Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World: Navigating Symbolism, Meaning, and Significance

Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World: Navigating Symbolism, Meaning, and Significance


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Rock art has long been considered an archaeological artifact reflecting activities from the past, yet it is also a phenomenon with present-day meaning and relevance to both indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World challenges traditional ways of thinking about this highly recognizable form of visual heritage and provides insight into its contemporary significance.
One of the most visually striking forms of material culture embedded in landscapes, rock art is ascribed different meanings by diverse groups of people including indigenous peoples, governments, tourism offices, and the general public, all of whom relate to images and sites in unique ways. In this volume, leading scholars from around the globe shift the discourse from a primarily archaeological basis to one that examines the myriad ways that symbolism, meaning, and significance in rock art are being renegotiated in various geographical and cultural settings, from Australia to the British Isles. They also consider how people manage the complex meanings, emotions, and cultural and political practices tied to rock art sites and how these factors impact processes relating to identity construction and reaffirmation today.
Richly illustrated and geographically diverse, Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World connects archaeology, anthropology, and heritage studies. The book will appeal to students and scholars of archaeology, anthropology, heritage, heritage management, identity studies, art history, indigenous studies, and visual theory, as well as professionals and amateurs who have vested or avocational interests in rock art.
Contributors: Agustín Acevedo, Manuel Bea, Jutinach Bowonsachoti, Gemma Boyle, John J. Bradley, Noelene Cole, Inés Domingo, Kurt E. Dongoske, Davida Eisenberg-Degen, Dánae Fiore, Ursula K. Frederick, Kelley Hays-Gilpin, Catherine Namono, George H. Nash, John Norder, Marianna Ocampo, Joshua Schmidt, Duangpond Singhaseni, Benjamin W. Smith, Atthasit Sukkham, Noel Hidalgo Tan, Watinee Tanompolkrang, Luke Taylor, Dagmara Zawadzka

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607327790
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 10/01/2017
Edition description: 1
Pages: 426
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Liam M. Brady is senior lecturer in the Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University. Since 2001 he has been working with indigenous communities in northern Australia, Canada, and the United States on partnership-based research projects aimed at understanding how people use rock art and visual heritage as symbolic modes of communication. He is the recipient of postdoctoral fellowships from the Australian Research Council and the University of Western Australia, and in 2015 he was awarded an Ethel-Jane Westfeldt Bunting Fellowship at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Paul S. C. Taçon FAHA FSA is an Australian Research Council Australian Laureate Fellow, chair in Rock Art Research, and professor of anthropology and archaeology in the School of Humanities, Griffith University, Queensland. He also directs Griffith University’s Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit. He is coeditor of The Archaeology of Rock, edited the special issue on maritime rock art of The Great Circle (the journal of the Australian Association for Maritime History), and has published over 230 academic and popular papers on prehistoric art, body art, material culture, color, cultural evolution, identity, and contemporary Indigenous issues. He was awarded the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology by the Australian Archaeological Association in 2016.

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Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World

Navigating Symbolism, Meaning, and Significance

By Liam M. Brady, Paul S.C. Taçon

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-498-0


The Place of Rock Art in the Contemporary World


Images that have been painted, drawn, stenciled, engraved, or printed on rocky surfaces around the world have captured the interest and fascination of scholars and the public alike for many generations. As the world's most widespread and longest-lasting form of visual heritage, these images are powerful communication tools that have been used to tell stories, convey experience, enhance memory, and record history. Rock art evokes strong aesthetic responses, as well as wonderment, reflection, and contemplation. It was made for many reasons, for instance, to reflect knowledge, spirituality, political viewpoints, conflict, transition, emotion, awareness of the environment, encounter and identity, among other things. Creativity and imagination are central to rock art production, but the placement of imagery in enduring landscapes allowed humans to convey information beyond one-on-one encounters between individuals. Human experience and knowledge could now be passed on between many individuals, varied groups, and even generations over time. This "symbolic storage" revolutionized the way people shared information, leading to full-blown modern human culture as we know it, and eventually to great art traditions, books, television, and iPads.

Although rock art is an archive of deep-time human experience, it also is an unparalleled body of imagery that is very relevant to the contemporary world. Across the globe indigenous and non-indigenous people continue to express relationships to rock art in many different ways. A strong feature of these relationships involves rock art as an aspect of individual, group, national, and even broad human identity. For instance, in January 2015 National Geographic — the world's most read geographic magazine — featured rock art from the incredible cave of Chauvet, southern France, on its cover. In bold letters superimposed on top of a photograph of rock paintings of horses and rhinos screamed the heading "the first artists." A second line of text below proudly stated, "How creativity made us human." This cover story occupies twenty-five pages of the January issue and includes a massive four-page centerfold (see Walter 2015). In other words, in the contemporary world of 2015 rock art is still appealing, exciting, and interesting. But why is this so? Why and how is rock art, a practice usually associated with the ancient human past by archaeologists, important in today's fast-paced and ever-changing digital world? This is the key question that is addressed in the pages and chapters that follow.


The majority of questions posed by scholars and the public regarding rock art — long considered an artifact relegated to the archaeological realm and reflective of activities from the past — concern their antiquity, meaning, symbolism and the role they played in the societies that created them. Indeed, for decades, the field of rock art studies has most often been associated in one way or another with archaeology (Bahn 2010, 7). One only has to peruse the voluminous literature (academic and popular) concerning rock art to discover how many of the common themes that drive research are, for the most part, fixated on using rock art to explore various aspects of the past: dating motifs, identifying symbolic markers of past interregional interaction, identification of territorial boundary markers, relationships with past landscapes, and so on. There is no denying that these archaeological-based research projects have helped change our understanding of the past. A recent example of an archaeological-related discovery is the dating of rock paintings of animals from Sulawesi, Indonesia, to over 36,000 years ago and human hand stencils to at least 40,000 years, dramatically altering our view of human history and challenging long-held theories on the development of both art and modern humans (Aubert et al. 2014; Taçon et al. 2014). Yet, for all the attention devoted to interrogating the past function and symbolism of rock art, a major challenge facing researchers today is how to approach and engage with rock art as a contemporary phenomenon (see also Morphy 2012). More specifically, how can researchers develop a greater awareness and understanding of the present-day significance, meaning, and relevance of rock art to both indigenous and non-indigenous communities?

Thus, our focus with this volume is to challenge researchers to take rock art discourse beyond being a subject of archaeological investigation. Can rock art be considered as something more than an artifact largely thought of as being reflective of past activities or lifeways? How can we begin to think and learn about rock art's relevance to people today (indigenous and non-indigenous) in various geographical and cultural settings? How is rock art part of living culture?

By bringing together leading scholars from around the globe to address these questions, this volume is the first to provide an in-depth, interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary perceptions of rock art, and it challenges the traditional archaeological framework where rock art is so often located. It examines the myriad ways that symbolism, meaning, and significance in rock art is being (re)negotiated in various geographical and cultural settings today. As one of the most visually striking forms of material culture embedded in landscapes, rock art captivates and evokes multiple responses from diverse groups of people including indigenous peoples, government, tourist operators, researchers, and the general public. Our vision for this volume is to shift the focus of rock art discourse from one that is primarily archaeologically driven to one that considers how rock art, as a distinctive symbolic marker surviving in the modern world, is used to negotiate contemporary relationships between people, places, and identity. By engaging with these questions and issues, contributors to this volume provide unparalleled insights into the contemporary significance and value of one of the most highly recognizable and enigmatic forms of visual heritage.

The volume has three interrelated themes that run through all of the papers but are expressed by authors in different ways. The first theme, symbols in the contemporary world, explores the symbolic aspects of rock art in various contemporary contexts (e.g., the role of rock art in post-Apartheid South Africa [chapter 7], and painted images as sources of inspiration for western Arnhem Land bark painters [chapter 13]). The second theme, interactions and encounters, examines the various ways that knowledge about rock art is being negotiated and produced in contemporary settings as well as how people are engaging and interacting with rock art (e.g., through media, museums, school textbooks [e.g., chapter 11, and chapter 12]). The third theme, managing value, addresses the changing ways that people (indigenous and non-indigenous) are engaging with and managing rock art at local levels, from small-scale sites cared for by indigenous peoples (chapter 4, chapter 9) to rock art landscapes managed by states or nations, such as World Heritage listed locales (e.g., chapter 10, and chapter 11; and see Sanz 2012). All chapters are also about reinterpretation, renegotiation, and the contemporary use of rock art for conveying important cultural messages.


The most common question asked that perpetuates the archaeological discourse around rock art concerns its age, while the second most common question focuses on meaning (Taçon 1999, 95). Usually, both researchers and the general public seek exact dates and precise meaning, but rarely is this achievable. Assigning an exact age or age estimation to an image immediately catapults it (and the viewer) into a Western-defined temporal dimension where it becomes an "old" object, something "prehistoric," or otherwise. Likewise, questions of meaning come back to the past: What were the artists' intentions when inscribing a rocky surface with a picture? Is there a single meaning that we, hundreds or thousands of years distant from the minds of the artists who created these images, can accurately "read"? But what if a meaning for an image cannot be identified or recovered? Speculation, hypothesizing, gazing, and guessing have all been employed in the search for meaning, but does it matter if the original intention(s) remain elusive? Does this diminish the value or importance of rock art? Does rock art research become "unscientific" if meaning is pursued? Can rock art be important in other ways that are perhaps linked to present-day concerns?

Our intention with this volume is to demonstrate that there are indeed many ways that people see, respond, and react to rock art in different cultural contexts, and there is nothing wrong with this even though it may disappoint or even disturb some conservative archaeologists and other science-focused researchers. Regardless of whether the original intention(s) are known or recoverable, rock art continues to be an important symbolic marker that is used and engaged with in multiple ways (e.g., to unite people, to reaffirm/reinforce identity, to transmit cultural knowledge, as inspiration for modern and contemporary artists). Relationships to this distinctive form of heritage are still visible and are being reinforced or created in new and unique ways, and new messages about the importance and relevance of rock art are being transmitted in different media — all of which signal a dynamic place for rock art in the contemporary world.

There are many different types of relationships that people have to rock art and rock art sites in the contemporary world, some similar to those of different periods of the past, some quite modern and different. And across the globe, the nature of knowledge pertaining to rock art differs considerably. For instance, in some indigenous contexts, such as in the American Southwest and many parts of northern Australia, there remains a strong knowledge base among indigenous peoples about the meaning and symbolism of some or many motifs, and perhaps their relationship to a site or broader landscape. These types of relationships are the ones that researchers and the public alike are perhaps most familiar with. Some examples include M. Jane Young's (1985, 1988) work among the Zuni, where she explored contemporary Zuni perceptions of engravings by noting how her Zuni instructors considered the images as "signs of the ancestors" (see also Dongoske and Hays-Gilpin, chapter 6); and in Australia, the detailed investigations of the painted Wandjina Ancestral Beings in northwestern Western Australia that explored, among other things, the role of motifs in cosmology and identity (e.g., Blundell and Woolagoodja 2005, 2012; Crawford 1968; Layton 1992) (see also e.g., Keyser et al. 2006; Taçon 1992). While these examples highlight the symbolism and meaning of the art at a certain point in time — the ethnographic present — it should be remembered that relationships indigenous people have to rock art are also dynamic and constantly undergoing renegotiation through time, a point that Brady and Bradley explore in chapter 5 on Yanyuwa rock art from northern Australia's southwest Gulf of Carpentaria region.

Conversely, in places where insider knowledge about the original intentions behind the creation, meaning, and symbolism of rock art are absent/non-existent or difficult to access, relationships are very different from those described above (note: this can be in both indigenous and non-indigenous contexts). In these instances, relationships to rock art are constructed around different factors that are, for the most part, not related to the original intentions behind the artworks. Indeed, the meaning making or significance making process takes on different qualities that are rarely explored. While some may tend to shy away from interrogating the nature of these relationships, we believe they are critical for understanding how and why this form of cultural heritage remains relevant today. For example, Catherine Namono (chapter 2) explores the reinterpretation of the Nyero 2 rock art site in Uganda by people who have moved into the area as a result of different circumstances (resettlement, etc.) but draw on their own experience and knowledge to make sense of the rock art here. It is precisely the way that people engage and interact with rock art sites that is particularly intriguing — there is no right way or wrong way of doing this, but understanding the how and why of this engagement and interaction will help us to better comprehend the role this distinctive form of cultural heritage plays in people's lives today.

The relationship between rock art, identity, and symbolism is particularly important to consider given its ability to highlight processes linked to the contemporary uses and functions of rock art. Recent research by Liam Brady (2009) and Taçon et al. (2008) has shown how Indigenous Australian communities are using new rock art discoveries in the Torres Strait islands (far north Queensland) and the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (New South Wales) to symbolically reaffirm their distinctive social identities and challenge notions that they have lost traditional knowledge as a result of the colonial experience.

For example, beginning in the early 1900s, the Kaurareg Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southwestern Torres Strait because of government removal policies and only began returning from the mid-1940s onward. Today, Kaurareg are collaborating with researchers to use archaeology, and more specifically rock art, to highlight their distinctive local and Aboriginal identity as opposed to the "Islander" identity other local groups in Torres Strait use to self-identify. One way of doing this has been through the identification of distinctive motifs in the rock art record such as the baidamalbaba — a unique shark-tooth studded weapon used only by Kaurareg people and found painted in a rock shelter on Muralag, their home island. The Kaurareg are also using their rock art to try to establish broader links with Cape York Aboriginal groups on the Australian mainland with whom they have historically had strong social and cultural links (Brady 2009). In this way, rock art plays an active symbolic role in Kaurareg's pursuit of specific goals or outcomes related to their identity.

The same is true for Darug, Darkinjung, Wiradjuri, and other Aboriginal groups near Sydney (Taçon et al. 2008), with strong relationships between stories, rock art, and environment renegotiated and rearticulated with each new rock art discovery. Similarly, Dongoske and Hays-Gilpin (chapter 6) illustrate the strong relationships between rock art, animals (fish), the environment, and Zuni identity. For the Zuni, rock art is multivocal and is used today to express their relationships to their ancestors and migration story from the Grand Canyon.


Excerpted from Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World by Liam M. Brady, Paul S.C. Taçon. Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xvii

Note to Reader xix

1 The Place of Rock Art in the Contemporary World Paul S.C. Taçon Liam M. Brady 3

2 A Fabricated Past? The Case of Nyero Rock Art Site, Kumi District, Uganda Catherine Namono 15

3 "What Rock Art?" Stories from Northeast Thailand Noel Hidalgo Tan Atthasit Sukkham Gemma Boyle Watinee Tanompolkrang Jutinach Bowonsachoti Duangpond Singhaseni 37

4 What the Places Teach Us: Challenges for Cultural Tourism and Indigenous Stewardship of Rock Art Sites in the North American Midcontinent John Norder Dagmara Zawadzka 59

5 "That Painting Now Is Telling Us Something": Negotiating and Apprehending Contemporary Meaning in Yanyuwa Rock Art, Northern Australia Liam M. Brady John J. Bradley 83

6 Parks, Perroglyphs, Fish, and Zuni: An Emotional Geography of Contemporary Human-Animal-Water Relationships Kurt E. Dongoske Kelley Hays-Gilpin 107

7 Rock Art in South African Society Today Benjamin W. Smith 127

8 Inscribing History: The Complex Geographies of Bedouin Tribal Symbols in the Negev Desert, Southern Israel Davida Eisenberg-Degen George H. Nash Joshua Schmidt 157

9 Land/People Relationships and the Future of Rock Art in the Laura Basin, Northeastern Australia Noelene Cole 189

10 From Science to Heritage: New Challenges for World Heritage Rock Art Sites in Mediterranean Spain in the Twenty-First Century Inés Domingo Manuel Bea 213

11 Rock Art, Cultural Change, the Media, and National Heritage Identity in the Twenty-First Century Paul S.C. Taçon 245

12 Teaching and Learning about Rock Art in Argentina Dánae Fiore Mariana Ocampo Agustín Acevedo 275

13 Recent Art History in Rock Country: Bark Painters Inspired by Rock Paintings Luke Taylor 307

14 Marks and Meeting Grounds Ursula K. Frederick 337

15 Establishing New Ground: Reflexive/Reflective Thinking and Plotting a Future for Studying Rock Art in Contemporary Contexts Liam M. Brady Paul S.C. Taçon 363

Contributors 371

Index 375

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