Rare and distinctly miniature ancient rock art has been discovered in an Australian rock shelter traditionally owned by the Marra Aboriginal, making it only the third known example of this style in the world.
Known as Yilbilinji rock shelter in northern Australia, the site was first formally documented in 1974 and in 2015 researchers discovered a number of material culture, including stone artifacts, glass flakes, a stone-circle fireplace, grinding stones, and rocks with grinding hollows. Its full rock art assemblage consists of 355 motifs that were again documented by a Flanders University research team in 2017, at which point archaeologists defined the art as “unusual and highly distinctive,” write the researchers in the journal Antiquity.
"Typically, stenciled rock art around the globe features full or life-sized dimensions such as human and animal body parts, objects (e.g. boomerangs), and even plant matter," said Associate Professor at Flinders University Liam Brady in a statement.
"However, many of the stencils at Yilbilinji are tiny or miniature-sized, and too small to have been made using real-life body parts and full-size objects."
The only other examples of this miniature stenciled form of rock art are in Nielson's Creek in New South Wales, and one at Kisar Island in Indonesia, though this new example appears to be the most detailed yet.
Such stenciled motifs are generally created by the artist holding an object against a rock surface and spraying “paint” – any mixed liquid pigment – around it as its held in place. This style can be more intricate and difficult to make than paintings and engravings, but the unusual sizes and shapes raised questions of the motifs discovered at Yilbilinji raised questions into their creation, how and why were they created?
To answer that question, researchers recorded 17 images of the stencils that ranged in their characterizations, from human and animal-like figures to kangaroo paws, geometric shapes, and boomerangs. Many of the figures were round with curved edges, suggesting that the original stencil may have been molded from something malleable like beeswax, which has been recorded as used by Aboriginal people to repair spears and harpoons and made into objects by children. Beeswax was then manipulated into similar figures and the process was replicated by the archaeological team, who determined it serves as an “excellent material” that may have also played a “significant role” in creating stenciled motifs at other locations.
At Yilbilinji, the study authors write that the detailed nature of the stencils paired with their repetitive style indicates a familiarity with the subject matter, as well as a potential association with sorcery, can also be identified both due to the representations and the spiritual connotation some indigenous groups associate with beeswax.
In addition, one child is also identified as having possibly participated in the creation of the art assemblage – a finding validated by the known use of children to create “figurines/dolls” and “miniaturized weapons” using similar materials. The researchers conclude that future research should also consider the role of children in the rock art record.