A Trip to Visit the Yankee Hat Rock Art Site
In 1971 a young teacher named Geoffrey Bardon took a job at Papunya, a sleepy, dusty government run Aboriginal settlement in Australia’s Central Deserts. He arrived to a town that was “demoralised, divisive, depressed and lacking in either cohesion or direction”. * On seeing the children of the settlement creating ‘paintings’ in the sand, he encouraged them to recreate their pictures in watercolours. He also encouraged the elders to paint a mural on the school walls. Many others also took up the brush, painting on any flat surface available. The whole community became enthused with this new medium. And thus began what has since been called a cultural revolution. Papunya became known as the centre of contemporary Aboriginal art and produced famous artists like Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, and Turkey Tolson – the ‘painting men of Papunya”.
Since then contemporary Aboriginal art has become a very lucrative business. From the state and national galleries in Australia to galleries in Paris and New York, names like Minnie Pwerle, Emily Kngwarraeye, and Rover Thomas are earning hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars at art auctions. From Arnhem Land to The Kimberley, from the Western Desert regions to Central Australia, contemporary Aboriginal Art has become big business. With its humble beginnings at Papunya, Aboriginal art has become one of the world’s most recognisable and tradable art forms.
But these creations are not new. The symbolism and stories told in these contemporary works are based on an art form that has been part of Aboriginal culture for many years and passed down through the generations. Australian Aboriginal art is the world’s the longest continuous art tradition stretching back over some 50 millennia. As Susan McCulloch explains in her book on contemporary Aboriginal art:
” Aboriginal art is based on stories and traditions of the creation of the world, during which creation ancestors took epic journeys and created people, flora, fauna, landforms and celestial bodies. It is from this that laws of kinship and marriage derived…Unlike the time delineations of Western history, the Aboriginal belief system does not relate only to the past but is constantly evolving….At the core of the belief system is that the land and its people are interdependent”.*
Rock art or cave art is one form through which this ancient tradition was expressed. There are a number of famous rock art sites in Australia, some accessible to the public, others known only to the traditional land owners. The famous Bradshaw/ Gwion Gwion paintings of the Kimberley coast, the origins of which are still a mystery; the rock art sites of Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur in the Kakadu National Park are dated at over 20,000 years old. However around 90 minutes south of Canberra, our nation’s capital, there is a small site which anyone is welcome to visit – the Yankee Hat Rock Art site.
When we arrived at the trail to Yankee Hat it was overcast, misty and drizzling. Clouds scudded across the tops of the surrounding mountains threatening much but delivering little. The air was unusually heavy and damp for this part of the country. We headed off on the well worn trail that leads through the wide Gudgenby Valley. It winds its way around a twisting creek, boggy swamp land and undulating, grassy meadows kept shorn by the resident kangaroos.
At only 3kms one-way it is not long before you reach the site which is hidden away at the foot of Yankee Hat mountain, nestled in a grove of gum trees and flowering shrubs. You will know as soon as you come to it as the trail leads directly to the granite rock overhang on which you will find the paintings. Look for the information board which describes the paintings and what the symbols may represent.
Carbon dating of the camp-site deposits in the Yankee Hat Rock Art shelter show that Aboriginal people began using this shelter more than 800 years ago. Evidence from nearby sites suggests that people were camping in the area, and presumably painting, as long as 3,700 years ago. However nobody knows for certain how old these paintings are or what they were used for. Some have suggested that meanings may have varied according to the viewer’s level of initiation into tribal tradition. What is known is that they are not random works of individual expression, as this style of art is consistent with that found in surrounding regions and in parts of central NSW.
Before you follow the trail back to your car, I urge you to find a small boulder beneath the gum tree canopy and sit. Still yourself, close your eyes and use your other senses. Smell the flowering shrubs. Listen to the birds. Feel the breeze on your skin. Open your eyes. Notice the ants working busily on the ground beneath you. See the bees pollinating the trees around you. I hope you will feel what I did. That there is something intangible about this place, a sense of peace and calm, a quietude that settles around you. I would say it feels spiritual but perhaps I am projecting. Then again, perhaps this is a place where spirits dance.
“Ngunnawal people say look at this place.
The spirits that made this country are still here.
The birds and trees will tell you if you listen.”
The Ngunnawal people are acknowledged as the traditional custodians of the Canberra region. The region was also a significant meeting place to neighbouring clans, including the Ngarigo, Wolgalu, Gundungurra, Yuin and Wiradjuri people. They invite you to visit the Yankee Hat Rock Art site but ask that you respect it as it is vulnerable. Make sure that you do not touch the art or the rock surface as oils from your skin will damage the painting. Please respect all heritage sites. It is an offence to damage, disturb or destroy Aboriginal heritage places including objects, whether registered or not.
Further information for visiting Yankee Hat Rock Art site:
Namadgi National Park Visitor Centre, Naas Road, Tharwa ACT 2620
Phone (02) 6207 2900
- Taken from Mculloch’s Contemporary Aboriginal Art, The Complete Guide by Susan McCulloch and emily McCulloch Childs