Ubirr lies in Kakadu National Park in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Kakadu encompasses nearly 5 million acres of land, most of which is inaccessible by car. Darwin, the closest city of any size, is a 12-hour drive from Ubirr. Ubirr first appears to be a rather chaotic collection of rock art. Australian Aborigines have been painting and repainting the walls of Ubirr for thousands of years. In fact, Aborigines can boast the longest continually practiced artistic tradition in the world. Tribes of Aboriginal hunters and gatherers established the site over 20,000 years ago for its desirable location. The site was central to a large variety of plant and animal resources from the East Alligator River, the Nadab floodplain, marshes, nearby woods, and the surrounding rocky outcrops, making the area very valuable. The rock art at Ubirr and other sites in the area has been divided into three distinct periods based on the content of the pictures and the styles in which they were painted: Pre-Estuarine (ca. 40000-6000 BC), Estuarine (ca. 6000 BC-500 AD), and Fresh Water (500 AD to the present).
The rock art at Ubirr was created using a variety of materials and methods. While red ochre was the most prominently used pigment, there are also yellow, white, and brown paintings. In the more recent recorded past, Aborigines created the paintings using brushes made from feathers, bark, or chewing the ends of sticks. It is assumed these same techniques were used in the more distant past as well.
Scholars have identified 11 main art styles at Ubirr, spread across the three time periods. During the Pre-Estuarine period, the climate was drier and the sea level lower. Art at this time consisted of large naturalistic humans and animals, object prints, which are hands or other objects dipped in paint and pressed on the rock surface, dynamic figures, simple figures, and yam figures. Dynamic figures are small, detailed drawings of humans and animals. The human figures are generally animated, involved in some activity. Simple figures are stylized images drawn with a single thick line. Many are shown with boomerangs. The yam figures are human or animal forms blended with wild yams. The yam is usually the head of the figure.
The Estuarine Period began when flooding filled river valleys and created mangrove swamps. Crocodiles, barramundi, and catfish first appear in the landscape and in the rock art during this period. Beeswax art also first makes an appearance. Beeswax was applied to the rock walls to create simple designs and human figures. The x-ray descriptive style portrays both the external and internal structure of humans, animals, or inanimate objects.
During the Fresh Water Period, freshwater billabongs and swamps replaced saltwater systems. The paintings reflect new resources attracted to the area. Waterlillies, geese, and human figures carrying goose feather objects or goose spears were depicted. There are two styles of Fresh Water art: contact art and x-ray decorative style. The x-ray decorative style evolved from the earlier x-ray descriptive style. Some artists appear to have lost interest in the detail of internal organs and simply divided the figures they painted decoratively. Contemporary artists use both forms of x-ray art. Contact art records the initial contact of the natives with outsiders, both Chinese and European.
There are three main art sites at Ubirr: the Main Gallery, the Namarrgarn Sisters, and the Rainbow Serpent. The Main Gallery is a large rock overhang where family groups made camp for thousands of years. Figures were regularly painted on the back wall of the shelter. The Namarrgarn Sisters at Ubirr are represented as crocodiles and the illustrations tell a story shared with children to explain what crocodiles are and why they are dangerous. This story is part of a longer cycle of stories learned over a lifetime. An individual is told additional stories as he or she passes through the stages of life, and may one day be given the responsibility of passing the stories on to others. The Rainbow Serpents are powerful ancestors from the Creation period. They are among the oldest artistic symbols used and can be found throughout the world even though their stories vary according to the environment, social, and cultural traditions of the location. In Kakadu, the Rainbow Serpent is described as an all powerful, ever-present “boss lady” who rests in quiet waterways. Rainbow serpents at Ubirr are almost always portrayed as females who are associated with water, will eat anything but flying foxes, and hate loud noises. When disturbed, they may cause a flood or an earthquake.
The rock art at Ubirr illustrates stories traditionally passed down through the generations to teach the young members of the tribe the “laws,” or moral and ethical codes of their culture. Sadly, many Aboriginal tribes and languages no longer exist, so the stories associated with much of the art are lost to us forever.
- Finley, C. (1999). Aboriginal art of Australia: Exploring cultural traditions. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group.
- Gibbs, W. W. (2004). In the land of the dreamtime. Scientific American, 290,108-110.
- Lawrence, D. (2000). Kakadu: The making of a national park. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Publishing.