Review of ‘Aesthetics and Rock Art III Symposium’ edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg

01st December 2009

aesthetics and rock art book coverAesthetics and Rock Art III Symposium edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg. British Archaeological Reports International Series S1818, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2008, vii+102 pp., ISBN 978 1 4073 0304 8.

June Ross

Discipline of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, School of Humanities, University of New England, Armidale NSW 2351, Australia

John Clegg sums up the papers published in the volume he co-edited with Thomas Heyd as an ‘eclectic mooting of experts’. It is indeed a catholic collection of rock art papers – 11 in all – by Australian and international authors, enriched with perceptions borrowed from disciplines such as psychology and philosophy. While all were presented under the framework of aesthetics in rock art, the varied approaches evident in the papers demonstrates the broad scope of this topic as conceived by the contributors. Such approaches contrast with more literal interpretations of the term that define and limit the concept of aesthetics to the study of the effect of the physical properties of objects on the senses and the qualitative evaluation of those properties, or simply to a Eurocentric evaluation of skill or beauty.

The volume comprises the proceedings of a symposium of the same name held at the XV World Congress of the International Union for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences held in Lisbon, Portugal during 2006. The contributions complement, revisit and build upon the papers (many by the same authors) published in the editors’ earlier book Aesthetics and Rock Art: An Introduction (Heyd and Clegg 2005).

In order to impose structure on the broad-ranging papers, the editors have arranged the papers into five sections. The first, ‘Aesthetic Perspectives on Origins and Importance of Rock Art’, includes two papers; Margaret Bullen looks for a physiological explanation for the emotional reactions that people have to memorable rock art images. She identifies human responses to these images similar to the common responses experienced by sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder independent of their cultural backgrounds. In the second paper, Deręgowski stops short of claiming universality for particular aesthetic values, but flags this possibility based on results from a study of a small sample of South African Bushmen rock art in which he identifies stylistic elements such as linear repetition, which are commonly found on other art objects throughout the world.

The second section titled ‘Applying the Aesthetic Perspective in Understanding Rock Art’ is comprised of four papers. Clegg and Jamwal analyse rock art from three countries in order to demonstrate that function rather than aesthetics (as defined Eurocentrically as ‘skill and prettiness’) was more likely to have been the foremost concern of prehistoric artists. In the following paper, Dobrez, like Deręgowski, seeks to identify universals in the way humans respond to a particular range of formal markers in figurative rock art assemblages and the contexts in which they were produced. Using Reception Theory, a concept borrowed from philosophy and a very detailed analysis, he flags fundamental generic options, claimed to be value-neutral, which are used by viewers to make sense of visual images. Michael Eastham presents a detailed analysis of the stylistic elements of painted motifs from Anbangbang in Arnhem Land. He argues that rock art provides an alternate means of communicating ideas across language barriers in a region where a multiplicity of languages are spoken. Further, he suggests that some images provide an essential means of retaining and passing basic information from generation-to-generation independent of language. If this were to be the case as Eastham suggests, the meaning of such motifs would have to be inherent in the motif and/or panel and would rely upon a literal reading of the images. This idea challenges the more accepted notion that meaning is established and agreed to arbitrarily and can thus vary or change through time, or alternatively, motifs might hold a multiplicity of meanings at the same time. The final paper in this section written by Andrei Isnardis, Vanessa Linke and Andre Prous analyses stylistic changes at Minas Gerais in the highlands of central Brazil and has been published in Chinese rather than being translated into English.

While Chazine’s paper in the third section of the book, ‘Expression and Intention in the Aesthetics of Rock Art’ has been published in English rather than his native French, it would have benefited from a tighter editorial hand. Focused on the distinctive arrangement of hand stencils found in caves in Borneo, Chazine perceives what he identifies as the elementary aesthetic concerns of the producers. The other paper in this section, by Anne Eastham, investigates the intentions of the creators of standing stones in Pembrokeshire in Wales by analysing their specific location and later repositioning and decoration. Based on this analysis, she concludes that the function of the standing stones has differed through time.

The penultimate section of the book is devoted to ‘Aesthetics and Ethics of Rock Art’. Heyd points out the threats of commercial exploitation or academic appropriation to which rock art is exposed. He warns that transculturation, in order to be generative or productive in a meaningful way, requires that encounters between cultures be guided by respect founded on the pursuit of understanding of the other. Such an understanding of other cultures is seen as a prerequisite by Bararda Fernandes in his paper on conservation of engravings in the Côa Valley in Portugal. He highlights the integral role that fissures and other intrinsic qualities of rock substrates might play in the aesthetic intentions of the original producers.

The two final papers included in the ‘Overviews and Commentaries’ section summarise the diversity of approaches taken by the contributors: Clegg states that it is the incorporation of such differences that add richness to the discipline. Nowell provides a different perspective on aesthetics as a framework from which to study rock art, advocating instead a comprehensive contextual approach for the discipline. In conclusion, she argues that researchers need to move away from essentialist approaches that assume that art and human responses to it are universals.

It may well be that the term ‘aesthetics’ has lost its valency as an accurate rubric to cover the diversity of approaches included in this volume. Whatever the title under which the papers are gathered, the volume provides thought-provoking and innovative examples of the ways in which our understanding of rock art can be illuminated and warrants its publication as a worthy addition to the earlier publication on the same topic.


Heyd, T. and J. Clegg (eds) 2005 Aesthetics and Rock Art: An Introduction. Aldershot: Ashgate.

June Ross
Review of ‘Aesthetics and Rock Art III Symposium’ edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg
December 2009
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )