ago, and there are no signs of it reopening anytime soon. We have not been able to secure funding to help us in our work, or pay a professional linguist to try to finish a Wardaman dictionary. Dr. Francesca Merlan produced A Grammar of Wardaman in 1993, and it has been invaluable, but there is a pressing need for a dictionary to be produced while Bill and a few other elders are still available. Bill has used hundreds of unpublished Wardaman words in his recordings with us, particularly words associated with the Dreamtime. He is one of only a handful who are still fluent in Wardaman and time is running out. We videotape many hours of Bill repeating the Stories in Wardman and other neighboring languages, in the hopes that future Wardaman and researchers will find it useful, but the skills of a professional linguist are desperately needed. I have learned many Wardman words, yet syntax and sentence structure are still beyond me.

Fortunately Bill began working many years ago with Paul Taylor, a professional musician and educator, to videotape and document the traditional Songs that Bill was taught, for they are yet another integral part of the bigger picture. Paul found that he could only understand the Songs by studying the culture behind them, and he started down this path of learning with Bill long before we did.

Charlotte and I document rock art. We can read a map, a compass, and a GPS unit. We can (usually) locate and identify natural species and cultural artifacts and features. We know how to walk carefully and look slowly. What pictures to take and where to place the scale. We can draw rock art and artifacts and maps, and write reports. We camp in the bush and try to get a feel for some of the sounds and the smells and the heat and the wind and the pests and the beauty that the old people lived with.

And yet we will never know what it is to be born into the Grasshopper Family, like Bill was. We will never know what is is to be a child of the Rainbow Serpent and to be protected by his power whenever we stray into deep water. We will never be able to determine where we are by the texture of the soil and the smell of the air, and the whispering of our ancestors. We’ll never have that sense of direct kinship that Bill has with everyone and everything that calls his home their home; the people and the plants and the creatures and the rocks and the Spirits.

And we will never know what it is like to have a little waterhole somewhere, waiting for our Spirit to return to it.

But we were taught by a man who does. He has taught us that every single thing in the Universe is connected to every other thing. He taught us that everything and everybody, even a Yank, has a purpose, whether we know it or not.

As a researcher, I started this journey with a fairly open mind, full of questions and empty of answers. A decade-and-a-half of documentation and study has given me a pretty good understanding of the on-the-ground archaeology of rock art in western North America, but it is obvious that some profound disconnect is keeping all researchers from being able to look at rock art as anything but an enigma. There are plenty of theories interpreting rock art, but none stand up to real scrutiny.

I believe I now understand some of the reasons why:

Perhaps the largest impediment to our awareness is ourselves. In our lives and in our understanding of the world we constantly seek to reduce things (and people) to their simplest components in order to analyze them. Getting to the “heart” of a matter is what we call it, but we ignore the innate complexity of even the tiniest particle or idea. Despite all of its good qualities, science is founded on the principles of reduction, differentiation, and categorization. These tools may or may not work to understand and compare species or process, but they don’t work very well to explain human thought or emotion, and they are completely counter to the Indigenous concept of the interconnectedness of everything.

Also, science seeks one answer as the most likely, and declares all others to be false, albeit subject to future review and revision. From working with Bill and from my readings of other anthropological and ethnographic work, I’ve come to believe that there are valid reasons for multiple correct answers to the same question, particularly in dealing with traditional beliefs. This goes against all modern convention and “reason,” but it explains much about the many levels of meaning that Traditional Owners across the world attribute to their rock art, Songs, Stories, and Ceremonies.

For myself, this journey is a continuing process of dismantling my misconceptions and teaching myself to REALLY stop and listen.

David Lee   2012

All words and pictures copyright David M. Lee 2012           contact me at:


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