The Ochre Pits

The colourful ochre-bearing cliffs at the Ochre Pits represent 700 million years of geological history.
They date from a time when the area was submerged beneath a massive though shallow inland sea - about the same size as today's Mediterranean Sea.

As the sea deepened, layers of mud and sand were deposited.
At their deepest point these sedimentary layers, known as the Amadeus Basin, were over 10km thick, causing deposits in the pile to be compacted to solid rock.
About 300 million years ago, the earth heaved and rolled in a spectacular episode of mountain building, pushing the MacDonnell Ranges to heights comparable to the present-day Himalayas. The sediments which had been laid down in horizontal layers were thrust up to their present, near-vertical position.

Over time wind and rain have carved into the vertical layers to reveal dramatic swirls and curves.
The different coloured layers are caused by the presence of iron oxide in varying amounts.
The more iron oxide present, the darker and redder the colour.
The whiter stone has little or no iron and a high level of kaolin, a white clay mineral.

The colourful soft-stoned and fragile cliffs tell a story rich with tradition and geological history.
Since the beginning of time they have played an important role in the culture of the local Aboriginal people, the Western Arrernte.
In geological terms they stretch back to a time when the MacDonnell Ranges were no more than the floor of a massive inland sea.

The earliest archaeological evidence of ochre use in Australia comes from Lake Mungo, in western New South Wales, where the body of a man coated in red ochre was found. He died 30,000 years ago.

In traditional Western Arrernte society ochre was used almost daily.
Nowadays some of these traditional uses have been replaced by modern methods.
It was central to the preparation of many medicines and is still widely used in religious ceremony and for decoration.
In short, it has always been an essential "household" item.

Yellow ochre, the dominant colour of these cliffs, is caused by a mixture of white clay and iron oxide (rust).
The red-brown colours are formed, by high levels of oxidised iron in very fine-grain haematite or limonite.
White ochre has very little or no iron. The white colour comes from kaolin, a white clay mineral.
Tiny fragments of mica and quartz give the ochre a shiny quality.

Ochre, mixed with fat or grease is used to heal various ailments.
It is applied directly to the affected area.
Ochre and eucalyptus leaves are rolled together and used as medication for head and chest colds.
Red ochre is mixed with fat and rubbed into aching muscles.
While preparing medicine it is important to sing over it, to enhance its healing powers, a custom known as wulya (pronounced woolya) by the Western Arrernte.

In the past, plant food such as berries, were sometimes pulped and packed inside a ball of ochre and buried, to be kept as emergency food.
Domestic and hunting implements, when coated in ochre, are protected against termites.

White and yellow ochre are used mainly for decoration or cosmetics.
Mixed with water or animal fat, such as from a goanna, possum or emu, it is made into a paste and smeared on the body with a finger or feather.
Ash and charcoal are also commonly used.

Red ochre remains the most symbolic and often feared ochre used in Western Arrernte society.
It is still used for all major ceremonies.
Adolescent boys are painted in red ochre, preferably using an eagle feather, as art of their initiation.

It is the responsibility of men to dig the ochre at these pits.
It is also their responsibility to ensure women have enough ochre, of all colours, for use in women's ceremonies.
According to Aboriginal custom, family members must be provided with sufficient ochre for all their needs.
It is freely given in these circumstances.

Ochre deposits are common throughout Australia, but its quality is variable and trading in fine ochre has always been an important part of Aboriginal society.
Highly valued ochres, such as the red ochre from Bookatoo, in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia and that from Wilgamia in northern Western Australia, have a silvery sheen which add enormously to their value.

Ochre is found throughout the MacDonnell Ranges.
Consequently it was not traded here as widely as in other parts of Australia.
Some ochre from this site did find its way as far south as the Pitjantjatjara lands in northern South Australia.

The Ochre Pits themselves are not highly significant in local Aboriginal Law, hence there are no restrictions regarding visiting the site.
However, their spiritual association, tied in so closely with men's business still makes them a special place in Western Arrernte tradition.

Where trading did occur, pituri, or bush tobacco, was a common exchange item, as well as boomerangs, spears, down feathers used in ceremony, some bush foods and other coloured ochres.

Ochre for trading is dampened, and either pressed into bricks or rolled into balls. It then sets hard, allowing for easy transportation.
Ochre was carried in wooden dishes or bags made from kangaroo or possum skin. When carried in wooden dishes it was often balanced on a hair-ring on the head.

Aboriginal people have extracted ohre from these cliffs for thousands of years.
The ochre from here is still used by Weste rn Arrernte people, mainly for ceremonial purposes.

Ochre is integral to the Dreamtime stories - stories of creation and law - of Aboriginal people throughot Australia.
Red ochre deposits often represent the blood of sacred ancestral beings.
The traditional Aboriginal stories and ceremonies for this site belong to Western Arrernte men.
Women and children are not permitted to dig the ochre, or know of the stories associaled with the site.
Therefore it is not possible to relate or show how ochre is used in the telling of these stories.

However, women use ochre, provided by men, from this site in their own ceremonies.
All people involved in ce remonies are "painted up", even young children.

Rock paintings, common in other parts of Australia, are not prolific in Central Australia.
This could be because in this region fixatives are not mixed with ochre paint and the rock painting did not last, or it could be that rock paintings are not central to local Aboriginal culture.
Here the Dreamtime is drawn in sand paintings, which are destroyed as part of the ceremonies.








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Last updated: Friday, 04.06.2010 12:48 PM