2nd International Contact Rock Art Symposium Abstracts

Last updated 26 June 2013


Port motifs in inland southern Kimberley rock art
Jane Balme (University of Western Australia) and Sue O’Connor (The Australian National University)

Images of watercraft are common enough motifs in Australian Indigenous rock art in regions close to the coast. So far, the ship image at Walganha (Walga Rock) over 300 km inland in the Murchison region of Western Australia, is the only published exception to this coastal distribution.  Another distant inland ship rock art image is present alongside other port motifs in a southern Kimberley location. These motifs most likely date to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Their location in an area where few contact motifs have been recorded raise questions about the context in which they occur. The subject matter, mode of depiction and time of depiction suggest that the artist was Indigenous and had visited and observed the port of Derby, where cattle were taken for loading onto ships.  Only a few select station workers close to the station management helped drove the cattle from the pastoral station depot to the port at that time and, as such, only a few would have experienced the port workings. The unusual motifs make the composition one of the few in the area that demonstrates the dependent relationship between white cattle station owners and Indigenous workers before the advent of equal wages in 1968.


La Cueva de Las Mulas and the Tepehuans of Northern Mexico: New Times, New Messages, New Landscapes
Fernando Berrojalbiz (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)

At the arrival of the Spaniards to the lands of the contemporary state of Durango, in the north of México, they met a group with a cultural tradition who originated in the north, the Tepehuan people, different to the mesoamericans to the south. As a result of the encounter between these two cultures La Cueva de las Mulas was created: a rock art composition made by the Tepehuans. In an earlier work I proposed some arguments to attribute the work to the Tepehuans, and place the execution in the seventeenth century. In this paper I will delve into an iconologic analysis in order to approach the symbolisms expressed in the rock art. To accomplish this task I will rely on historical, anthropological and archaeological information, as well as art history methodology. To undertake the study two factors related with the cultural landscapes will be of great importance: a) the location of the Tepehuan rock art in a canyon with a lot of rock art sites of previous cultures; and b) the closeness to the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro during the colonial period (A.D. 1520 – 1810), the main artery of communication between the city of México and the city of Santa Fe, in contemporary New Mexico, E.E.U.U.

Investigating the Absence of Contact Rock-Art: visual symbolic structures and European ships in Torres Strait, northeastern Australia
Liam Brady (Monash University)

Over the past two decades, studies focusing on the depiction of post-European contact imagery have yielded important new insights into notions of affect, the dynamics of cross-cultural contact on the colonial frontier, and how the ‘other’ was incorporated into extant visual symbolic structures. However, far less attention has been directed towards interrogating what the absence of contact rock art means especially in locales where one would expect it to be found. One of these places is the Torres Strait islands in far northeastern Australia: a major thoroughfare for ships traveling to and from the growing colony and thus a site of intensive interaction between Islanders and Europeans. Yet despite this intensive contact and the regular sighting of European vessels not a single image depicting European contact has been documented in the Torres Strait rock art record. In this paper I examine the visual symbolic structure of Torres Strait rock art to consider the absence of European ship motifs especially when compared to the frequent depictions of Torres Strait canoe motifs. Using ethnographic data concerning the symbolic role of canoes and European vessels in the context of ‘ghost ships’ and spirits of the dead I argue that despite being incorporated into the symbolic structure of Islander people (as ghost ships) European-style ships were afforded a different level of spiritual significance that excluded them from the established visual symbolic structure. In addition, by considering differences in the social significance of canoes and European ships further insight can be gained into the agency and affect of watercraft and its subsequent depiction or exclusion in Torres Strait rock art.


Encounters with a new land: marking presence, place and passage at the North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney
Anne Clarke (The University of Sydney)
Ursula Frederick (The Australian National University)

In Australia the study of the rock art of contact or cross-cultural interaction is by and large confined to the images created by Indigenous artists in response to their encounters and engagements with non-Indigenous outsiders. In this paper we extend the notion of what constitutes the art of ‘contact’ or ‘cross-cultural interaction’ in an Australian context through an analysis of the marking-making practices of 19th and early 20th century immigrants and ships’ crew held in quarantine at the North Head Quarantine Station, Manly. The inscriptions document cultural practices of mark-making in a context of contact and encounter with a new land.


Narrative in the contact rock art southern Africa: paintings of the AmaTola 'Bushmen' of the nineteenth century Maloti-Drakensberg
Sam Challis (University of the Witwatersrand)

To what extent can any rock art be said to be narrative and, if there is narrative, to what extent could it ever be 'read' by outsiders? Despite enormous strides in the direction of dispelling the idea that San rock art depicts images of the everyday life of the artists, there is a tendency to read the rock art of contact as some sort of record of events. Is this because figures move from left to right, right to left in animated action? Is it because the art of this period contains material culture of different peoples - black farmers with shields and spears, Europeans with horses, hats and guns - therefore making it easier for Westerners to interpret? This paper attempts to outline the oft-repeated assumptions that lead to pitfalls in such analyses using a case study of a specific hybrid group of nineteenth century raiders and painters.


Contact rock art? New perspectives on the debate about the authors of Post-Palaeolithic rock art of Mediterranean Spain.
Inés Domingo (ICREA/Universitat de Barcelona/SERP)

After more than 100 years of research on Post-Palaeolithic rock art of Mediterranean Spain, the chronology and authors of these rock art traditions still inform major ongoing discussions.

•  Do they result of the contact between Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic populations during the neolithization process?

•  Or is it the artistic expression of purely Neolithic people, and the internal changes reflect a single society in cultural transition?

This paper explores these two views and uses an ethnoarchaeological approach to construct a theoretical framework to explore situations of contact in past rock art, keeping in mind the historical differences between past and present processes.


The Everyday and the Unseen: contact art on Groote Eylandt
Ursula Frederick (The Australian National University)
Anne Clarke (The University of Sydney)

Norman Tindale interpreted the art of Groote Eylandt as depicting everyday activities such as hunting and fishing.  He considered rock art elsewhere to represent ceremonial figures and mythical beings.  Tindale’s observations imply a distinction between the sacred and the secular and reveal a tendency in rock art studies to attribute meaning and motivation through the identification of difference in form.  Similarly contact rock art is often described, as the appearance, amidst the familiar, of something unusual or strange.  Studies of contemporary art from East Arnhem Land demonstrate that distinctions between the ancestral and the ubiquitous and the extraordinary and the everyday, are not always easily made.  Indeed, art works to ‘socialise the Dreaming’ (Morphy, 1999:13), whereby the ancestral past is encountered daily through engagement with the physical world.  Following these observations we set out to explore how contact rock art may appear as unfamiliar, as everyday, and as unseen.


Beyond North and South – From cultural contact to networks in rock art research in northernmost Europe
Joakim Goldhahn (Linneaus University)

In northernmost Europe rock art has been a vital part of at least two distinct cultural settings. One of these settings is associated with Mesolithic and Neolithic hunter, gather and foragers (c. 5500–1000 BC), the other one, with Bronze Age farmers, herders and fishers (c. 1600–300 BC). The former have lately been associated with circumpolar cultures and cosmologies and the latter with Indo-European language and religion. However, none of these traditions can be studied through informed methods so all interpretations ought to be built upon "simple dirt archaeology". There has been a long custom of trying to highlight contact and interaction between these traditions, which I briefly will discuss in my paper. Most of the earlier researchers, whether they use a cultural historical perspective, or take a processual or post-processual position, share some fundamental epistemological and ontological features. In short, attempts to study cultural contacts and interaction have been outspoken essentialist and considered the different traditions as rather homogenous entities. Most of these earlier attempts share an etic approach which asserts that cultural contact and interactions can only be detected and reflected if and when "hunter gatherer scenes" are present within a "farming context", and vice versa. My presentation will use some well-known anthropological case studies, and try to address some of the earlier shortcomings and explore new paths to rethink cultural contact and interaction in northernmost Europe. My starting point will be influenced by the current materialist turn within the archaeological field were material engagements with the world and Latourian Actor Network Theory are scrutinised. My presentation will start with the simple question: Is it possible to discuss contact and interaction between cultural groups without discussing how this was structured within such entities?

Postcards from the outside: contact art and recent occupation of the Arnhem Land plateau
R. G. Gunn (Monash University) and D. James (Monash University)

Motifs depicting Balanda (non-Aboriginal) subjects are rare on the Arnhem Land plateau.  The region was however well used up until the time of the Second World War and much rock art appears to have been produced over this later period.  One reason for this may have been the lack of Balandas going up onto the plateau and hence a lack of interruption of more traditional rock art concerns.  These and other aspects of these findings will be explored.

No contact - No contact art.

Meyers Springs, contact art, and ‘cultural crossroads’ in west Texas
Jamie Hampson (University of Western Australia)

Meyers Springs, one of the few well-documented sites west of the famous Lower Pecos rock art region in Texas, provides an ideal springboard for investigating relationships between rock art, landscape, intrusive cultures, and the negotiation of identity.  In addition to Archaic images, there are clear depictions of Spanish settlers at Meyers Springs, and also evidence of influences from Plains groups to the north and from Mesoamerica to the south. By discussing rock art regionalism and the use of ethnographic analogy, I interrogate the notion of Meyers Springs and its environs as a ‘cultural crossroads’.


Rock Art and the Transformation of History in the Southwestern US
Kelley Hays-Gilpin (Northern Arizona University) and Dennis Gilpin (PaleoWest Archaeology, Inc.)

This presentation explores what the similarities and differences among Pueblo, Athabaskan, and Plains rock art styles reveal about changing concepts of time, history, and social identities in the Spanish and American colonial periods of the northern Southwest. In the centuries between the Spanish entrada and colonization, and the incorporation of indigenous Pueblo, and Southern Athabaskan (Navajo and Apache) communities into the United States in the late 19th century, new rock art styles appeared alongside old ones. Iconic imagery depicting deities and clan ancestors apparently continued to be produced in many areas, but indigenous artists also produced images of horses, horsemen, churches, and cattle. Dating mostly to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these are often depicted in narrative groupings that commemorate battles and other specific historical events. Apache and Navajo iconic styles overlap with those of the Pueblos, especially in the 18th century, but their narrative styles share many stylistic and technological features with the Plains Biographic Style that has been explored in adjacent regions to the north and east. In contrast, Pueblo village farmers seem not to have produced narrative rock art; those petroglyphs attributed to the commemoration of battles appear to be limited to tally marks and iconic depictions of shields. Rock art, taken together with other lines of evidence, suggests that in the colonial period, Pueblo imagery continued to emphasize collective ethnic identities, while Athabaskans, like their Plains neighbors, developed art styles that emphasized individual male prestige.


Continuing rock-art traditions, contact imagery and archaeological signatures at Red Lily Lagoon
Tristen Jones (The Australian National University)

Bininj Manbolh: contact art and walking routes in western Arnhem Land
Sally K. May (The Australian National University)
Murray Garde (Bininj Gunwok Language Project)
Ben Tyler


And then there was silence…?
Jo McDonald (University of Western Australia)

In many rock art provinces around Australia we see evidence for interaction between Indigenous Australians and people arriving from outside.  The nature of these interactions varies, and we can see a range of social potentialities being revealed in these explicit and less explicit narratives.    In the Western Desert and for much of the Pilbara – there is no evidence for rock art being produced at the time that Aboriginal people met their first European explorers.  This paper explores the question of rock art silences: which is equally a question of what is the social impetus for creating rock art?


I see no ships: the 'contact' art of Dampier
Ken Mulvaney


Negotiating Notions of ‘Outsideness’: Depictions of ‘Contact’ in the Rock Art of the Makgabeng, Limpopo Province, South Africa
Catherine Namono (University of the Witwatersrand)

The rock art of the Makgabeng is layered with histories of contact amongst different groups. The evidence of this contact is in the spectrum of motifs selected for depiction. The rock art of the Bushmen hunter-gatherers incorporates items of clothing and fat tailed sheep, chronicling contact with herder Khoe groups. The Iron-Age farmer rock of the Northern Sotho incorporates trains, cars, western attire, wagons and guns. It is the rock art of the Northern Sotho that is the focus of this study. These motifs raise the question of whether choice was dependent on difference, usefulness, humor or anger or a combination of these. Was depiction based on ‘best fit’ into their cosmologies and if so, how did it? Smith and van Schalkwyk (2002) argue that some depictions were pointed humour to deal with ridiculous spectacles they encountered. Van Schalkwyk and Smith (2004) further suggest that some of these images chronicle the 1894 war between the then South African Government (ZAR) and the largely local Hananwa community led by their chief Maleboho. Other images ridicule the hands ‘akimbo’ posture that many researchers suggest indicate Europeans. While these arguments hold their ground, I suggest that a closer look at the anthropology of these motifs may show how best they fit with Northern Sotho cosmology. I draw attention to depictions of trains, cars and items of western material culture. Drawing on data from the Rock Art Research Institute Digital Archive, the Makgabeng Rock Art Project and related anthropological literature, I propose that these motifs may also be linked to Northern Sotho initiation rituals and myths. Within this framework, the seemingly disempowered Northern Sotho communities negotiate notions of ‘outsiderness’ by incorporating outsider motifs in their rock art to add value and meaning to their own material culture.


The then and now: Decoding iconic statements within contemporary graffiti
George Nash (University of Bristol)

The majority of contemporary graffiti is ascribed to personalised statements, mainly through the medium of tagging; textual insignia that displays the artist, the gang or the territory.  However, despite this common theme there are many places in the world where graffiti is used in a historgraphic way; sometimes displaying an anti-history or a political denial of a past event. This paper will explore the rhetoric of contemporary graffiti that is associated with recent events and suggest that rock-art is polysemic - meaning different things to different people.


Stories that float from afar”: How rock art intercedes between people, places and things
Sven Ouzman (Iziko Museums of South Africa and University of Western Australia)

‘Contact rock art’ is a bundle of words that can incline us to accept, rather than question, the pre-existence of relatively well-defined groups of people who met in relatively recent times and produced an external artefact in the form of rock art. This thinking tends to overlook our encounters with new places and with the more-than-human world - both recently and in the Pleistocene. Does ‘contact’ simply mean the abuttal of different people, places and things? Can we construct modalities with predictive potential for these contacts? Or is there an intrinsic political and even conflictual element to contact rock arts? I shall try anchor these floating theoretical threads along a ~40 000 year arc of rock ‘art’ and ‘marking’ that include cupules from southern Africa and northern Australia; San rock engravings and paintings of non-San; and graffiti. These case studies may help better to understand the nature and agency of contact rock art.


Sherlock to Harding rivers contact rock art province, western Pilbara
Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia)

Why is there a concentration of historical images in the dissected range country between the Harding and Sherlock headwaters? At four sheep stations developed in the late nineteenth century there are contact images located at available surfaces close to the head stations, a trend not repeated to the same extent at other early sheep stations in the Pilbara. The sites are Springs, Old Woodbrook, Inthanoona, and Cooya Pooya stations. This paper presents the sites, and explore various explanations including (1) it was not a populous activity but rather the work of one or at least a small group of artists, (2) that it is restricted to a certain group for whom art was more common at the time of contact, and (3) the contact experience at these places required a depictive response.


Merging worlds: central Australian Aboriginal rock art and the mediation of personal identity through cross-cultural engagement
June Ross (University of New England)

Studies of contact rock art have provided unparalleled insights into Aboriginal perceptions of outsiders and the material culture they brought with them, but few have explored the changing perceptions of Aboriginal self-identity during this period.   In this paper, I will examine the changing visual expressions of Aboriginal identity recorded in the central Australian rock art assemblage.  Prior to 1862 when the first European explorers entered the desert, individual totemic affiliations were expressed in motifs encoding the essence of Ancestral Beings and their exploits at specific art sites.  With the introduction of Christianity at the Hermannsburg mission, disparate groups were drawn together and introduced to a European diet, and the social and religious values of the Lutheran missionaries.  Traditional relationships to the land were further disrupted by the establishment of the pastoral industry, which, after a faltering start grew to depend on the labor of skilled Aboriginal stockmen.  Later, formal schooling was offered to Aboriginal children to prepare them for the changing world in which they found themselves. An analysis of contact rock art assemblages shows that through all these dramatic changes, traditional identities proved remarkably persistent, but alongside these, new opportunistic methods of marking individual identity were adopted, methods that incorporated skills and values absorbed during cross-cultural encounters.   Individual Aboriginal people were able to mediate a place for themselves in both the traditional sphere and the emerging European world engulfing the Central Desert.

Steam Trains in Northern Sotho Rock Art, South Africa
Ben Smith (University of Witwatersrand)

This paper considers a series of paintings of steam trains from the Makgabeng Plateau of Limpopo Province. The trains and train tracks run for many metres across rock shelter walls and are painted surrounded by images of soldiers, settlers and guns. The images are unique to one particular plateau area in northern South Africa. They seem to have been painted around the turn of the 20th Century by Northern Sotho-speaking farmer groups. I use historically recorded information, oral traditions and painted context to consider some of the meanings behind these images and the reasons why they were painted.


Trains, planes and automobiles: Indigenous depictions of non-maritime introduced transport
Paul S. C. Taçon (Griffith University)

A number of recent studies have shown that ships are a common subject of contact period rock art in Australia and some other countries. More generally, the most common theme in most bodies of contact rock art is that of transport. Besides introduced watercraft, trains, planes and automobiles were painted, engraved and drawn in many locations. Sometimes bicycles, buggies, motorcycles and rickshaw’s were as well.  Horses are common in many parts of the world, especially at sites inland and far from the coast, but occasionally elephants with mahoots, camels and other beasts of transport were emblazoned on rock shelter walls and ceilings. This paper focuses on examples of transport rock art from Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa but is relevant to contact rock art world-wide. One of the conclusions is that Indigenous peoples were just as interested in what brought new peoples to their lands as they were in the new arrivals themselves.


The Curious Case of the Steamship on the Mekong
Noel Hidalgo Tan (The Australian National University) and Veronica Walker-Vadillo (University of Oxford)

Virtually nothing is known about the rock art of Laos PDR, a landlocked Southeast Asian country bordered by Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. We draw attention to a singular rock painting at the Pak Ou Caves in Luang Prabang province. A popular tourist destination from the nearby Luang Prabang World Heritage Site, the caves are a pair of limestone caves housing a number of Buddhist shrines and thousands of Buddha statues, giving it the colloquial name of the 'Cave of a Thousand Buddhas'. Current rock art research at the site is underway, and the depiction of a steamship in green pigment is discussed. The caves lie at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Ou, but part of the Mekong -the main waterway to the sea - is sectioned by the Kong falls, making it impossible for steamships to navigate up to Laos. How then can we explain the depiction of a steamship this far upriver? We suggest that the steamship can be identified as one of the ships belonging to the “Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine” (the River Shipping Company of Cochinchina). This French company, founded in 1881, held the monopoly of river transport in the Mekong, and was in charge of opening a commercial route to Laos.


Engraving rocks under Inca’s rule: rock art transformations and prehistoric colonialism in Chile (1000-1450 b.C.)
Andrés Troncoso (Department of Anthropology, Universidad de Chile)

How did rock artists react to prehistoric colonialism? This question will be addressed through a study of the changes that occurred in prehispanic engravings of north-central Chile when local communities, without a clear social hierarchy or a centralized power, were incorporated into the Inca State or Tawantinsuyu. Specifically, I will compare and discuss visual, spatial and technological transformations in rock art between Late Intermediate Period (LIP: 1000 to 1450 a.C.) and Late or Inca Period (LP: 1450-1540 a.C.).

During LIP, rock art supported the social reproduction of local communities. It created meanings that helped bring together and integrate a community with disperse settlement patterns.  In contrast, rock art of Inca times shows a number of transformations, such as: more complex human representations, the incorporation of emblematic Inca motifs/objects, and new symmetry patterns. These changes illustrated and influenced a process of social differentiation–hierarchization–and promoted the introduction of new symbolic principles into the local communities. At the same time, we see persistence in the settlement patterns relating to rock art sites, their internal organization and in the technological aspects of their production. Although there was clearly an intensification of rock art production during the time of incorporation into the Tawantinsuyu, little evidence of superposition between motifs of these different periods was found. All this suggests that rock art was still oriented towards the reproduction of traditional practices of local communities. In fact, rock art is separated from the new spaces built by the Inca in the region (e.g. Inca road and buildings).

These results allow us to discuss how rock art practices change, or do not change, when embedded in colonial dynamics of prehistoric States, in which we can find both colonial strategies–introduced by the State–and strategies of coloniality–activated by local communities. In this case, the latter are related to the incorporation of symbolic principles of the Inca, but introduced into significant local practices and spaces.


The Propinquity of Strangers
Peter Veth (University of Western Australia)

In this paper I will evaluate current models deployed to explain cross-cultural dynamics in art produced within and depicting maritime contexts of engagement. I will look through the differently hued lenses of the historian, maritime archaeologist, historical archaeologist, rock art researcher and anthropologist. I am interested in the extent to which the graphics are mobilised to serve critical theory nested within these disciplines and whether in fact there is a shared repertoire.


The role of contact rock art in developing archaeological sequences in Arnhem Land, Australia
Daryl Wesley (The Australian National University)

Generally contact period history in colonised countries (i.e. north America, Australia, South Africa) is treated as a single archaeological phase given the shorter lengths of time than those usually encountered in archaeological studies. Archaeological research in the Wellington Ranges, Arnhem Land has been investigating change in Indigenous societies arising from culture contact with Indonesian mariners and European colonisers. Where there are technical and taphonomic constraints in archaeological analytical techniques (i.e. problems in radiocarbon calibration for post 1700 AD dates) contact rock art may be able to provide more nuanced spatial and temporal indicators. In the Wellington Range, contact rock art has assisted the development of a five phase contact history model for north western Arnhem Land where other archaeological investigations could not provide the same level of detail. This paper will discuss the various problems and processes engaged to develop this interpretation of contact period history of Arnhem Land.


Expressions of fertility: evidence of contact in south-central Africa
Leslie F. Zubieta (University of Western Australia)

Contact between hunter-gatherer and farmer groups in south-central Africa (eastern Zambia, central Malawi and north-western Mozambique) was thought in the beginning as one in which conflict prevailed. This was assumed based on the misconception that interaction among groups with different ways of life leads generally to confrontation and conflict. Archaeological evidence in the 1970s demonstrated a more intimate and sustained relationship than the one that was earlier imagined. Pottery and stone tools were found in the same levels at sites such as Kalemba in eastern Zambia and Mwana wa Chentcherere II in central Malawi, confirming the new interpretations at the time in which hunter-gatherers established a relationship of mutual exchange of commodities with food producers. Oral traditions and ethnographic accounts, furthermore, enriched these hypotheses as they provided an insight into some of the perceptions that farmer groups had about hunter-gatherers. Some of these stories still are part of the present-day lore. A third component, the presence of rock art in many shelters throughout the region, allows us to propose that there was also an exchange of ideas.

Based on my work in this region, on a specific set of paintings that has been linked to Chinamwali girls’ initiation ceremonies of the ancestors of the matrilineal Cheŵa society, I discuss one of its most characteristic motifs known as the spread-eagled design. A similar motif appears in a set of red paintings that has been linked to the hunter-gatherers. The implications of this link will be discussed as evidence of contact between these two groups.