In 2017, researchers surveying the Yilbilinji rock shelter in northern Australia’s Limmen National Park discovered rare examples of miniature stenciled rock art. Now, a new study published in the journal Antiquity may unravel the secrets of these mysterious artworks’ creation.
Australia’s Aboriginal culture is renowned for its diverse rock art, which dates back thousands of years and includes an array of stenciled renderings. Such works were created by holding an object against a rock’s surface and spraying it with pigment to render its silhouette in negative space. Stenciled art often features life-size human body parts, animals, plants and objects like boomerangs, according to a statement.
Small-scale stencils posed an obvious logistical hurdle for ancient artists, as the tools had to be purpose-built for the artwork rather than drawn from an existing slate of objects.
“What makes these stencils at Yilbilinji so unique is that they are tiny, some measuring only centimeters across, and they are too small to have been made using body parts or full-sized objects,” lead author Liam Brady, an archaeologist at Flinders University, tells Henry Zwartz of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
The trove is one of just three examples of miniature stenciled rock art identified to date. Per the statement, the other surviving specimens are found at Nielson’s Creek in Australia and Kisar Island in Indonesia.
The Yilbilinji rock shelter, which is traditionally owned by the indigenous Marra people, was first documented by researchers in 1974 but only surveyed more thoroughly in 2017, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo.
Brady and his colleagues classified 17 of the more than 350 stenciled artworks studied as miniature or small-scale. These stencils included human figures, animals (including crabs and long-necked turtles), kangaroo paws, wavy lines, boomerangs, and geometric shapes. The rock art is thought to be between 400 and 500 years old, according to the ABC.
The researchers were unsure exactly how early Australian artists created such unusually small works, but they received a key lead from Monash Indigenous Studies Centre anthropologist John Bradley, who recalled seeing Aboriginal people in the area using beeswax for a range of purposes, including repairing hunting weapons and molding into toys shaped like objects and animals.
To determine if beeswax could have been used to create the miniature stencils, the team heated and shaped the material into a variety of shapes, reports Michael Price for Science magazine. When the researchers sprayed their wax stencils with pigment, they found that the technique worked well and could certainly have been used to produce the works seen at Yilbilinji.
Though the experiments don’t constitute concrete evidence of beeswax’s role in the stencils’ creations, the study’s authors argue that it remains the most likely method.
In the statement, co-author Amanda Kearney, an archaeologist at Flinders University, notes that the team’s findings do not suggest whether children or adults were responsible for the rock art; nor can the research speak to the drawings’ significance.
The art may have served some “spiritual or ritualistic purpose,” writes Price for Science magazine, but it could just as easily be “child’s play, the ancient equivalent to children scribbling on the walls.”
Speaking with the ABC, Brady describes Australia is the “rock art capital of the world.” Home to more than 125,000 rock art sites, the country boasts specimens of “many different motif styles and production techniques.”
“This discovery adds another chapter to this story,” says Brady.