Teacher background information


Year 8 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Science knowledge can develop through collaboration across the disciplines of science and the contributions of people from a range of cultures (ACSHE226 - Scootle )

  • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples employ knowledge from the disciplines of chemistry, biology, physics and geology in their development of pigments and dyes (OI.3, OI.5)

This elaboration provides students the opportunity to explore the technologies and processes that are involved in the manufacture of pigments and dyes used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These technologies and processes require multidisciplinary approaches combining knowledge of geology, biology, chemistry and physics.

First Nations’ Australians have been painting in a variety of forms for at least 28,000 years, making Australia the home of the second oldest evidence of painting found to date.  

Over this incredible period of time, and through their endeavours to construct enduring, bright, crisp and smudge-free pictorial histories, more recently described as art, Aboriginal people accumulated knowledge of paints, pigments and dyes. The raw materials for these are obtained from a variety of mineral, plant and animal sources and their extraction, refinement and production require knowledge from across a range of science disciplines.  

The most commonly used pigments are generally derived from ochre with colours ranging from yellow through brown to red. Ochre is mainly composed of yellowish limonite, itself a mixture of hydrated iron(III) oxide-hydroxides, mixed with clays and sand. Red ochres naturally form in areas with high haematite concentrations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over thousands of years have developed a comprehensive awareness of the geological distribution of these culturally important mineral resources.  

In regions where red pigment was not readily available from a red ochre source, Aboriginal people traditionally used porphyry (or tuff) to produce iron oxide in a form that could be used as a red pigment. In other areas, yellow ochre from limonite was thermally decomposed and converted into haematite, producing a reddish-brown colour. This process is called calcination, a chemical process involving carefully controlled heat treatment of the mineral source, and is still in use today in the production of commercially available pigments. 

Black pigment may be obtained from charcoal, while white is principally derived from kaolin, although, historically, calcite and huntite were used where they were locally available. Gypsum was also used to produce a fine white pigment using the process of calcination. In this process, calcium sulfate dihydrate (gypsum) is heated until some of the crystalline water is removed, yielding a fine white powder that can then be used as pigment. 

These colouring materials can be applied to surfaces using a variety of techniques. A soft pigment-bearing rock can be used as a drawing implement. Alternatively, the pigment material can be crushed into a fine powder and added to water to form a suspension. Various implements can then be used as brushes to apply the pigment.   

The degree to which pigments adhere to a surface depends on the effectiveness and sophistication of the pigment formulation. The development of a particular pigment formula acknowledges a range of factors including the type and nature of the substrate material, the way that the pigment is applied, and the additives, if any, that have been used as binders and fixers in the pigment mixture. 

Evidence of effective use of iron oxide-based pigments on different substrate materials by First Nations’ Australians may be found across a range of material culture and practices such as shields, boomerangs and bark paintings, and in archaeological remains and rock paintings 

The chemical knowledge and understanding of the properties of suspensions, binders and fixatives were essential for the development of a water-based suspension that could evenly carry the pigment and enable the controlled application of paint. Similarly, knowledge of the properties of available binding agents such as animal fat, egg yolks and blood was critical to ensuring adhesion of the pigment to the substrate.  

The final essential chemistry knowledge required to paint successfully was an understanding of the role of fixatives, such as orchid sap, that are applied at each layer/stage and on completion. Fixatives are essential for keeping crisp lines and preventing smudging. Fixatives also play an important role in the protection of the paintings and are partly responsible for the incredible durability of Aboriginal pictorial histories. 

Geological knowledge is required in identifying areas and rocks containing the pigment-carrying mineral and knowledge of physics is required to develop quarries and to mine underground. Such activities have been identified as having occurred in many parts of Australia. One mining venture, the Wilgie Mia mine, is believed to be the oldest continuously-mined site in the world. Located east of Geraldton in Western Australia, it was up to 20 metres deep and had a mining face 15 – 30 metres wide. The mining operation at the site included ‘stop and pillar’ techniques to enhance worker safety and the use of pole scaffolding with wooden platforms to allow extraction to occur simultaneously at different heights. The material from the mine was, and still is, highly prized, especially for use as body decoration, and it is estimated that several thousand tonnes of rock have been extracted from this site. In contemporary times, many Aboriginal mines have been exploited for their valuable iron oxides in the commercial use of paints, stains, inks, plastics, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.  

Biological as well as chemical knowledge are required in dye production for colouring textiles, yarn, baskets, and other materials made from natural fibres. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples possess rich botanical knowledge of plants containing coloured substances that can be used to manufacture a variety of colouring agents. Yellow can be obtained from the root of the Pegonolobos reticulatis shrub endemic to the Northern Territory and Queensland; purple from the berries of Haemodorum coccineum, a flowering plant in the same family as kangaroo paw; green from the core of the leaves of the pandanus palm (Pandanus spiralis); black and grey from the leaves of the Quinine tree; and brown from the root of the perennial herb Haemodorum brevicaule. The intensity and shade of the colours vary depending on the soil properties, the part of the plant, and the season of harvesting.  

Chemical knowledge is required in extracting the colouring agents from the plant material and in the understanding of how to fix the dye onto the desired fabrics through the use of mordants. These can be organic substances derived from plant materials, such as tannic acid, or inorganic materials containing polyvalent metal ions, such as aluminium, which are derived from salts and ash. Mordants work by forming an insoluble coordination complex with the dye, which then attaches to the fabric 

By studying the required multidisciplinary knowledge in producing pigments and dyes used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students deepen their understanding of how science knowledge can develop through the confluence of understandings derived from the various disciplines of science. Students will also gain an appreciation of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ geological knowledge contributed to the discovery, evaluation and exploitation of commercially important mineral deposits for the production of pigments.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy. (2011). National heritage places: Wilgie Mia Aboriginal ochre mine. Retrieved from http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/wilgie-mia

Barlow, A. (1994a). Aboriginal technology: Fibrecraft. Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia.

Barlow, A. (1994b). Aboriginal technology: Women’s technology. Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia.

Clarke, J. (1976). Two Aboriginal rock art pigments from Western Australia: Their properties, use and durability. Studies in Conservation, 21, 134-142.

Department for Energy and Mining. (2018). Iron oxide pigments (natural). Retrieved from http://minerals.statedevelopment.sa.gov.au/invest/mineral_commodities/iron_oxide_pigments

Everard, P., Goddard, C., & Kalotas, A. (Eds.). (2002). Punu Yankunytjatjara plant use: Traditional methods of preparing foods, medicines, utensils and weapons from native plants. Alice Springs: Jukurrpa Books.

Forrest, S. (2011, May 18). The Australian history we don’t know. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/the-australian-history-we-dont-know-522

Latz, P. (1999). Pocket bushtucker: A field guide to the plants of Central Australia and their traditional use. Alice Springs: IAD Press.

National Park Service United States Department of the Interior. (2015). Lesson plan: Native dyes. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/education/classrooms/native-dyes.htm

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. (n.d.). Iron oxide pigments. In Industrial mineral factsheets. Retrieved from https://www.resourcesandgeoscience.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/237849/Ironoxide.pdf.

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. (2007). Mining by Aborigines: Australia's first miners. Primefacts, 572.

Popelka-Filcoff, R. S. (2017, October 20). When bacteria tell a story: Tracing Indigenous Australian ochre sources via microbial ‘fingerprinting’. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/when-bacteria-tell-a-story-tracing-indigenous-australian-ochre-sources-via-microbial-fingerprinting-85455

Popelka-Filcoff, R. S., Lenehan, C. E., Lombi, E., Donner, E., Howard, D. L., Jonge, M. D. D., . . . Pring, A. (2015). Microelemental characterisation of Aboriginal Australian natural Fe oxide pigments. Analytical Methods, 7, 7363-7380.

Raggatt, H. G. (1925). Barytes, ochres, and oxides (Bulletin No. 16). Sydney: Alfred James Kent, Government Printer.

Roth, W. E. (1904). North Queensland ethnography (Bulletin No. 7). Domestic implements, arts and manufactures. Brisbane: George Arthur Vaughan.

Smith, N., B., W., Nuwallat Harrington, R., & Wightman, G. (1993). Ngarinyman ethnobotany: Aboriginal plant use from the Victoria River area, northern Australia (Bulletin No. 16). Northern Territory Botanical. Darwin: Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory.

Smyth, R. B. (1878). The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania. Melbourne: J. Ferres, Government Printer.

Sullivan, C. J. (1944). Geological report on the Rumbalara ochre deposits (Record 1944/17, Plans Nos. 1050-1052). Australia: Department of Supply and Shipping.

Thorn, A. (2014, December 26). Pigments and palettes from the past: Science of Indigenous art. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/pigments-and-palettes-from-the-past-science-of-indigenous-art-35604

Vankar, P. S. (2000). Chemistry of natural dyes. Resonance. Retrieved from https://www.ias.ac.in/article/fulltext/reso/005/10/0073-0080

Ward, I., Watchman, A., Cole, N., & Morwood, M. (2001). Identification of minerals in pigments from Aboriginal rock art in the Laura and Kimberley regions, Australia. Rock Art Research, 18(1), 15-23.

Zola, N. (1992). Koorie plants, Koorie people: Traditional Aboriginal food, fibre and healing plants of Victoria. Melbourne: Koorie Heritage Trust.