Review of ‘The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: Social, ecological and material culture change in the Post-Glacial period’ by Darrell Lewis

23rd January 2014

Franklin Book Review Cover 1994‘The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: Social, ecological and material culture change in the Post-Glacial period’ by Darrell Lewis, 1988, BAR International Series 415, 425 pp. ISBN 0-86054-532-6 (pbk)

Review by Natalie Franklin

Previous reviews of this book (Haskovec 1989; Sales 1990) were more concerned with Lewis’ determination of a chronological sequence for the rock paintings of Arnhem Land. By contrast, I will concentrate on Lewis’ interesting interpretations of change within this sequence.

Although in later chapters it becomes clear that Lewis’ aims were to order and analyse Arnhem Land rock art, and to link it to the archaeological and ecological evidence, an initial statement of research design, as well as a brief general description of the rock paintings, would have been useful in the introduction to this book.

Before setting up his own sequence, Lewis discusses in Chapter 1 some of the reasons for his ultimate rejection of Chaloupka’s chronology of Arnhem Land rock paintings, although a more detailed critique is presented in Chapter 6. I found this splitting of the critical analysis of Chaloupka’s work to be a structural flaw with the book, tending to detract a little from the overall value of Lewis’ critique, which is one of the few available in print.

It is also a little disappointing that Lewis does not discuss at any stage the place of Arnhem Land rock paintings within the overall context of Australian rock art (e.g. Maynard’s 1976, 1979 chronological scheme; see Franklin in press).

After describing his methods for determining a chronology at the end of Chapter 1, the next few chapters outline Lewis’ sequence of four periods in Arnhem Land rock paintings, which are labelled the Boomerang, the Hooked Stick/Boomerang, the Broad Spearthrower and the Long Spearthrower.

The second part of the book is more interpretive and contains overviews of Arnhem Land prehistory, ecology and climatic change, as well as the more detailed critique of Chaloupka’s dating scheme. The author also outlines his model for explaining the chronological changes in the art identified in Part 1 of the monograph.

The Boomerang Period is said to be highly formalised, and characterised by a single widespread style of human figures common throughout the Arnhem Land Plateau. Lewis argues that there is one widespread social identity at this time, expressing social and cultural stability and a desire to stress ‘sameness’ and reciprocity through the art. This is said to have adaptive value at a time of climatic aridity extant during the glacial period from c.18,00Q BP to c.9000 BP, in that access to the territories of neighbours at times of resource shortage was ensured. The territories of the inhabitants at this time would have been large, analogous to those of the present-day semi-arid and arid zones. Lewis also argues that similarities between Boomerang figures and the Bradshaw figures of the Kimberley may indicate that the two regions were part of the same extended information-exchange network at that time.

By contrast, the Hooked Stick/Boomerang Period is characterised by regionalisation in the styles of human figures, as well as the development of a widespread suite of motifs, the Composite Rainbow Snake Complex. Lewis interprets the Period as one of social reorganisation, with the appearance of smaller regional group identities emphasising mutual differences. Territories would have been smaller and more clearly defined, as expected from the demographic growth prompted by increased rainfall and an increased carrying capacity of the land. However, the Composite Rainbow Snake motifs, also extant at the same time, fail to show regional differentiation. These are interpreted as indicating an over-riding philosophy of conciliation at a time of social stress created by the displacement of coastal and riverine populations following sea level rise at c.8000 BP.

Although the interpretations drawn by Lewis are creative and stimulating, I have some misgivings with them, and it is here that the difficulties involved in dating rock art become a real problem. In this monograph, Lewis has attempted to use relative degrees of stylistic homogeneity or heterogeneity to date the art, in terms of its correlation with dated periods of climatic aridity or increased rainfall. In order to make his model ‘stick’, it is clear that Lewis requires independent evidence for the dating of the rock paintings, which can then be correlated with ecological changes through time. Such evidence is not available at present.

The interpretations drawn by Lewis for Arnhem Land rock paintings are analogous to models posed by Gamble (1982, 1983, 1986) to explain the homogeneity of Upper Palaeolithic Venus figurines, and Jochim (1983) to account for the concentration of Upper Palaeolithic cave art in southwestern Europe. I have shown that these models are based on various lines of evidence the analogues of which are not currently available in Australia (Franklin 1992). Therefore, the patterns outlined for the Boomerang and Hooked Stick/Boomerang Periods by Lewis may only be suggestive of open and closed social networks which correspond with periods of aridity and increasing rainfall respectively. Without the additional information of absolute dates and associated archaeological context, which is available for incorporation in the models of Gamble (1982, 1983, 1986) and Jochim (1983), it is not possible to correlate with any degree of certainty Arnhem Land rock paintings with the ecological backgrounds of the glacial and immediate post-glacial periods.

Another fundamental problem with Lewis’ model is his assertion, rather than demonstration, that the Boomerang Period comprises figures in one overall homogeneous style, while the Hooked Stick/Boomerang Period consists of separate regionally varied styles. In these terms, I concur with Sales’ (1990) earlier comments. I would like to have seen an empirical demonstration of the degrees of variation and similarity of the different periods, as I have done for the Panaramitee style and Simple Figurative styles (Franklin 1989, 1991, 1992). A series of multivariate analyses of Arnhem Land rock paintings would have been useful here. Haskovec’s (1989) comments with regard to Lewis’ failure to indicate the sample of paintings involved in his study also become relevant in this context.

In summary, this is a creative and innovative exploration of a complex corpus of rock art, well illustrated throughout with line drawings and plates. It represents an advance on the earlier chronologies of Chaloupka and Brandl, and it is hoped that future innovations in techniques for dating rock art (see Franklin in press) will enable a more precise articulation of Lewis’ model for stylistic change in the rock paintings of Arnhem Land. In the meantime, this book is certain to stimulate further research and debate.


Franklin, N.R. 1989 Research with style: A case study from Australian rock art. In S.J. Shennan (ed.) Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity, pp.278-90. London: Unwin Hyman.

Franklin, N.R. 1991 Explorations of the Panaramitee style. In P. Bahn and A. Rosenfeld (eds) Rock Art and Prehistory: Papers presented to Symposium G of the AURA Congress, Darwin 1988, pp.120-35. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Franklin, N.R. 1992 Explorations of Variability in Australian Prehistoric Rock Engravings. Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Franklin, N.R. In press Style and dating in rock art studies: The post-stylistic era in Australia and Europe? In M. Lorblanchet and P. Bahn (eds) Rock Art Studies: The Post-stylistic Era. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Gamble, C. 1982 Interaction and alliance in Palaeolithic society. Man n.s. 17:92-107.

Gamble, C. 1983 Culture and society in the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe. In G.N. Bailey (cd.) Hunter-Gatherer Economy in Prehistory: A European Perspective, pp.201-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, C. 1986 The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haskovec. J.P. 1989 Review of D. Lewis 1988 The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: Social, Ecological and Material Culture Change in the Post-Glacial Period. Archaeology in Oceania 24(1):42-3.

Jochim, M.A. 1983 Palaeolithic cave art in ecological perspective. In G. Bailey (cd.) Hunter-Gatherer Economy in Prehistory: A European Perspective, pp.212-19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Natalie Franklin
Review of 'The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: Social, ecological and material culture change in the Post-Glacial period’ by Darrell Lewis
June 1994
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