The hidden meanings of ancient rock art

The complexity of ancient Indigenous rock art can mean that physical location alone does not determine whether meaning for a rock art image is “hidden” or not.

Images located in plain view can contain secret information – and concealed images that seem shielded from plain view may communicate general public information.

Professor Claire Smith, Flinders University archaeology-anthropology expert.

Flinders University’s Professor Claire Smith, an archaeologist who has worked with Australian Indigenous communities and studied rock art since 1990, says the cultural meaning of information is too often misunderstood in western interpretation of Indigenous rock art.

“Rock art cannot be successfully understood through a European perspective,” says Professor Smith. “We should be focusing on rock art sites as they function within a wider cultural landscape, not just the sites themselves.”

Professor Smith is part of an international research team challenging use of the word “hidden” to explain and identify rock art.

Their research shows that “hidden” rock art sites do not need to be concealed from view, and if they are hidden from clear view, it doesn’t mean they cannot be visited by all.

“Therefore, physical location alone does not determine whether the meaning for a rock art image is hidden or not,” says Professor Smith. “You might see the image but you can’t see that meaning, the full meaning remains hidden.”

Photo: Pixabay

The research – “Hidden Sites, Hidden Images, Hidden Meanings: Does the Location and Visibility of Motifs and Sites Correlate to Restricted or Open Access?” by Inés Domingo, Claire Smith, Gary Jackson and Didac Roman – has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (DOI: 10.1007/s10816-020-09465-8).

The research challenges the notion that visually dominating images located in an open part of a site will communicate solely public information. Such images may contain secret as well as public information, or be subject to gender restrictions on viewing.

The prime example cited in the research is at Doria Gudaluk (Beswick Creek Cave) in the Barunga region of the Northern Territory. While this site appears to be hidden within the landscape, it is an open access site, although it can be closed for specific ceremonies.

“These forms of controlled access are archaeologically invisible, so our research calls into question a number of assumptions that are core to contemporary archaeological method and theory regarding Indigenous rock art,” says Professor Smith.

“We do not support the notion that a secluded location, or one that is difficult to access, is needed to restrict access to a site. Site access is controlled by a plethora of cultural rules.”

“A painting can be open for anyone to see but still have a secret meaning. You got to be taught by the right custodian,” says traditional owner Esther Bulumbara. “They decide who can know. There are rules about where people can go. The junggayi is like a policeman. They got to take people to look at country. Otherwise, people might go to the wrong place.”

Rock art features which European archaeologists seem to identify as being important in the selection of sites, such as visibility and size, do not seem to be critical for Aboriginal people in the Barunga region.

“We can’t simply take a western mindset and apply it to our interpretations of the past,” says Professor Smith.


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