A broad name for a class of pigment bases, ochre is a fine clay that has been deeply colored by iron oxide in the soil. The amount of iron oxide present in the soil is the largest determinant of the degree of redness of the ochre; excavations of an aboriginal mining site showed that the highest quality ochre (darkest red) contained roughly 30% iron oxide and 50-60% SiCL Depending on the amounts of iron oxide and trace impurities it contains, ochre can range from yellow to reddish brown. The presence of SiO2 (quartz grains) accounts for its gritty nature.
Indigenous people all over the world, from Aborigines in Tasmania to the Cherokee in North America, mixed ochre with water or grease from animal fat to create thick pasty paints. Its relative proximity to the surface of the earth, typically in the first meter of topsoil, made excavation simple. Tools used for harvesting were constructed from local vegetation and stone; metal was not needed because of the ochre’s shallow depth. Ochre-based paints, like other paints, can be applied with a variety of tools, such as brushes or one’s fingers, and there is evidence that at the Pech-Merle cave in France artists used tubes to blow the paint onto the cave wall.
That the deep red paint had inherent magical properties was and is a widely held belief. The Wiradjuri, a tribe of aboriginal Australians, use red ochre in the initiation ritual of their adolescent males. The ritual consists of two parts: during the first part, the elders symbolically kill the initiates with flaming sticks; during the second part, the initiates’ bodies are marked with red ochre paint, symbolizing their birth into manhood. In tribes along the coast, adolescent females undergo their own initiation ritual. When a young woman first menstruates, she is segregated from the tribe with a group of tribeswomen who train her for her role in the tribe. After this, she is covered in red ochre and bathed; now clean, she returns to the tribe as a woman. Some aboriginal groups also used ochre paste to coat wounds. Australian aborigines covered themselves, their tools, and their weapons with ochre, as did the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland, who were called the “Red Ochre People” by European explorers. Other North American tribes covered themselves with ochre paint, and in addition they would coat their bodies in ground hematite (ochre), producing a glistening shine. This coating had not only symbolic and magical intent, it also had the practical value of insulation. Peoples worldwide have found a variety of uses for ochre: as an artist’s medium, as a body paint with status and intimidation value for warriors, in funerals and other rites of passage, and for healing and other magical purposes.
- Clottes, J. (2002). World rock art. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
- Sagona, A. (1994). Bruising the red earth: Ochre mining and ritual in aboriginal Tasmania. Malaysia: Melbourne University Press.