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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
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
Nowadays some of these traditional uses have been replaced by modern
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
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
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
White and yellow ochre are used mainly for decoration
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
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
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
The ochre from here is still used by Weste rn Arrernte people, mainly for ceremonial
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
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
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.