Drawing in the land: Rock art in the Upper Nepean, Sydney Basin, NSW

19th December 2012

Julie Dibden

The land of the Upper Nepean, with its abundance of sandstone, provided Aboriginal people with an opportunity to formulate and enact a visual language for the objectification of their ideology and social geography. Now, as in the past, this inscribed landscape resonates with its visual marks and motifs. In previous research conducted in the Sydney Basin, pigment rock art in shelters has been considered, at least implicitly, to be functionally equivalent across both space and time. The approach in this thesis has instead been developed to explore both synchronic and diachronic variability in sheltered rock art and to give consideration to the occupational and  contextual  diversity this represents.

The aim has been to explore rock art as embodied practice. This has focused attention and consideration on notions of experience in space, the manner of producing or crafting marks, and where and how they reside in the land. These marks are extant elements of the patterns of how humans experienced and lived in the Upper Nepean and the discourse they created with the land and each other. The analysis employs both quantitative and explicitly narrative approaches to examine the spatial and temporal dimensions of occupation. The different datasets are explored dialectically and in accordance with their geographic and environmental location in order to gain an appreciation of the experience and engagement between Aboriginal people and the land in this part of the Sydney Basin.

While the research has been conducted without the support of any direct dating or archaeological context, the methodology has, nevertheless, allowed for the discrimination of temporal diversity in spatial patterns, and concomitantly, the manner in which the land has been occupied and created as landscape over time. In order to achieve this, it has been crucial to analyse the rock markings not only in respect of their behaviour correlates, but also their material locations within geographic, environmental and microtopographic space.

The diachronic sequence evident in this body of rock art has revealed a rich and complex history of a dialogue between people and the land which, brokered by inscription in rockshelters, was mutually influencing and transformative. The thesis charts the initial use of rock art as a material technology for marking ideology and meaning onto the land, its subsequent employment within a totemic geography, and more recent service within the experience of the colonial period. The results suggest that regional bodies of rock art are likely to have been produced in accordance with a diversity of motivations and functional purposes and that significant change in the impetus to mark the land, and the choice of how and where to do so, can occur over relatively short timeframes.

It is demonstrated that the practice of marking the land in the Upper Nepean was a dynamic dialectic, both constitutive and transformative, of being and place. Over time, people drew the land into an object world which became, with ever increasing inscription and embellishment, a marked and painted landscape, both productive of, and reflecting, a complex history.

Julie Dibden
Drawing in the land: Rock art in the Upper Nepean, Sydney Basin, NSW
Thesis Abstracts
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