Located at the very tip of north west Tasmania is Preminghana, formerly known as Mt. Cameron West. It covers an area of 524 hectares and was declared an Indigenous Protected Area in 1999. Most noted for the splendid Tasmanian Aboriginal cave etchings, it is a unique destination for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. The Preminghana artwork is the finest example of Tasmanian Aboriginal art, and one of the finest displays of hunter/gatherer art in the world. Located 3 km from Mt. Cameron West, on the northern end of the beach, the art is perched just 20 cm above the high tide mark. Geometric motifs cover nearly every inch of rock causing the pieces to resemble sculptured rock. Circles, trellises, rows of dots form intricate patterns, parts of composite designs occupied by crosses, parallel lines and circles. These ancient pieces are believed to be more than 2,000 years old.
In 1933, at a time when it was a matter of debate as to whether Tasmanian Aborigines practiced art at all, a Devonport schoolmaster and amateur archaeologist, AL Meston, discovered a series of Aboriginal rock carvings at Mt. Cameron West that not only dispelled such misconceptions, it uncovered what is still today the greatest example of artistic expression by Tasmanian Aborigines.
Situated at the northern end of a long, exposed beach some three kilometres north of the bluff which forms the spine of Mt. Cameron on the west coast of Tasmania, the site is only marginally above high tide level, and waves reach within a short a distance of it during heavy storms. The rocks on which the art occurs were once part of a 10 metre high cliff of calcarenite bedrock. At some stage, the cliff was undercut by wave action and pieces of the cliff face fell off onto the beach below, forming the mass of large slabs on which the art has been carved.
During the 1830s, George Augustus Robinson travelled through the area with a group of Aborigines on several occasions but never referred to seeing the carvings, though made reference to other sites along this coast that were known by and pointed out to him by his companions. It is likely that the site was at that time covered by thickly vegetated sand dunes, the remnants of which remain. During the latter part of the 19th century and continuing today, the sand dunes in the area has suffered from wind erosion caused in part by the grazing of cattle, and it is likely that this erosion removed the protective layer of sand that hid the carvings from Robinson.
The site itself consists of two main groups of carvings. One group has almost eroded away as it is located south of a small stream where it enters the sea. A large, heavily decorated slab from this group has fallen free and landed in the sand. In 1950 it was removed and placed on display in the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston. In the early 1960s, one of the most important slabs was sawn off and taken to Hobart for display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. This would not happen today, as modern thought is that it is more important to retain the site's artistic integrity.
The main site, a few metres to its north, was partially excavated in 1969 to ascertain the total extent of the site. The slab of rock illustrated on this page is part of this group and is covered almost entirely with motifs. Other slabs nearby are extensively carved, they resemble sculptured pieces. The motifs consists of a variety of geometric shapes, including circles, rows of dots, parallel lines and crosses. One rock nearby depicts the tracks of a large bird such as an emu.
Behind the large slabs is a sheltered place which contains a midden about a metre deep, with shells and remains of meals that have been dated to around 1,350 years ago. It appears that the whole site was then covered by a weak layer of soil and remained hidden for more than a thousand years until recent erosion uncovered the site.
The figures are similar to ones seen at other locations on the west coast of Tasmania by Robinson. His companions were familiar with the geometric motifs, carrying similar ones cut into their own skin on their shoulders and arms. The various patterns appeared to relate their tribal affiliations and were linked in some way to their cultural heritage. The Aborigines told Robinson that the circles represented the sun and the moon. Other caricatures represented white men and black men, which, if true, might be a reference to European or Asian exploration and visitations of the area at the time of the phoenicians.
Similar motifs of geometric shapes, tracks of animals and birds have been found in a variety of locations on the Australian mainland, particularly in the central desert region. Excavations at the Early Man site in Cape York revealed an engraved panel with similar markings that has been dated older than 14,000 years, a time when it is believed Tasmania was still connected to the mainland and had not yet become an island. It would appear that, unaffected by the many artistic developments that took place on the mainland, the Tasmanian Aborigines continued the early form of artistic expression in isolation. Consequently the Mount Cameron West site is internationally recognised as one of the most interesting arts sites ever created by a hunting and gathering society.
As the site is exposed both to the ravages of the elements of Tasmania's west coast and to vandalism, a decision was made to re-cover it with stabilised sand until such time as a more satisfactory and permanent solution to the problem of site protection is found.
Similar art has since been found on rocks at Sundown Point Reserve, eight kilometres south of the mouth of the Arthur River. The engravings here have been carved into 40 separate slabs of laminated mudstone. The engravings range for distinct geometric motifs such a concentric and overlapping circles, straight lines and crosses, to shallow peck marks indicating the carving had not been finished. Unusual designs not seen at the Mount Cameron West site are visible on a number of rock faces. A total of eight sites containing similar carvings have now been recorded on the west coast of Tasmania.