Patricia Vinnicombe obituary

20th November 2013

Peter Veth, Val Attenbrow and Nicola Stern

During the last days of March 2003 the news of Dr Patricia Vinnicombe’s death became known throughout the Australian archaeological community. Friends and colleagues of Pat both in Australia and overseas were immediately in touch with each other, trying to make sense of what was such an untimely loss. As details of the circumstances of her death were relayed by her family it became clear that she had been involved in doing what she had passionately pursued for many decades – the study and protection of indigenous culture and rock art in all its myriad forms. Having just completed a walking inspection of rock engravings on the spectacular Burrup Peninsula during the last weekend of March, Pat was involved in a meeting of specialists concerned with the future management and monitoring of Aboriginal cultural heritage on the Burrup Peninsula being held at Karratha. Pat died from a heart attack during that meeting.

Two years before arriving in Australia Pat published People of the Eland, a profound and influential account of the rock art of the San of the Drakensberg Range, in southern Africa. This elegant volume not only brought an extraordinary and dynamic body of art to the attention of a global audience, but also helped to lay the foundations for a new generation of research into the meaning of prehistoric art.

Earlier studies of the rock art of southern African were stymied on the one hand by colonial attitudes toward the San as a people so primitive that they were devoid of religious or spiritual sensibilities, and on the other hand, by uncritical application of interpretations developed for European rock art. Exhorted by the doyenne of European rock art research, the Abbe Breuil, to develop her own strategies for delving into the meaning of the Drakensberg art, Pat was to pioneer an approach which employed myth and metaphor as a key into the cognitive world of the artists.

Pat’s interest in this art was fostered in her youth, growing up as she did on a farm in the shadow of the Drakensberg Mountains. Together with her brother, John, Pat spent a lot of time exploring the art preserved on the cliffs and shelters of those mountains. From 1958 until 1961 she took time away from her work as an occupational therapist to make a detailed pictorial record of this art, producing hundreds of meticulous, painted copies, a selection of which were reproduced in People of the Eland.

After an absence of some years Pat eventually returned to the  Drakensberg  Mountains  to  undertake  excavations  at selected rock shelters. Subsequently, a Fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, gave her the opportunity to write a detailed account of her rock art research, published in 1976 by the University of Natal Press as People of the Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a Reflection of their Life and Thought. In this work Pat combined quantitative analyses with insights drawn from anthropological and historical accounts to identify the visual metaphors that run through this body of art and to make inferences about what it was that the artists were celebrating in their paintings. Thus she showed that the Drakensberg art was an expression of the both the lives and spiritual world of the Bushmen who had once inhabited this landscape. In 1977 Cambridge University awarded Pat a Doctorate of Philosophy for this seminal work.

In 2000 Pat picked up the threads of her Drakensberg research, accepting an invitation to join the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of Witwatersrand for three months as a Visiting Research Fellow. This provided an opportunity to catalogue hundreds of her original painted records and to begin the task of transferring them to archival paper, for posterity.

The fulfilment of her dreams, however, came in 2001 through her participation in the making of the film, Spirits of the Rocks. This gave her the opportunity to meet and talk with San people in Namibia and to pursue an inquiry into aspects of their spiritual and intellectual lives, an inquiry stimulated forty years before, by her studies of the Drakensberg art.

Many people world-wide will remember Pat for her contributions to rock art. Perhaps less well recognised internationally, but certainly well-acknowledged in research and consulting archaeological projects is Pat’s contribution in introducing the concept of potential habitation (PH) sites which led to the development of the recognition of potential archaeological deposits (PADs) in Australia.

Pat came to Sydney to work for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service on the North Hawkesbury project, which began in 1978. The project was completed in 1980 with the production of her massive report Predilection and Prediction: a study of Aboriginal sites in the Gosford-Wyong region. Pat identified the opportunity in the North Hawkesbury project to gain more reliable data on the selection of habitation sites and choice of location. She addressed this aim by comparing the location, distribution and characteristics of rockshelters that were available for use against those for which there was evidence of use. Rockshelters that were potentially available for habitation (for which there was a listed set of criteria) were called potential habitation (PH) shelters. During her first fieldwork season in the Mangrove Creek Dam storage area, it was noted that many PH shelters had floor deposits that looked the same as those identified as ‘archaeological deposits’ and could thus contain buried artefact or faunal assemblages. Such deposits came to be known as potential archaeological deposits (PADs). Although initially only used in respect to deposits in rockshelters, use of the concept has been extended to include PADs in open contexts. Where threatened by proposed developments, PADs are usually test excavated, frequently with positive results, thereby enabling the detection of otherwise ‘invisible’ Aboriginal sites.

The North Hawkesbury project synthesized data from ethno-historical sources, environmental studies, past site recordings for the region as well as Pat’s own archaeological surveys. In addition to the Upper Mangrove Creek catchment (a freshwater area) the areas surveyed were in estuarine (Spencer, Lower Mangrove Creek) and ocean/estuary mouth (Brisbane Waters) contexts, enabling comparisons to be made between the Aboriginal use of these different environments. It is a great piece of work and despite not being published is still in constant use by many archaeologists working in the Sydney/NSW central coast.

Pat had long-term engagement with AIATSIS; as a grantee, referee and researcher. She held research posts in both NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and with the Aboriginal Affairs Department of WA. Pat’s ongoing engagement with the cultural heritage of the Burrup Peninsula led to her part in the Western Australian Government’s Rock Art Monitoring Management Committee. Since leaving the AAD Pat was active as an Honorary Associate of the WA Museum, a member of the Kimberley Society and specifically in the research of Bardi dancing boards (ilma).

AAA extends its’ sympathies to Pat’s family and her extended network of colleagues and friends.

In recognition of Pat’s enormous contribution to Australian archaeology a special session in honour of Pat will be hosted at the AAA Conference in Canberra 2003. It will specifically address the issue of the evaluation of the significance of rock art and discuss the current initiative of the Australian Heritage Commission to identify and nominate major provinces within Australia for the National Estate.

Veth, P., V. Attenbrow and N. Stern
Patricia Vinnicombe obituary
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