Pat Vinnicombe obituary

20th November 2013

Sylvia Hallam

Pat Vinnicombe died on Sunday, 31st March, 2003, aged 71, whilst at a meeting of the Committee monitoring the effect of industrial emissions on the rock art of the Burrup Peninsula in the Dampier Archipelago off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia.

As a girl Pat had lived on the family property in the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa, where she walked and rode (on horseback) through the mountains, and made accurate tracings of the great corpus of the magnificent Bushman art in rockshelters high in the valley-walls.

Pat trained as an occupational therapist at the University of Witwatersrand., where her lecturers included Professor Raymond Dart and Phillip Tobias. When she went to work in hospitals in Britain in 1954-56 she took her tracings with her, where they enraptured the archaeological world. She received encouragement from Kenneth Oakley; while the Abbe Breuil told her “You just go ahead and do the job. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Nobody knows more than you do. Develop new ideas, new techniques.” She did. The work already accomplished was so impressive that it attracted grants which enabled her to continue recording and analysis from 1957 to 1961.

In 1961 I was entranced to hear Pat’s exposition of the art record and its interpretation in terms of group ritual and ecstatic states, in a lecture which she gave in the department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, where she had come to continue this immense work as a Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge.

Pat undertook further fieldwork and excavation in the Drakensburg jointly with her husband, Cambridge archaeologist Patrick Carter, in 1969 and into the seventies. She published a full account of fieldwork, art transcriptions, descriptions, analyses and interpretation in her magnificent 1976 book, People of the Eland1.

Pat laid the theoretical basis for a new approach to rock art studies when she used ethnohistorical sources, in conjunction with field recording, numerical analysis, and excavation, to elucidate her records of art in the Drakensburg, where it was no longer being produced. She demonstrated that dance, music, myth and depiction were all part of ceremonial participation, whose power was focussed in certain gifted individuals, but shared by the total ceremonial community. There was a frequent connection between artistic depictions and ecstatic states. Depictions were metaphoric sources of power. “The creation of a painting or engraving was also in itself . . . a religious act. And herein lies the crux of motivation.”2

In the late seventies, when her marriage failed, Pat came out to archaeological work in Australia, first in New South Wales, then with the Aboriginal Sites Department at the West Australian Museum. Pat had used historical sources to interpret Bushman art. She wanted now to work with extant exponents of Aboriginal art, myth, and ritual. In Africa Pat had linked rock art themes to historical evidence. In Australia she explored art in extant, living, communities. Pat wanted now to observe extant societies creating art, to study the nexus of ties between overlapping kin sets of land-holders and land-users, and the ritual and economic / ecological structuring of their terrain.

Pat used to the full every available opportunity to work with Aboriginal people in the Kimberleys, particularly with women. To the friendships she formed there Pat gave herself generously, as to all her friendships.

Recording the areas of art which would be destroyed by the Woodside development on Burrup3 was initially sheer hard work, one of the difficult and trying chores involved in Pat’s “Sites Department” work. It must be frustrating to put into effect policies one has had no say in formulating. Pat worked meticulously, and remained always measured and cautious in her assessments, never rash. But she became, reluctantly, dedicated to preserving the even more diverse and astounding art over the remainder of the peninsula4. She knew the heavy commitment involved, at a time when she should have been relaxing into overdue retirement. But once committed she gave both mental and physical energies unstintingly, and died while defending that priceless world heritage.

On the day before her death Pat had just addressed a Conference on the Burrup art at Karratha in the Pilbara, explaining to exponents of other disciplines (chemists and geomorphologists looking at pollutants and their effects on rock surfaces) that Aboriginal “rock art” is not just crude decoration in rough natural galleries, but the record of group participation in solemn and complex cycles of religious ceremonial. The extraordinary concentration on the Burrup Peninsula of engravings in a diversity of styles, a diversity of techniques, in a diversity of locations, showing a wide range of degrees of weathering, represented a palimpsest of such records, showing continuity and change over a very long, but yet to be precisely determined, time-range. The chemical experts,  at  the  Conference  and  Committee  monitoring  the effects of industrial pollution on the engravings, were awed by Dr Vinnicombe’s command of her subject. They were even more impressed when she took them scrambling over rock-strewn valleys next morning. Pat was at her peak. Later she felt unwell while attending a meeting of the Committee, collapsed and died.

Pat was recognised throughout the world as one of a very few real pioneers and innovators in the study of rock-art. She not only set new standards of empirical recording, but gave the world a deeper understanding of sacred art sites as nodes in a nexus of story and song and ceremony, tying into the community’s network of secular subsistence activities, “Law” linking with “lore”.

Messages of grief from every continent have expressed shock and sadness at Pat’s sudden death. The best memorial we can offer would be to ensure that her objectives of recognition and conservation for Burrup art are achieved.

Pat leaves a son, Gavin Carter, and a partner George Kendrick. She will be deeply mourned and missed, by the academic world, and by her many, many friends. Pat’s way of living could be Spartan – yet overflowing with the abundance of the food she garnered, the lovely objects she treasured, the friends she nurtured, the garden she delighted in, the love and care she had for George and for Gavin. Pat crafted a life full of richness, generosity, beauty and diversity. She gave, and there was given to her, “full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and flowing over”, “honey from the rock”.


Hallam, S.
Pat Vinnicombe obituary
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