Review of ‘Rock Art and Ethnography: Proceedings of the Ethnography Symposium, Australian Rock Art Research Association Conference, Darwin, 1988’ edited by M. Morwood and D. Hobbs.

07th January 2014

Cole Book Review Cover 1997‘Rock Art and Ethnography: Proceedings of the Ethnography Symposium, Australian Rock Art Research Association Conference, Darwin, 1998’ edited by M.J. Morwood and D.R. Hobbs, 1988, Occasional AURA Publication 5, Australian Rock Art Research Association. Caulfied South, Victoria: Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA), vi + 87 pp. ISBN 0-646-04920-8 (pbk).

Review by Noelene Cole

A revival in ethnographic studies has aimed to bridge the gap between archaeological rock art and site formation processes, following the principles of middle range theory, developed as an offshoot of processual archaeology. Recent ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological research has provided valuable insights into the processes which underlie the creation of Aboriginal rock art. The volume of AURA Conference papers edited by Morwood and Hobbs provides a collection of such research, and comes at a critical period in Australian rock art studies, as suggested in Paul Tacon’s paper, which describes the desire of Aboriginal elders in western Arnhem land to communicate traditional knowledge on art ‘before it is too late’.

As Tacon observes, ‘Occasionally an analogy will provide the only meaningful explanation about particularly incomprehensible data’, a situation which must be depressingly familiar to many who are involved in contemporary rock art studies. I found Tacon’s methodological guidelines for establishing the credentials of ethnographic resources of particular interest, a system which, if followed, would improve the quality of ethnographic reporting beyond the type of superficial generalisation or hearsay which has characterised at least some of the ethnographic ‘literature’ available to researchers in the past. The participation of an Aboriginal person in rock art discourse (Utemara and Vinnicombe) is a welcome and appropriate development in the archaeological literature.

As many of the contributors to this volume are archaeologists rather than anthropologists, the flavour is distinctly archaeological. For those seeking inspiration or a direction in archaeological studies involving graphic communication systems, the volume provides many sources of potentially meaningful investigation. Various accounts (e.g. Morwood et al.; Flood et al.) suggest the potential of exploring art boundaries through the identification of socio-cultural networks, via the distribution of art and its morphological or stylistic features in the landscape. The relationship between signifier and signified, which lies at the heart of the abstraction versus naturalism dichotomy that is fundamental to many Aboriginal art systems, is dissected in Paul Faulstich’s paper. This model for understanding the principles of iconicity versus non-figurativeness, with reference to Warlpiri culture, has been of value in my own research relating to a system of rock art for which there is only fragmentary ethnographic data. Claire Smith’s paper reminds us that thoughtful ethnographic study and the application of social theory for archaeological ends need not be confined to the operation of societies in the pre-colonial past.

Ethnographic studies have consistently revealed the significance of context in the functioning and interpretation or reading, of rock art, as indicated in several of the papers. Frost et al. relate, with reference to the Wardaman people, the significance of contextual relationships between juxtaposed figures, between sites within clustered arrangements, and between site and its dreaming track or country. At least the first two of these contextual relationships may be archaeologically recoverable, and may serve as starting point for investigation of any system of rock art. This paper also raises the important problem of dealing with ethnographic information which may be temporally far removed from the original context of the art. This theme is echoed in Odak’s account of perceptions of modem East African societies to rock art made long ago, and also in a thought-provoking paper by Graham Walsh which is testimony to Australia’s pluralism in its presentation of opposing and contentious perceptions of management of Australian rock art heritage.

The AURA conference was international in flavour, so the volume also contains papers by contributors from India, Africa, Japan and America. As these deal with diverse topics and approaches they tend to detract from the book’s basic organisational unity as established by the first 10 papers, which deal with rock art significance and function in Australia. Perhaps if the Australian and overseas papers had been interspersed within some type of thematic sequence, the overall structure of the collection would have been more homogeneous. The latter criticism is the only negative comment I can raise on a volume, which is a very useful contribution to the literature.

Cole, N.
Review of ‘Rock Art and Ethnography: Proceedings of the Ethnography Symposium, Australian Rock Art Research Association Conference, Darwin, 1988’ edited by M. Morwood and D. Hobbs
December 1997
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