Aboriginal Rock Engraving

The most prolific, widely distributed and lasting works of art by Aboriginal artists are the numerous engravings on rock surfaces. These form the most ancient art of the Australian continent. Rock engravings were made if suitable rock surfaces wee available and if engraving on rock was a facet of the ritual life of the people of the area. Engravings are found in most areas, except for Victoria and central New South Wales east of the Darling River, where instead the people made images in earth for bora ceremonies. There is also little evidence of their existence in the south-west of Western Australia. In the far north of the continent, magnificent painting galleries predominate, and, apart from grinding grooves, few rock engravings have been found. Further south are major galleries of engravings extending from Port Headland to the Warburton Ranges and the ranges of central Australia. Galleries occur in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia and into western New South Wales, with many examples at Mootwingie and Sturt's Meadows. The engravings continue north into Queensland where many are found in the Carnarvon Ranges and others are near Brisbane and at Laura. On the Sydney coast the distinctive sandstone engravings are concentrated in and around the Ku-ring-gai National Park and along the Hawkesbury River.


Aboriginal artists invariably had some intention in mind when they engraved thousands of patterns, animals, tracks and figures on rock surfaces. We can now only guess at the purpose of many rock engravings, inferring their meaning and function through their association with contemporary ceremonial practice and symbolic art as well as through similarity of subject matter when compared to more recent paintings interpreted by Aboriginals themselves.

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Although the word 'engraving' has overtones of cutting into metal, it is the most useful term to describe the range of methods used to cut into rock faces. Many techniques have been used; sometimes lines have been scratched through the surface of the rock. Other designs are pecked, rubbed or abraded. Apart from some executed after contact with Europeans, all the rock engravings were made by abrading, pounding or cutting the surface of one stone with a harder stone. the simplest marks are scratched or abraded grooves that vary in length and depth. These may be scattered over a surface, but they occasionally appear as sets of parallel or organised strokes. Some may simply be evidence that men ground their stone axe heads on particularly important rocks.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

The analysis of rock engravings by contemporary pre-historians can frequently offer no interpretations. On the other hand, some Aboriginal observers take into account not only the designs but their whole physical presence - the way in which they are grouped, and, most importantly, the natural features nearby. Because the engravings concerned hunting magic or an ancestor spirit and because all these aspects of life throughout Australia directly related to geological formations, the living embodiments of ancestral beings, all engravings must be seen in relation to their environment and religious significance. The special quality of the sites chosen by Aboriginal rock artists can best be felt at dusk when with the low shadows of the falling sun, the engravings stand out on rock platforms, revealing hidden tracks, new signs and symbols, tantalising messages we cannot decode.

Abraded grooves formed by grinding stone axis,
Dubbo, New South Wales

One of the problems of interpreting rock art sites is knowing what to include as part of the scheme. Scholars educated in a European tradition tend to take into account only those things that have been modified by human intervention. All the symbols have to be made on a background; however, in the past, interpretation has not included unmodified features of the environment. For Aboriginal artists such features may have great importance. Moreover, many of those unmodified features may be transient in nature, the site being used in a ritual context only at certain times of the year. Most recordings and photographs of rock engravings have concentrated on the images themselves, frequently isolating individual motifs and ignoring the combined formations that might occur over 800 metres. 

For instance, photographs may include close-ups of the images while ignoring a deep, water-filled natural hole in the surface of the rock a short distance away, perhaps a sacred water pool once used in ceremony or containing life essence. such rock holes are frequently associated with large ancestor figure engravings in the Hawkesbury River area of New south Wales. Occasionally seen between the legs of an outstretched figure, they clearly had immense significance to the artist and should, therefore, be included in the observer's perception. One Aboriginal man has said that engraved grooves at Delamere station in the Northern Territory were made to cause rain to fall. for this man, the important features were not only the abraded grooves in the rock, but the whole rock formation, which he said was 'Old Man Rain himself, or Gunbalano'. When his body was cut Gunbalano bled, thus causing rain to fall. The importance of cutting the skin in ritual, whether to obtain blood or to form scars, is widespread and therefore the rock grooves at Delamere are the physical remains of a ritual act.

Other similar grooves, about which we know little, are found on vertical rocks in relatively inaccessible places, the best known and most ancient of these being the markings in Koonalda cave. On some parts of the limestone the parallel marks were probably made by drawing the fingers across the soft surface, whereas in others a stone tool was used to cut through the harder surface. Many engravings concern hunting or food supply - hunters with spears and kangaroos are frequently found. The designs change near the coast where sea creatures, fish, whales or turtles appear, perhaps occurring side by side with wallabies, emus or echidnas. Sometimes a hunter has prepared for the hunt by carving tracks or the image of the animal while singing songs to draw the animal to him.

Rock engravings at Katatjuta, Central Australia

These engravings fulfilled the same function as 'hunting magic' paintings. More often, the engravings were intended to increase totemic species or to record great feats by ancestral beings, marking places where they changed form or merged into the rock. At sites of importance it is common to find places where the rock has been repeatedly struck or pounded close to engraved images, or where objects have been rubbed against the rock. At some sacred rock art sites in central Australia men still rub their sacred ochred boards against the rock, so releasing the essence of the totemic beings at rest there. the engravings also illustrated ceremonial life, portraying characters from oral history in human form. Human ancestor figures appear, particularly in Western Australia and the Hawkesbury River area of New South Wales, in the west as pecked intaglios and in the Hawkesbury area as deeply scored linear outlines, some six metres long. 

Apart from abrading grooves, the techniques used to engrave rock included cutting or gashing an outline in the rock with a sharp stone, making an outline by pounding or pecking the rock with another, thereby removing some of the surface patina and making holes and pits by rotating stone or wooden implements in one place on a rock surface. Of coarse-textured igneous rocks, images were made by pecking or pounding a shallow layer of the surface away, a technique seen in the engravings of Dampier and Depuch Islands in the north-west of the continent. Sharper tools were needed to make deeper lines found in other areas, and it is probably that flints, which were widely traded and commonly used for cutting and affixing to weapons, were also used as sculptors' tools. Images made in this way are much more precise than the pounded designs. They might also have been produced by using a sharp pointed stone placed in position and then hit with a hammer stone; this gave a great deal of control over the line.


In the first attempts to organise his extensive surveys and descriptions of rock engravings, former curator of Anthropology at the Australian Museum F.D. McCarthy postulated several phrases in rock engraving, correlating them with possible changes in culture and art over time. He suggested that the earliest markings were abraded grooves that were scattered singly over rock faces or arranged in some meaningful form and associated with bird tracks.

Engravings of a figure wearing a rayed headdress.

The second or 'outline' phase included simple representational motifs such as tortoises, circles and fish. In this category representational motifs such as tortoises, circles and fish. In this category are the Hawkesbury area sandstone engravings and those in Port Hedland, Western Australia. The grooves are relatively deep and the interiors of the forms are not worked. the third phase McCarthy postulated was formal, conventionalised and symbolic. Linear and geometric designs are most commonly found, including parallel or sinuous lines, arcs, mazes and barbed lines.

The fourth phase is representational art which includes the pecked intaglios of Depuch Island. The inner surfaces of these figures have been removed; they are solid forms rather than linear grooves. They are found in the Flinders Ranges, western New south Wales and in Western Australia and they may depict mythical characters, figures engaged in rituals and men wearing elaborate headdresses.

Non-figurative engravings

More recently, archaeologists have taken a closer look at the evidence of rock art; L. Maynard has proposed a style sequence that differs substantially from McCarthy's and attempts to organise both rock engravings and paintings into three styles. The first and earliest she termed Panaramitee after a site in South Australia that showed consistent characteristics. This art is essentially geometric and non-figurative, lacking human or animal shapes, although the most common features are tracks of macropods and birds as well as numerous circles. This art style is widespread, and includes man engravings sites in the central desert, South Australia, western New South Wales and a scattering in widely separate areas of Queensland.

Like many contemporary paintings, central Australian engravings are wholly non-figurative. The style is consistent, using a relatively narrow range of techniques, forms and motifs. The central desert sites are the 'classic' Panaramitee sites, though the style is very widely distributed and can exist at a site in combination with other styles. In the centre, the Panaramitee sites include N'Dhala Gorge, Ooraminna and Eucolo and the Cleland Hills; in south Australia there are many apart from Panaramitee itself. In Queensland, this non-figurative style is found in the Laura region beneath layers of paintings and also at Malbon, Danarra and other sites. In New South Wales it is found at Tibooburra and Narrabri; in Tasmania it is represented at Mt Cameron West.

Ancient engravings cover the rock surface south of Alice Springs.

The relationship in style of the Mt Cameron West, South Australian and central Australian engravings suggests that the Tasmanian examples are not recent. It is argued that the Tasmanians were migrants across the Bass Strait land bridge from south Australia, flooded 12,000 years ago, and so the cultural tradition that gave rise to the Mt Cameron West gallery was served then. The Mt Cameron West art is not necessarily the oldest in Tasmania; two other sites are just as significant and they may be older. The same range of style and subject is seen at both Sundown Point and Green's Creek. However, neither side can be accurately dated. Mt Cameron West engravings therefore stand as a benchmark for Tasmanian traditional art.

The second grouping Maynard postulated was the simple figurative, exemplified by the Sydney-Hawkesbury engravings. this coincided with a phase postulated by McCarthy. the third phase suggested was the complex figurative, including the Kurangara engravings of the upper Yule in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Maynard also included paintings of western Arnhem Land. She included paintings and engravings in her style analysis as she considered that the two art forms should not be separated on the basis of technique. Some of the most interesting findings have emerged from studies listing the numbers of times that certain marks or patterns have appeared at different locations. At Cleland Hills in South Australia, the most commonly published image is the now famous 'smiling face'. When discovered by Edwards, these were hailed as most extraordinary; no other faces etched so clearly had been found. However, descriptions of the site indicate that there were only a handful of faces; fifty per cent of the designs were kangaroo and emu tracks and twenty per cent were circles. Yet the site is known only for its faces. 

We tend to look primarily for images that we recognise and that relate to our own perceptions of the world, perhaps ignoring the importance of other evidence relating to another world view. the existence of so many tracks, circles and other marks at most of the rock engraving sites highlights an aspect of Aboriginal perception that differs from that of Europeans. Because it was so necessary for hunters to understand and relate to the tracks and marks left by every living creature, the engravings frequently showed the 'marks' made by people and animals, rather than presenting representational images of their forms. Examples are the obvious foot tracks, tail marks of the kangaroo, egg indentations to indicate a clutch of emu eggs, arcs and circles to denote seated people and a campfire. In many cases, accurate interpretation relies on understanding Aboriginal ways of perception. Europeans are likely simply to look at an emu, admire its form and feathers, and watch or photograph it. To Aboriginal artists who hunted the bird for food or gathered its eggs from nests, tracks would always be present as a mental image sought on the ground when hunting. Straight lines engraved beside a cluster of circles indicated a bird seated on the eggs, the straight lines denoting the legs.

However, where there is no information about ceremonial life, int4erpretation of many other shapes is impossible. One image4 frequently seen in north-western Australia has been described as a 'rake' and as a 'pubic apron', referring to the hand spun hair tassels worn around the waist. Similarly, the headdresses on engraved figures are often elaborate; we can assume they illustrate ceremonial body decorations, but, without any firm knowledge, this remains conjectural. Irregularly shaped emblems are found in sacred ceremonies all over Australia and it is likely that some shapes that seem to be abstract forms relate to these. some can be termed 'barbed spear' or 'ceremonial headdress'. The challenge to unravel symbolism is always present in non-figurative engravings, but examples show the difficulties involved. Where the art sites hold contemporary significance for Aboriginal people, the code can be broken, but only if the custodians want to provide that information. very few engravings have been interpreted.


The massive body of engravings found in the Sydney region and along the Hawkesbury River was first noted in 1788 by Governor Phillip, who wrote: Hawkesbury River was first noted in 1788 by Governor Phillip, who wrote:

In all these excursions ... in the neighbourhood of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, the figures of animals, of shields, and weapons, and even of men, have been carved upon the rocks, roughly indeed, but sufficiently well to ascertain very fully what was the object intended. fish were often represented, and in one place the form of a large lizard was sketched out with tolerable accuracy. On the top of one of the hills, the figure of a man in the attitude usually assumed by them when they begin to dance, was executed in a still superior style.

Most of the readily found sites have been documented, and these number 6000 groupings and over 4000 individual figures, the largest unified boy of art so far established. The engravings are found on their own as solitary images, or in groups of over 120 images. Generally they are naturalistic images, or in groups of over 120 images. Generally they are naturalistic engravings consisting of both deeply and shallowly etched outlines and some interior detail. Simplified silhouettes of human figures, animals, fish, birds, snakes and lizards are found, as well as numerous unidentifiable shapes and symbols. Very little information about the meaning of these engravings has been gleaned from Aboriginals. However, in the 1840s an elderly woman named Gooseberry, a wife of Bungaree of Broken Bay, spoke of the engravings. She said they were done 'a long time ago' by the karajis, the clever men with knowledge of magic, and that only these and initiated men could go to the sites. In the 1930s Professor Elkin reported an interpretation of engravings north of Wollombi from a karaji living at Port Stephens; this man also said the engravings had religious meaning. It is therefore likely that at least the sites where large ancestor figures appear in combination with other neatly laid out sequences of engravings and tracks were related to the bora ceremonies, those concerned with the initiation of young men at which the voice of Dhurramulan, the son of Baiame, was heard in the whirring bullroarer.

Figures that may be Baiame or Dhurramulan occur at many sites, often with the bodies shown in frontal view but with heads turned to the side and wearing headdresses. Occasionally one large figure appears with a smaller anthropomorphic companion, and occasionally the large figure has a female companion. These are undoubtedly important religious sites. Although evidence is lacking, some conjectures seem possible, judging by descriptions of bora ceremonies at other places where designs were made in the soft ground. One site at Devil's Rock, Maroota, contains a series of engravings that lead one to conclude that it was a ceremonial site. Two huge hero images straddle the sides of the rock outcrop, nine metres apart and linked by a line of basin-like pits. this was obviously a sacred track between the ancestral heroes. Another significant image is a snake which has a deep and wide rubbed groove. The surprising image of a sailing ship is carved over a large kangaroo hit by weapons; was the sorcerer-artist seeking the same fate for the ship as befell the kangaroo?

At another sandstone site in the Ku-ring-gai chase area, the giant figure of a whale forms the central image. Numerous other smaller engravings appear to radiate from it towards rock crevices and other natural features. When a bushfire cleared the the outcrop of scrub and vegetation in 1980, two piles of boulders were noticed at one end of the site. These might have been 'offstage' shelters for ceremonial leaders; similar shelters are still made from bushes for central Australian ceremonies. The ridge on which the giant whale appears is a solitary and eerie place at dusk, for it juts into a valley and points straight out to sea. the ridge itself could even be seen to resemble the body of a whale. Some coastal peoples feasted upon beached whales and one engraving may represent such a feast. Whales were important ancestor figures on the north coast of New South Wales.

A story from the Gullibul tribe relates that the whale and all the other animals in Australia once lived a long way from the continent. The whale had a canoe in which he planned to set off across the sea. The starfish distracted him by lulling him into a trance, picking off lice from his head while all the other animals stole the canoe and set off in it. The whale and the starfish fought, leaving the starfish in tatters on the sea bed and the whale with a hole in his head. the whale pursued the canoe through the ocean, spouting water through the hole in his head. The canoe finally came to rest at Lake Illawarra, forming an island; the animals populated Australia, and the whale still cruises the coast. The creatures in the canoe were the first ancestors of the present people. The engravings of the Sydney-Hawkesbury region also include a wide range of hunting compositions illustrating the spearing of kangaroos and fish and the use of boomerangs as weapons. Dotted throughout the valleys from Berowra to the Colo River are many isolated figures, including paintings of stencilled hands. The task of protecting this art heritage is immense and in the long term is almost impossible. Although a large proportion of important sites are within park boundaries and cared for by rangers, and although it is illegal to deface or damage art works, the remoteness of sites outside parks and reserves does not allow any control. It is too easy for trail bike riders or holidaymakers to find a site and yield to the impulse of leaving their own mark on history. One magnificent large ancestor hero on Wheelbarrow Ridge road is defaced with the wheel marks of motor bikes and many others have initials carved into the rock surface. 


Throughout north-western Australia, extensive galleries of engravings have been made on varying surfaces, probably at different times. Most of those so far documented occur in the region between the Ashburton River, the great Sandy Desert to the north and the Gibson Desert on the eastern side. the engravings are of two varieties. Some are of the simple figurative style showing outlines of birds, animals and figures, others are fully pecked intaglios. As Port Hedland, coastal limestone ridges provide galleries for engravings that largely reflect the people's relationship with the sea. Over 15,000 figures appear on twelve kilometres of ridges. Fish predominate and thee are also turtles, dolphins or porpoises and whales, as well as human figures, boomerangs and sacred boards. Some delightful fully pecked figures have been interpreted as Minjiburu, mythological people of local tradition. Pecked human tracks lead to them and they were probably the focus for ritual. there are both pecked outlines and pecked intaglios. The former frequently have decorative markings on the interior of their forms, including designs on engraved boards and boomerangs.

Depuch Island, less than 100 kilometres away, is a particularly interesting region with areas of diorite and dolerite boulders. Most engravings there are figurative, consisting of fully pecked intaglios in which the entire inner surface of the figures has been removed by repeatedly pecking away the crust of the rock. The dark rock surfaces thus form a background that allows the pecked inner surface of the rock to stand out strongly and for the designs to be much more readily discerned than are outline engravings. The Depuch Island engravings are miniatures, whereas Port Hedland figures are of life-sized proportions. Pecked intaglios are found there but the majority are outline engravings. Depuch Island subjects include many small human figures, often in groups showing hunting, fishing or fighting. compared to the Sydney-Hawkesbury engravings, many distinct features are shown, enabling the species of fish or animal to be clearly identifiable.

Along the Yule river catchment area, large granite domes and boulders predominate; at one site, appropriately termed Gallery Hill, they form an immense pyramid-shaped heap. Appearing as they do over the surfaces of hundreds or rocks, the engravings form one large gallery of animated art. Some figures are anthropomorphic, others have only human characteristics. There are several kinds of engraving, some superimposed on others. Generally, the human figures deserve immediate interest as they give full range to the creative imagination of the artists. The form is sophisticated, showing flowing movements. Human bodies are given unusual heads, including that of the kangaroo. In expressing the unity of man and animal species in this way, the engravings echo the elaborate Mimi paintings of Arnhem Land. Headdresses depicted have many shapes, possibly representing the waninga sacred string constructions carried on the shoulders and heads of performers during ceremonial dancing. Others show heads with antenna-like projections, including men's hair bound into elaborate and lengthy, chignons, packed with ochre and often covered with bird or plant down. These engravings also exhibit exaggerated genitals and were probably associated with ceremonial life. the figures were called kurangara or gurangara by Father E.A. Worms, who first discovered them at Gallery Hill in 1952. He gave the local explanation that the female figures showed Gurangara, whose consort was Djanka, an ancestral hero. These ancestors were the most important in a sacred ritual similar to the kunapipi of Arnhem Land, which spread westwards to the coast of Western Australia, and which is associated with the seasons, procreation and the fertility of the land.


Queensland is a vast state in which the rock art of Aboriginal artists has only recently begun to be systematically recorded. Although the engravings occurred almost wherever thee was suitable stone, detailed studies have been made only of the Mt Isa area, the central area around Carnarvon Gorge and the Laura region (south-east Cape York). The Mt Isa area has distinctive engravings. Non-figurative elements are predominant, including circles, spirals, spoked wheels, dots, arcs and tracks. In places red ochre has been painted on to fill the inner surfaces of circles and other motifs, indicating possible use in ritual. Some figurative art is present, notably at Deighton Pass, which has a figure in a large headdress, and some facial images on boulders at Carbine Creek. These faces appear ancient with weathered and patinated surfaces and the similarity between them and the engravings at Cleland Hills has been noted by scholars. the vast distances between the two places where such faces have been found makes this connection all the more remarkable. At Carbine Creek, many surfaces can be seen with engravings extending up the slopes. The presence of a four-metre-deep rock hole in the bed of the creek suggests the importance of the site to Aboriginal people, either as a ritual centre or as a source of water supply.

Apart from a few figures and the 'Cleland faces', most of the engravings here are non-figurative. this site also contains more engravings filled in with red ochre than does any other site in Australia. Ochred motifs include split circles, bird tracks, concentric arcs and spirals. The figures that do appear at Mt Isa are simple in design. Humans are shown from the front, reptiles from above and animals in profile. anatomical detail is minimal, although many figures can be identified as male. headdresses are common and include radiating lines, 'branches' and grids, and the figures may vary from ten centimetres to full size. All the figures have been filled in. At Deighton Pass the main panel of engravings occurs on vertical sections of a slate outcrop. the majority are lightly pecked through a steel grey surface patina, with several showing traces of red ochre. The main figure of a pecked human figure wearing a particularly elaborate headdress and with an exaggerated penis has also been filled in with red ochre.

At Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland, a most distinctive series of engravings exists that has been termed cup and ring designs or vulvas. These are abraded grooves and include simple pits enclosed by circles as well as other apparently more explicit carvings. Many are covered by stencilled paintings, though to be the oldest art in the area.

Engravings were discovered in the Laura region beneath layers of paintings. These occur in many of the painting shelters as well as on their own. Percy Trezise who, over many years, explored and discovered the vast galleries of rock art in the area, has said that two styles of engraving, geometric and representational, are present in the area. He says that the protected rock shelters frequently housed geometric forms, while the possibly more recent naturalistic human figures, handprints and tracks are almost all on exposed areas such as the bed of the Laura River.

Along the Hann River the engravings depict boomerangs, fish and identifiable figures, and Trezise is confident that the geometric patterns are the older form of art, possibly made by tribes displaced when others took over their territory, thousands of years ago. An excavation of the early man shelter showed that a panel of non-figurative pecked engravings could be dated to a minimum of 13,000 years old, placing them in the Pleistocene era. The area, then, with its range of rock art may be unique in Australia, showing the earliest art style of non-figurative engravings as well as beautiful paintings of unknown antiquity in many layers.

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