'Time Will Give More Answers'
Muna Cave Painting Is Hard to Date


The hope that a cave painting in Indonesia might shed light on the antiquity of the kite globally (Drachen Journal No. 10, Page 18) has been stalled, at least for the time being.
What is needed is scientific verification of age, a possibly complicated and expensive matter, although dating possibilities are numerous and wide-ranging.

Robert Bednarik, president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations responded on the issue of dating the painting after receiving an illustrated article by Wolfgang Bieck. In it, Bieck claimed a cave image of a man flying a kite on remote Muna island, Sulawesi, was the oldest rendering of kiteflying in the world. The Chinese traditionally have claimed to invention of the kite some 2,400 years ago. Bieck's article included a number of site photographs, including one of the kite image.

Bednarik, an Australian, wrote:

"Thank you for advising me of your find in Sulawesi.

"The paintings are clearly in a limestone cave, apparently close to the entrance. The probability of dating these figures convincingly is very low.

"Pollen are irrelevant; we have no pollen spectra for the region and there is no guarantee that the paint residues contain pollen.

"The best bet is to try AMS (accelerated mass spectrometry) dating, about $1,200 per date, after determining the presence of organics, but this is clearly a specialist task and requires the collaboration of at least one laboratory. Moreover, from a research point of view such dates would be fairly pointless.

"We don't encourage sampling of rock art unless there is a major research design. Wanting to know the age of rock art is not sufficient reason to damage a motif, and I need to remind you that all rock art dating methods are experimental."

Disappointing! Bieck, however, persevered.

After Bieck told him a question of authenticity had been raised about the painting, in other words was it a recent fake painted to enhance tourism, and after Bieck had sent him a high resolution photograph of the image, Bednarik responded a second time:

"I think that you can safely assume that your cave art is genuine, that it is not a modern fraudulent attempt to create such art.

"Concerning the age, it is certainly not possible without a microscopic examination by a specialist to say anything beyond that: the art is certainly much more than six years old.

"Finally, concerning the interpretation, I cannot say anything. As a scientist, I have no interest in interpretations except those of the indigenous people who would know the correct meaning of rock art. Interpretation by cultural outsiders, such as you or I, only reflects our thought patterns and methods of visual perception. It is of no use in a scientific study. Besides, our knowledge of Indonesian rock art is very limited (I have worked there myself).

A teacher from Bad Bevensen, in Lower Saxony, Germany, Wolfgang Bieck heard about the kite find from an Indonesian, Suarnadi Makuta, at the Berck-sur-Mer kite festival in France in 1997. Makuta is director of tourism for Muna Island. Initially deterred for a number of reasons, Bieck and wife Mong Hie finally made the pilgrimage to Muna last July to see for themselves. It was a long, expensive, often difficult trip. Muna is in a jungle and the painting in a cave atop an almost sheer, several hundred meters high limestone outcrop. Climbers are obliged to use vines and other vegetation as handholds during their scramble. Guided by locals, the athletic Biecks (he teaches physical education at his school) duly attained the cave and took photographs. Bieck believed he had made a major discovery. The kite image was stylistically different and its ocher a different color from that of paintings nearby. Whether these differences implied greater or lesser age was unclear to him.

Bieck subsequently learned that two other Europeans, French kite expert and historian Philippe Cottenceau of the scholarly Les fils des Vents association and German professional photographer Hans Silvester, had viewed the kite painting in 1999, three years before he did, but had not published their find. Cottenceau and Silvester were there studying the traditional leaf kites used in Muna for fishing and bat catching. Scholars such as Clive Hart and Tal Streeter believe these leaf kites still used in the Malay archipelago and in Oceania predate Chinese kites by centuries, but no dates for them have emerged. This is why the Muna find captured the attention of many, including Indonesian journalists, when word about the discovery filtered out. Here, it seemed, was an opportunity to get an actual date for a possibly ancient kite.

In his article, enthusiastically titled "The First Kiteman" and published in a modelcraft magazine, Bieck supported his antiquity claim with undated folklore about the site told him by Suarnadi Makuta, as well as information from an Indonesian archeologist named Harry Truman Simanjuntak. Simanjuntak, who is associated with the University of Jakarta, messaged him that a painting of a horse within a kilometer of the kite image has been dated to the Mesolithic period, or the Middle Stone Age; this puts its age somewhere between 11,000 and 7,000 years before present. This proves that at least one or more of the images in the Muna karst complex of caves are indeed quite old.

Bieck says the image of the kaghati, or kite, which he explored is weatherworn and has a distinct age patina and this convinces him it is of quite substantial vintage too.

Despite Bednarik's somewhat ambiguous comments, quoted above, Bieck's interest in the painting remains strong. He vows to carry on his research and hopes to find a definitive dating technique that will not in any way damage the kite painting.

These alternative techniques range from iconography to style and technique analysis, from patination and weathering to superimposition studies, from radiocarbon analysis of mineral accretions to analysis of inclusions in the accretions, from luminescence dating to lichen analysis.

Bieck sums up this way: "The Muna painting is prehistoric and unique. It is apparently old or oldish,and if hundreds or up to two thousand years old, it constitutes a valuable historical record. If, on the other hand, the image can be scientifically dated to more than 2,400 years, thus surpassing in age the oldest recorded date for a kite in China, it would apparently prove that the Malay archipelago and adjoining Oceania was the region----a vast region-----where the kite was invented. This would make the painting a major global treasure."

About the documentation question, Bieck says: "Discovery just begins. Time will give more answers." (Ben Ruhe)

* * * * *

Bieck can be contacted at wbieck@t-online.de. Bednarik's remarkable web site is at http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/useers/aura/index.html


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