Painting Patterns: Torres Strait Region Rock Art, Northeast Australia

01st December 2006

Liam M. Brady

PhD, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, November 2005

This thesis examines the results from seven community-based rock art recording projects carried out in Torres Strait (northeast Queensland), in the context of inter-regional interaction. The extensive interactional sphere that links Torres Strait Islanders, Papuans and Aboriginal people from Cape York is a well-recognised feature of this dynamic region. However, despite the anthropological and post-European contact historical research conducted in Torres Strait, the study of rock art has been sorely neglected across the region. Prior to 2000, only sporadic recordings of rock art could be located in the ethnographic literature. This research project systematically recorded Torres Strait region rock art, using computer enhancement techniques, to investigate artistic patterning in the rock art record based on similarities and differences of designs across space. The use of computer enhancement as a methodological tool has allowed for a more comprehensive recording of rock paintings that have deteriorated considerably in the harsh coastal, tropical climate of Torres Strait. The key outcomes of this project reveal that there are no consistent grouping of islands based on motif types. Rather, specific islands – Dauan, Kirriri, Pulu and Somerset – differentiate themselves from other islands in several statistical tests involving group motifs and individual motifs. Incorporation of comparative designs from portable media – decorative material culture objects and scarred designs on people – indicate that the spatial extent of some individual designs is much more widespread than originally anticipated. A distinctive Papuan influence is clearly visible in the north with Dauan’s rock art assemblage; that influence extends southwards into the mid-western islands but is absent in the south-western islands. Consequently, rock art alone cannot be an adequate indicator of inter-regional interaction in Torres Strait. Examination of the patterning of designs in rock art needs to consider the broader role of decorated material culture objects. The portable nature of such objects is a crucial element in the investigation of the artistic system in the Torres Strait region. That designs are found on more than one decorative medium in Torres Strait is symptomatic of a much larger and widespread artistic system that utilises different media for the sharing of design conventions across space.

Liam Brady
Painting Patterns: Torres Strait Region Rock Art, Northeast Australia
December 2006
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Thesis Abstracts
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