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Determining the age of paintings at JSARN–113/23, Jawoyn Country, central-western Arnhem Land plateau

Western Arnhem Land in northern Australia has the rare distinction, both at national and global scales, of containing a vast landscape of many thousands of rockshelters richly decorated with art, some of which was probably made tens of thousands of years ago, others as recently as a few decades ago. Yet the challenge remains as to how to date this art, how to find out how old it is. While relative dating methods have been commonly applied, in particular patterns of superimposition and changing faunal themes supposedly signalling changing environmental conditions, we still lack a clear understanding of the age of almost all the region’s art styles or conventions. Other chapters in this volume report direct dates for Arnhem Land art using radiocarbon determinations on beeswax figures with the likelihood that the ‘art event’, the time when a beeswax figure was made, is at most a few years different from the ‘carbon event’, the time of the last biological capture of atmospheric carbon, which is the actual date measured by radiocarbon. But many, in fact most, sites have no beeswax figures or other ways directly to date the art. Sometimes, as again reported in this volume, there is some indication of date when a radiocarbon determination is obtained on, for instance, charcoal in an archaeological deposit that can be related to the art. Often that route is also blocked: many a painted surface without beeswax figures is in no close relation to a deposit that might so be dated. What can be done then? Here we present results of investigations at a small rockshelter in Jawoyn Country, in the centralwestern part of the Arnhem Land plateau. Since its art cannot be directly dated, we follow a different path. In the first instance, we aim to understand the history, and antiquity, of the decorated rock surfaces, since the exposed surfaces of the boulder have undergone repeated transformations over a long time. Determining when now-decorated rock surfaces were formed can give us maximum possible ages for the art, since we can date when the surface first was available. Taken with related archaeological evidence from deposits, such as ochre fragments with signs of use, we can arrive at some indications for the age of the art, or at least how the range of possible dates is constrained. This approach is akin to that used at other sites in Jawoyn Country (see Chapters 11 and 15)
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David, B., Delannoy, J.-J., Gunn, R., Brady, L. M., Petchey, F., Mialanes, J., … Katherine, M. (2017). Determining the age of paintings at JSARN–113/23, Jawoyn Country, central-western Arnhem Land plateau. In B. David, P. S. C. Tacon, J.-J. Delannoy, & J.-M. Geneste (Eds.), The Archaeology of Rock Art in Western Arnhem Land, Australia (pp. 371–422). ANU Press. https://doi.org/10.22459/TA47.11.2017
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