Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Kimberley rock paintings digitally scanned to reveal rich underlying history

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Photo Jane_Fyfe_01Ms Fyfe says DStretch, developed by John Harmon in the United States, allowed her to change colour combinations, bringing out different hues in the colours and subtracting others. Image: J. FyfeA KIMBERLEY archaeologist is studying the Bunuba and Goonyandi rock art using digitally-enhanced photography to expose images in underlying layers of paint without causing any damage.

The Bunuba and Goonyandi people are believed to have lived in the southern central Kimberley for at least 40,000 years.

During this time they painted numerous images on rock faces, often covering older pictures with new ones in the process.

With the help of the traditional owners who requested the research, Ms Jane Fyfe is able to identify the elements in each painting, non-destructively.

Ms Fyfe gave the example of a rock painting she photographed in Goonyandi country.

The upper layer of paint shows a figure with a headdress known locally as the dancing man and, to its right, a red painting of a water lily which was an important food.

The lily partly obscures a black dancing figure wearing a pointed head dress with two cockatoo feathers sticking out like ears.

“That’s part of ceremonial dress,” she says.

“It’s what they call the mischievous devil—the Goonyandi name for that it is Djuari.”

“That’s something that’s distinct to their area, they have a story about how these little devils have come over and made mischief about the place.”

The black figure is painted over an even older depiction of a figure with a circular headdress.

Ms Fyfe was able to view these underlying images using specialised software.

“In this particular one I used DStretch which is something that’s been developed as a plug-in to a free piece of software called ImageJ,” she says.

She says DStretch, developed by John Harmon in the United States, allowed her to change colour combinations, bringing out different hues in the colours and subtracting others.

She arranged to have DStretch installed on her camera so she could view underpainted images in the field.

Ms Fyfe says she was studying central Kimberley paintings with a view to learning more about the evolution of Bunuba and Goonyandi culture and ideas.

“The social and spiritual belief systems and notions of identity might have changed or developed, or just been communicated by the people over that period of time.”

She says the traditional owners were also keen to see more evidence of their 40,000-year occupation.

Jane Fyfe is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia.

This story pertains to deliveries in theme 3 of the Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy.

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