In the sandstone country of the Gosford/Sydney region, caves containing Aboriginal art usually occur in the upper reaches of minor creeks or the bottom of cliff lines.
These caves always have a dry, level floor and often face north or east.
A typical size is 10 metres by 4 metres, with a ceiling 2-3 metres high.
This cave is located close to a small creek near Woy Woy and contains signs of habitation, including red hand stencils.
In my experience, art caves are mostly found in the top 50% of the elevation profile.
In the Gosford/Woy Woy area, the ridgetops are about 180m above sea level and most art caves are found at between 80m and 160m elevation.
In the Colo Gorge area, the ridgetops are about 500m about sea level, and most art caves are found at 200m to 400m.
I'm unsure of the reasons for Aboriginal preferences for caves at these elevations, but here are some possiblities:
The geology is most suitable for cave formations at this elevation.
Cave art is preserved best at these elevations - not too much moisture or wind.
Midway between the various food sources available in waterways and on ridgetops.
Less mosquitoes higher up, but still easy access to drinking water.
Comfortable living temperatures year round - not too hot in summer, not too cold in winter.
Indicators of nearby caves
Art caves are often located below ridges which have Aboriginal engravings on flat rock shelves.
There are also often axe sharpening grooves in the creek bed near the cave, which you may notice if walking along the creek bed.
Sharpening grooves in a creek bed may indicate a nearby art cave
Cave art in the Sydney area includes stencils of hands and tools, drawings of animals such as wallabies and dingos, and spiritual figures. Charcoal, red and white ochre are the substances most commonly used.
Sometimes images can also be engraved on cave walls or on rocky parts of the floor.
A charcoal drawing of a wallaby over an earlier red ochre figure (Gosford)
Stencils of stone axe, boomerang, and hand (Mangrove Mountain)
Other evidence of habitation
Caves which contain art often have floor deposits which include shells and/or tool flakes. Sometimes you see these before you notice that there is any art in the cave.
Floor deposit, including whelks, oysters and other marine shells
Its important to leave Aboriginal sites exactly as you find them. Do not remove any artefacts,
disturb the deposits or camp in these caves, and most importantly do not alter or add to the cave art.
There are two very good reasons for this: firstly, it is illegal since these sites are protected under law by the National Parks and Wildlife
Act 1974, and secondly it is important to preserve these precious historical records for future study.
New Aboriginal sites which you find can be reported to the NPWS and the Australia Museum for recording. The AHIMS is a database which records information about Aboriginal sites which have been reported to the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). These records
are not freely available to the public, however you may request a search of the known sites in a small area for a fee.
The AHIMS database refers to Aboriginal sites using a three number code. The first number is a code for the 1:250,000 map sheet,
the second number is a reference to the 1:100,000 map sheet within the first map (usually there are 6 submaps, see example here or complete list of the maps here), and the final number is the site number.
The ethics of secrecy
Most people simply have no concept of how many Aboriginal art sites are all around us, linking us
with a culture that has at least fifty thousand years of history*. The main reason for this is that the
locations of sites are generally kept secret to protect them from vandalism and graffiti. Its a sad truth of human nature that this
level of protection is necessary. Therefore, if you find a new site, inform the NPWS, but don't publish its location.
Another reason that people are unaware of the number of sites is that they're usually located away from any tracks and you often have to walk some distance through natural bushland to find them.
The descendants of the Aborigines who made the cave art in the Gosford/Sydney region are still part of the community even though few now remember all the ways of their ancestors. Various Land Councils represent the interests of the Aboriginal people in each area.
* There are well over 1000 recorded Aboriginal art sites in the Gosford area alone.
The background image on this page is from a cave in the Kulnura area
"Treading Lightly", Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe (2006).
"Over My Tracks", Evelyn Crawford (1993).
"I, The Aboriginal", Douglas Lockwood (1962).
"The Life and Adventures of William Buckley", John Morgan (1852).
A note on terminology: I refer to these sites using the common term "caves", but archaeologists usually refer to them as "rock shelters". True caves have parts where
sunlight never reaches and mostly occur in limestone rather than sandstone.