Koonalda Cave, Nullarbor Plain, South Australia, c. 16,000-27,000 BP

(Note. Because of similarities between Koonalda palaeoart and that of European Middle Paleolithic sites, I've placed this Koonalda gallery under MP sites. JH)

Koonalda Cave is a limestone sink-hole in the vast, flat, arid and treeless Nullarbor Plain, South Australia. It contains a series of cathedral-like chambers, mirror-like lakes, narrow passages and steep slopes covered with boulders. During Pleistocene times it was a flint mine; nodules of chalcedonic quartzes were quarried and taken elsewhere to be worked into tools. Hearths, charcoal and the residue of the quarrying process were found, mainly in the first chamber, some 100 meters from the entrance and 76 meters below the surface of the plain. Quarry pits measured up to 6 meters deep; some still contained remains of mining tools and wooden torches. Some 300 meters inside cave walls are covered with markings, digital (finger) fluting, lattices and grids and a few rare circular forms at the entrance to
a squeeze passageway, which leads to platform high in a dome of a large chamber with a lake below. [For excellent concise description of this site and its art, see Flood, Josephine. 1997. Rock Art of the Dreamtime. Sydney: HarperCollins].

Excavations. Beginning in 1956 through 1964, the archaeologist Alexander Gallus conducted exploration of the cave, including three excavation trenches. In 1967 the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies expedition, led by Richard Wright, carried out further excavation, dating, and documentation of the rock art. [Wright, R. V. S. (ed.). 1971. Archaeology of the Gallus Site, Koonalda Cave. Canberra: Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies].

Dating. During the first series of excavations, Gallus obtained 14C dates indicated that the cave was occupied over a period extending from about 14,000 to 30,000 years ago. Gallus proposed that there were two occupations, one around 13,500 to 16,000 and an earlier one around 19,000 to 23, 000 years ago. At the time the dates were so revolutionary they met with frequent objection. Wright and Gallus obtained additional 14C dates during the 1967 expedition, which supported Gallus' dates (except V-82). Because Koonalda was a paradigm for contemporaneous co-evolution of art in Southeast Asia and Europe and the end of a Eurocentric view of art origins, I provide a full list of dates. All dates in table are uncalibrated; dates show good stratigraphic succession [data from Wright 1971: 24-28 and Flood 1997]:

Stratigraphic Dates
Gallus GaK-510 ‘Top fire’; 1 ft. below surface in Trench III, charcoal in situ in 'workshop heap of debris and artifactual material' 13,700±270 BP
Wright ANU-70 'Top fire'; from charred twig in same zone 15,850±320 BP
Wright ANU-71 'Middle fire'; 1 m. (4 ft.) below surface in Trench III; 2.5 ft. below 'Top fire' 19,300±350 BP
Gallus V-82 ‘Bottom fire’; 1. 5 m. (5.5 ft.) below surface in Trench III; 1 ft. below 'Middle fire', underlying mining workshop; sample from 'tail' of the hearth 31,000±1,650 BP
Wright V-96 'Bottom fire'; sample from 'center of hearth' and at same time as Gallus sampled; no disconformity noticed; thus inexplicable 10 ka difference with V-82 19,300±720 BP
ANU-245 " 21,900±540 BP
Wright ANU-148 Thin charcoal band near bottom of lacustrine 'red silt unit', 5.5 m (18 feet) below surface and just above the 'bottom white unit'; 'dating inversion probably result of washed in charcoal of higher level or from wildfire outside of the cave' 19,400±450 BP
ANU-244 " 23,700±850 BP
Gallus ANU-1201 ‘Lowest floor, mining debris’ in pit in 'bottom white unit', extending down 6.8 m (22 ft) below surface; small sample, so date has wide variation 29,400+11,600/-4,600 BP
Art Related Dates
Gallus ANU-1205 Burnt torch remains just below surface of the Art Passage floor 18,200±300 BP
Gallus ANU-180 Same area, in excavation, 5-8 in. below surface 21,200±700 BP
Wright V92 Immediately in front of Squeeze entrance, below wall markings, charcoal and stone artifacts of occupational floor; 3-6 in. below surface 19,900±2,000 BP

Discarding anomalous outlier dates, Gillespie (2002) indicates that, when calibrated, 14C dates for Koonalda Cave occupation are 16,000-27,000 BP [Gillespie R.  2002.  Dating the First Australians.  Radiocarbon, 44,2:455–472]. (Note. The period 14-16 ka is corresponds to the European Ice Age Early Magdalenian rock art period in Europe; 19-27 ka, to the Gravettian period; in other words, Koonalda art spans most of the period of Euroepan Ice Age art, excepting earliest Aurignacian dates at Chauvet Cave, 30-33 ka.)

Assemblages. Stone assemblage -- cores, burins, knives, scrapers, flake axes, choppers, points’ (Gallus) or ‘cores and 96% unworked flakes (blanks)’ (Wright 1971). Faunal assemblage -- from red layer: Macropus rufus, Sarcophilus, Dasycercus, Dasyurinus, Sminthopsis, various rodents, reptiles, owl pellets (A. G. Thorne in Wright 1971).

Palaeoart. The 'Art Passage' consists of hundreds of feet of wall markings (petroglyphs), including extensive digital fluting, some lattice/grid and fan-shapes, one set of herringbone marks, and two sets of concentric circles (Wright 1971). Workshop areas have standing stones (stelae) and stones with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shape, which Gallus referred to as 'megalithic', 'altar stele', 'ritual theaters', 'proto-sculpture' (Gallus in Wright 1971). The wall markings may be categorized as Pre-Panaramitee tradition (Flood 1997). [Click on thumbnail for larger image and more details.]

Palaeoart Interpretation (James Harrod): Basically, I suggest that the key marking motifs are a symbolic language that signify the fundamental religious ritual thematics of Koonalda Cave. For a 'likely reading', we may consider, first, the Art Passage of extensive digital fluting, which is framed by Grid/Lattice motifs. I suggest this signifies something like one of the most fundamental notions in Aboriginal--and hunter-gatherer--religions, that is the sacredness of sacred systems of marital, resource, and ritual exchange. Grid/Lattice symbolizes an exchange system; and the process of exchange is represented by/participated/remembered by the act of digital fluting. I further suggest that the Fan and Concentric Circle motifs at the Squeeze entrance, signify some sort of initiatory-rebirthing rituals, the Concentric Circles suggesting the entering into a process of depth and centering (like seed, egg, womb) and the Fan the radiance of being rebirthed. All these marking motifs are set in the context of the flint mining operations within the cave, which likely were associated with their own rites and myths of exchange and rebirth, and further associated with the standing stones and stone arrangements. [For an excellent review of the symbolics of mining, see the chapter 'Terra Mater. Petra Genitrix' in Eliade, M. 1962. The Forge and the Crucible. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.] [Click on thumbnail for larger image and more details.]

Photo. As credited

This gallery first posted 1/15/2008; last updated

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