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An archaeological re-investigation of the Mulka\u27s Cave Aboriginal rock art site, near Hyden, Southwestern Australia

By Alana Rossi


Mulka\u27s Cave is a profusely decorated hollow boulder at The Humps, a large granite dome near Hyden, a small town 350 km southeast of Perth. The importance of the artwork has been recognised for 50 years. Test excavations in the cave in 1988 yielded 210 mainly quartz artefacts assignable to the Australian Small Tool phase and a radiocarbon date of 420 ± 50 BP from just below the lowest artefact found. The artwork was recorded in detail in 2004. The recorder considered the radiocarbon date to be \u27anomalously young\u27 because most of the artwork is in poor condition, suggesting that it was made 3000-2000 years ago. Other dated rock art sites in Southwestern Australia came into use 4000-3000 BP. The excavators argued that the site was fairly insignificant, while the rock art researcher thought the profusion of motifs (452) made it a site of some significance, particularly in Southwestern Australia. The main aim of this study was to investigate these conflicting claims by re-investigating how Mulka\u27s Cave had been used by Aboriginal people in the archaeological past. This research became possible because local tourist organisations obtained federal funding to install an elevated walkway outside the cave in 2006. Under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) 12 of the 34 postholes required were excavated and artefacts were collected from all the ground surfaces to be impacted. Subsequently, under Section 16 of the AHA, four, small, 0.5 x 0.5 m, testpits were excavated around the site: outside the cave entrance, on The Humps and in the Camping Area; a sheltered spot where the Traditional Owners had camped as children, with their grandparents. Organic material was scarce, so analysis focused on the numbers and types of stone artefacts recovered. The artefacts excavated in 1988 were also re-analysed. Five radiocarbon dates were obtained, which suggested that people began visiting the Camping Area (and using ochre) about 6500 BP, making Mulka\u27s Cave one of the oldest radiometrically dated rock art sites in southern Western Australia. The artefact data from Mulka\u27s Cave were compared to those from these sites. The low artefact discard rate and high proportion of retouched/formal tools found at Mulka\u27s Cave may indicate that the site was used differently from the other sites, but the data are problematic. Most (70%) of the handstencils in Mulka\u27s Cave can be attributed to adolescents, possibly boys, which may also suggest that the site had ceremonial significance; perhaps as a focus for male initiation rituals. The artefact data do not support this hypothesis, however. There is no evidence of spatial patterning in artefact type or frequency across the site, which would be expected if the cave had had a ritual function. Instead, the Camping Area, Walkway Area and Mulka\u27s Cave itself seem to have been used similarly. It was concluded that, given the scarcity of free-standing potable water in the surrounding region and the presence at The Humps of two capacious gnammas (rockholes), that people probably visited the site when the gnammas were full. A wide variety of plant and animal foods would also have been available before the country was cleared for agriculture. When at Mulka\u27s Cave, they may well have added to the corpus of rock art and carried out other ceremonial business, but there is no archaeological evidence for the latter. It was also concluded that much more research needs to be undertaken in this neglected part of the semi-arid zone before the significance of Mulka\u27s Cave can be properly assessed and its place in the archaeological record of Southwestern Australia determined

Topics: archaeology, rock formations, rock art, aboriginal history, indigenous, History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
Publisher: Edith Cowan University, Research Online, Perth, Western Australia
Year: 2010
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Provided by: Research Online @ ECU
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