Gabarnmung, or Nawarla Gabarnmung, is an Aboriginal archaeological and rock art site in south-western Arnhem Land, in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory. The meaning of the name is "hole in the rock", "passageway", or "valley open from the centre".


Gabarnmung lies at a remote location on the traditional lands of the Jawoyn people, east of Kakadu National Park. The only way to access the site is by helicopter. The rock shelter was constructed by tunneling into a naturally eroded cliff face that created a 19m X 19m sub-horizontal ceiling ranging in height from 1.75m to 2.45m above floor level, the roof is supported by 36 pillars created by the natural erosion of fissure lines in the bedrock. Investigation has shown that some pre-existing pillars were removed, some were reshaped and some moved to new positions. In some areas ceiling slabs were removed and repainted by the people who used the cave. Tool marks on the ceiling and pillars clearly illustrate that the modifications served dual purposes, to providing a living space and to facilitate the removal of rock which was discarded down a talus slope.[1][2]

The floor is covered with soil, a mix of ash from fires, fine sand, silt, and locally fragmented rock to a depth of approximately 70 centimeters which lies in seven distinct horizontal stratigraphic layers. A slab of painted rock which fell to the floor had ash adhering which was radiocarbon dated at 27,631 ±717 years Cal BP which indicates that the ceiling must have been painted before 28,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal excavated from the lowest stratigraphic layer returned a mean age of 35,400 ±410 years BP while the six upper layers had been deposited over the last 20,000 years. However, radiocarbon dating of charcoal excavated from the base of the lowest stratigraphic layer of the floor returned a mean age of 45,189 ±1089 years Cal BP suggesting the oldest date for the earliest human habitation. Faceted and use-striated hematite crayons have been recovered from nearby locations (Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila 1) in strata dated from 45,000 to 60,000 years old which suggests that the Gabarnmung shelter may have been decorated from its inception.[1]

Completely open to the north and south, construction has left the shelter entirely protected from rainfall. The rock shelter features prehistoric paintings of fish, including the barramundi, wallabies, crocodiles, people and spiritual figures. Most of the paintings are located on the shelter's ceiling, but many are found on the walls and pillars of the site.[2][3]


The rock shelter was first seen by people not of the tribe in 2006 during a helicopter survey of the land by the Jawoyn Association's Ray Whear and pilot Chris Morgan. Regional senior elders later revealed that their name for the site was Nawarla Gabarnmang. The first archaeological dig to take place on Jawoyn country was held at Gabarnmung in May 2010. Led by Monash University archaeologist Dr Bruno David, the team includes France's foremost rock art specialists archaeologist Professor Jean-Michel Geneste and geomorphologist Professor Jean-Jacques Delanoy. Prior to the dig, rock art specialist Robert Gunn conducted extensive research on the gallery's paintings.[4] A fragment of a ground-edge stone axe found by the international archaeological team has been dated at 35,500 years old, which makes it the oldest of its type known in the world.[2][5] During the excavation, a portion of a charcoal drawing on a rock fragment was found which was radiocarbon dated at 28,000 years. The art is the oldest firmly dated rock art painting in Australia and one of the oldest known pieces of rock art on Earth with a confirmed date.[6]

The shelter is the subject of an independent documentary being produced by Australian journalist and filmmaker Emma Masters and Canadian artist and filmmaker Adrian Buitenhuis.

See also


  1. 1 2 Delannoy, Jean‑Jacques (2013). "The social construction of caves and rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)". Antiquity. 87 (December): 12 to 29.
  2. 1 2 3 Michel Geneste, Jean (2010). "Earliest Evidence for Ground-Edge Axes: 35,400±410 cal BP from Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land". Australian Archaeology. 71 (December): 66–69.
  3. Masters (2009-10-05).
  4. Masters (2010-05-28)
  5. Masters (2010-11-05).
  6. Barker, Bryce (18 June 2012). "Australia's oldest rock art discovered by USQ researcher". University of Southern Queensland. Retrieved 20 January 2014.

Further reading

Coordinates: 12°10′07″S 133°50′01″E / 12.1685°S 133.833520°E / -12.1685; 133.833520

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