Though comparable patterns and designs were once created elsewhere in Australia, the surviving style of ground mosaics appears to have been restricted to the people of the Centre - to the majority (but not all) of those living in the major range country, north from Alice Springs for about eight hundred kilometres and west to south-west to the Western Desert country.
European settlement and the spread of Christianity very largely destroyed the ceremonial life of our Arrernte group plus Pitjantjatjara, Pitubi, Walpiri, Amnatjira and Warramunga tribes.
Ground mosaics are the most elaborate of our art works, but complementary designs and decorations are applied to the bodies and specially constructed head dresses of actors: to secret-sacred ritual objects that are stored near the ceremonial grounds; and often to shields, boomerangs and other weapons.
The design elements are not, in themselves, considered dangerous. But in a ceremonial situation, when the correct secret-sacred chants are sung, they are believed to partake of mythological forces, whose essence they pass on to otherwise profane objects. Thus, the dancers and the objects they use are thought to become imbued with supernatural power. If not made unrecognisable in rituals, the decorations are usually destroyed immediately afterwards, for most are not to be displayed in secular situations.
The mythological beings, to which all Aboriginal people are totemically and ancestrally related in one way of another, are regarded not as really dead so much as at watchful rest. They still live in rock-holes, caves, clay-pans and other natural features. Sacrilegious behaviour, or casual regard for ancient custom and law, may so anger the supernatural beings that death and destruction follow. Sacrilege tat is recognised on the instant must be punished on the instant, so as to placate the creative ancestors.
The artists creating the ground paintings are all men; inevitably, they are well into middle age, for only after extensive and often very painful ritual is one knowledge and competent enough to depict the designs correctly. Younger but still ritually correct men are sometimes employed as assistants (obviously, a period of introductory instruction is required), but few men involved in making ground mosaics are under forty. Women have similar styles of body markings, have limited numbers of sacred objects and dances, and may mark the sand with leaves, sticks or their hands in the telling of stories; but they are not involved in making the decorated ground paintings.
No one man can create a ground design. In the complexity of Aboriginal social situation, each site that is still 'living' has at least two men who stand in a 'keeper-owner' relationship to it and two men called Kutungulu ('inspectors' or 'policemen') who ensure that their keeper-owners maintain correct protocol. Similarly, unless given formal dispensation, men can create only those paintings over which they are recognised as having authority: there is no concept of total artistic freedom in the Western sense.
40,000 Years to Design
Each major secret-sacred ground painting represents both an individual identifiable geographical locality and a mythological incident that occured there, although is inevitable that related sites and incidents will also be recalled. As there are hundreds upon hundreds of differents sites in a tribal territory, ranging from individual tress or rocks to mountains, the most learned old men may well know the details of hundreds of paintings - even possibly, of more than a thousand. The designs must be relatively static in composition and have persisted over a great meny generations to allow for such feats of memory.
An indication of the ancient derivations of the ground art is that identical designs elements occur in the rock engravings, some of which are now known to be about twenty thousand years old. Plain and concentric cirlces, straight bar-lines and sinuous lines and animal tracks prevail in each art form. The major difference is probably, the regular inclusion of arcs (representing seated figures) in ground painting. There a similarity is the absence of the square or rectangle, a design element that frequently occurs on woomeras (spear throwers), hard-wood shields and other wooden objects. Despite the similarities, however, the fragile nature and purposeful destruction of ground paintings - presumably in ancient times as in modern - makes it unlikely that we will ever know when this form of art became prevalent.
All ground paintings, and the modern paintings on canvas or art-board which are derived from them, are meant to be seen as plan views. This is almost certainly influenced by the hunting and foraging life-styles that the Aborigines once followed and, to varying degrees, still do. It is a great asset, when travelling the bush, if the slightest sign of a track - a scratch on clay or recognised as indicating the time and direction of travel, and the type of animal that caused it. Conservation of energy in the hunt is almost as essential as the discovery of game. (The exceptional tracking skills of the Aborigines have been successfully used for finding lost people or seeking out criminals; Aboriginal trackers are employed by the police in all remote areas.)