Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Extraordinary Engraved Bird Track from North Australia: Extinct Fauna, Dreaming Being and/or Aesthetic Masterpiece?

Sven  Ouzman  a1, Paul S.C.  Taçon   a2, Ken  Mulvaney  a3 and Richard  Fullager  a2 a4
a1 Rock Art Department, University Museum, P.O. Box 266, Bloemfontein, 9300, South Africa;
a2 Anthropology, Australian Museum, 6 College St, Sydney, NSW 2010, Australia;
a3 Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, GPO Box 1890, Darwin, NT 0801, Australia;
a4 School of Geosciences, University of Wollongong, Northfields Ave, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia;


An extraordinary engraved bird track was located in the Weaber Range of the Keep River region of Northern Territory, Australia, in July 2000. This engraved track is dissimilar to most other examples in Australian rock-art, differing in shape, size and detail from the thousands of engraved, painted or beeswax depictions of bird tracks known from sites across the continent. Importantly, it also differs in technique from other engraved tracks in the Keep River region, having been rubbed and abraded to a smooth finish. We explore three approaches to the engraved track's significance, that it: a) depicts the track of an extinct bird species; b) relates to Aboriginal beliefs regarding Dreaming Beings; and c) is a powerful aesthetic achievement that reflects rare observation of emu tracks. We conclude that the Weaber bird track engraving most probably represents a relatively recent visual expression of ancient Aboriginal thoughts that have been transmitted through the centuries via story-telling and rock-art. This discussion highlights problems of assigning identification and meaning to ancient art but also suggests that aspects of history may be passed across generations for much longer than is commonly realized.

(Received March 30 2001)
(Revised November 13 2001)

Key Words: rock-art, Australian; bird track engraving; Aboriginal rock-art.