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Old art, new styles? An archaeological investigation of social networks and alliances, identity and ideology expressed through the medium of rock art over space and time in the southern Kimberley, Western Australia.
The rock art in the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia is prolific and distinctive, and many opportunistic photographs and commentary from amateurs and professionals have been published of selected sites or motifs. However, until now there has been no systematic recording or study of the rock art.
My PhD research is undertaking a systematic recording and analysis of the rock art of the southern Kimberley in order to increase knowledge about the social aspects of life in the area. The research is focussed on the way changes in the placement, style and motifs in the rock art are used to transmit information about identity, social alliances and belief systems through their use as social and symbolic markers over time and space. This will assist in answering questions about the way people moved across the land, their social interactions and networks and the ways that these may have changed in response to environmental and/or resource stresses.
This research is an integrated part of the ‘Lifeways of the First Australians’ ARC Linkage Project, a collaborative project under the guidance of the Bunuba and Gooniyandi Traditional Owners in the southern Kimberley, which aims to better understand the complexity of life in the area through a wide investigation of the archaeological evidence that remains. This provides complementary archaeological data that will both inform and add to the complexity of the holistic approach to investigating lifeways in the area.
In 2011 a four week field survey was conducted with Traditional Owners to identify potential sites for rock art recording and excavation, to visit sites of significance and undertake some initial rock art recording . The result was a systematic recording of the rock art at twelve sites, with more than 500 motifs photographed and recorded, and data analysis now underway. The sites varied in size and complexity, and some initial observations in the field have resulted in a co-authored paper with the Traditional Owners (June Oscar, June Davis and Helen Malo) and the Chief Investigators ( Professors Jane Balme & Sue O’Connor) recently submitted to Antiquity.
In 2012 we will spend two months recording rock art at a number of sites with the Traditional Owners in both Bunuba and Gooniyandi country, excavating a number of sites and taking samples of calcite coverings on rock art to provide some insight into the antiquity of the art. The sites selected are distributed geographically to determine whether there are differences in rock art styles and motifs that may suggest defined boundaries over time, have varying styles, motifs and proliferation, as well as different contexts, all of which will be informed by the cultural and historical knowledge of the Traditional Owners who are partners in this work.
This is the first systematic study of rock art undertaken on the rock art of this distinct area of the Kimberley. The research will contribute to increased knowledge about how Indigenous people lived and interacted in the region, with particular emphasis on the social aspects of those lifeways.