Where Wombats Roved, and Aborigines Sketched

By Jane Perlez, New York Times
Dateline: SYDNEY, Australia

In a cave in rugged wilderness not far from the luxurious country resorts of this city's well-to-do, a leading anthropologist has found an unusually rare and pristine cache of ancient Aboriginal rock art.

In all, 11 layers of images of Australian animals ‚ kangaroos, wombats and monitor lizards, which Australians call goannas ‚  as well as drawings of boomerangs and half-human, half-animal creatures are scattered across the back wall of the cave in a giant mural.

The more than 200 images ‚ in faint reds and yellows, stark white and black ‚ stretch from 4,000 years ago to the late 18th century when white settlers first ventured onto Australian soil, said Paul S. C. Tacon, the chief research scientist in anthropology at the Australian Museum, who visited the site with Aboriginal consultants in May.

"I have been to thousands of places with rock art and only a few have affected me in this way,"Mr. Tacon said of the cave. "Obviously this was a special place that people made special trips to, either for ceremonies or to stop at on their travels. It shows there was a rich artistic tradition, ranging from naturalistic depictions to stylized form of expressions relating to spiritual beliefs."

The discovery is not the oldest Aboriginal art known in Australia — some drawings in the hard sandstone of the northern desert country are older, Mr. Tacon said.

But the proximity of these works to the country's largest city — just 60 miles west of Sydney and a few miles from resorts in the Blue Mountains — and their impeccable condition and number, makes the find one of the most important, he said.

The pigments on the drawings have been unusually well preserved because the cave opening faces north and receives little direct sunlight. The only disturbance Mr. Tacon could detect in the cave was some dust kicked up by wombats, an Australian marsupial that frequents the area and one of the creatures depicted on the wall.

Because of the historic value of the art, the announcement of the discovery was made in Parliament last month by Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, the state where the cave lies.

A group of hikers stumbled on the rock art eight years ago, but Mr. Tacon is the only expert to have seen it so far. It took a while for Mr. Tacon to get there, he said, because he wanted to consult first with Aborigines and include them in the process, and because drought and bush fires impeded access.

The cave's exact location has been kept secret. Mr. Tacon will say only that it is in Wollemi National Park and an extraordinarily tough walk from a drop off point at a place called Colo Heights in the Blue Mountains. He said that his stay at the cave, with five Aboriginal colleagues, was limited to two days because of a shortage of fresh water.

Once he came back from the site, Mr. Tacon successfully urged the premier to restrict public access to the cave.

Mr. Carr, a keen hiker and an outspoken advocate for Aboriginal rights, had wanted to go to the cave to see for himself. But when he learned that he would first have to take a two-day course to learn how to be winched down from a helicopter, he decided against a personal visit.

Of the array of drawings in the cave, Mr. Tacon said he was particularly impressed with the charcoals of local animals. The depiction of a swamp wallaby — a smaller version of a kangaroo — was the "spitting image" of the real thing, he said. A drawing of a rock wallaby was particularly strong because over time the charcoal had bonded with the rock. He also liked the drawing of a goanna drawn in charcoal and outlined with white ocher.

Some of the images, particularly the stenciling of hands and boomerangs, appear to have been done as a way of expressing, "'I was here, this is my country,"' Mr. Tacon said. The primitive artists fashioned the stencils by taking pigment — often red ocher or white pipe clay — putting it in their mouths and blowing it out over a hand or boomerang to leave the shape on the wall. "It was a first form of spray painting," he said.

Of particular interest was a drawing of what appeared to be a two-headed figure, or two figures standing one behind the other. They appear to be holding something resembling a barbed wire. Other images show human bodies with animal heads — either kangaroos or birds. These were considered ancestral beings of Aborigines, and are referred to in Aboriginal accounts of creation, Mr. Tacon said.

The rock art discovery comes as Australian art collectors have embarked on a sudden vogue for modern Aboriginal paintings on canvas, and are paying high prices for relatively new works only 30 to 40 years old at auction.

In Mr. Tacon's mind there is no comparison between the old and the new.

The intensity of the imagery in the cave made one of the Aborigines who visited the site with him fall into unusual dreams the night they camped there, he said. "He dreamed that his ancestors tried to visit him there. He wrote a poem and wanted an hour to sit by himself," before leaving the rock art behind and walking out of the forest.