Gabarnmung (or Nawarla Gabarnmung, Jawoyn language for "(place of) hole in the rock") is an archaeological and rock art site in south-western Arnhem Land, in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory. Habitation of the site has been dated to at least 44,000 years ago, placing it among the oldest radiocarbon dated sites in Australia (known older sites, such as the nearby Madjedbebe, are dated stratigraphically). The oldest rock art was produced more than 28,000 years ago, making it the oldest securely dated prehistoric art in Australia. The cave was still visited by members of the Jawoyn within living memory, possibly until as late as the 1950s, but its existence had been forgotten until its 2006 rediscovery.
location in Australia
|Location||south-western Arnhem Land, Top End, Northern Territory|
|Associated with||Indigenous Australians|
|Archaeologists||Bruno David, Jean-Michel Geneste, Jean-Jacques Delanoy|
Gabarnmung lies at a remote location on the traditional lands of the Jawoyn people, east of Kakadu National Park, and about 35 km (22 mi) west of Maningrida, Northern Territory. The rock shelter was constructed by tunneling into a naturally eroded cliff face that created a 19 m × 19 m (62 ft × 62 ft) sub-horizontal ceiling ranging in height from 1.75 to 2.45 m (5.7 to 8.0 ft) 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. 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 cm (28 in) which lies in seven distinct horizontal stratigraphic layers.
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.
Excavation and dating
The Jawoyn Association found two Jawoyn elders, Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya, who reported the name of the site as Nawarla Gabarnmang (Jawoyn language nawarla "place of", gabarnmang "hole in the rock"), and who reported to have visited the shelter when they were children. They also identified the Jawoyn clan Buyhmi as the traditional owners of the site.
The site was first excavated in May 2010. Led by Bruno David of Monash University, the team included Jean-Michel Geneste from the Centre National de Prehistoire of the French Ministry of Culture, Hugues Plisson from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Bordeaux, Christopher Clarkson from the University of Queensland, Jean-Jacques Delannoy from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University de Savoie, and Fiona Petchey from the University of Waikato.
A slab of painted rock which fell to the floor had ash adhering which was radiocarbon dated at 27631±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 35400±410 years cal BP while the six upper layers had been deposited over the last 20,000 years. The art is the oldest firmly dated rock painting in Australia. However, radiocarbon dating of charcoal excavated from the base of the lowest stratigraphic layer of the floor returned a mean age of 45180±910 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.
The site also includes panels of recent paintings, radiocarbon dated to between AD 1433–1631 and AD 1658–1952 (calibrated 95% CI), consistent with the reports that the cave was still visited within living memory.
- Bruno David et al., "Nawarla Gabarnmang, a 45,180±910 cal BP Site in Jawoyn Country, Southwest Arnhem Land Platea", Journal of Australian Archaeology 73(1), 2011.
- Delannoy, Jean‑Jacques (2013). "The social construction of caves and rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)". Antiquity. 87 (December): 12 to 29.
- Robert Gunn, Bruno David, Jean-Jacques Delannoy and Margaret Katherine, "The past 500 years of rock art at Nawarla Gabarnmang, central-western Arnhem Land" in: Bruno David, Paul S.C. Taçon, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Jean-Michel Geneste (eds.), The Archaeology of Rock Art in Western Arnhem Land, Australia (2017), pp. 303–328.
- Geneste, Jean-Michel; David, Bruno; Plisson, Hugues; Delannoy, Jean-Jacques; Petchey, Fiona (February 2012). "The Origins of Ground-edge Axes: New Findings from Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land (Australia) and Global Implications for the Evolution of Fully Modern Humans". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 22 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1017/S0959774312000017. ISSN 1474-0540.
- 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.
- World's oldest ground-edge implement discovered in northern Australia, Monash University press release, 6 November 2010.
- David, Bruno, Barker, Bryce, Petchey, Fiona, Delannoy, Jean-Jacques, Geneste, Jean-Michel, Rowe, Cassandra, Eccleston, Mark, Lamb, Lara, and Whear, Ray "A 28,000 year old excavated painted rock from Nawarla Gabarnmang" Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (5), 2013, pp. 2493-25011, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.08.015
- Masters, Emma (5 October 2009). "Treasure-trove of Aboriginal rock art rediscovered". ABC Stateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
- Masters, Emma (5 November 2010). "Oldest known stone axe found in Arnhem Land". ABC Science. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
- Masters, Emma (5 November 2010). "Ancient Artefacts". ABC Stateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 29 December 2010.
- "Rock art rediscovered within Jawoyn land". Katherine Times. 29 September 2010. Archived from the original on 20 December 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-09.
- "Gabarnmung". Living Black. 26 September 2010. Archived from the original on 17 February 2011. Retrieved 2010-12-09.