Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Periodic Report Summary 1 - ROCKART (Indigenous Heritage, Rock Art, and Cultural Identity in Post-colonial Nations)

RockART project précis

Archaeological, historical, art historical and ethnographic work continues to confirm the importance of rock paintings and engravings as windows onto hunter-gatherer lifeways, some of which have vanished or on the point of extinction. Through this project (RockArt), I am demonstrating that rock art – an integral part of visual heritage and indigenous knowledge systems – remains powerfully relevant to what it means to be human. Specific motifs are implicated in cultural identity today in many different contexts (social, political, commercial); South Africa’s new coat-of-arms, for instance, features rock art imagery. This project analyses exactly how rock art is used, and how it influences identity-formation processes, in three post-colonial nations today: the USA, Australia and South Africa. The project also tests the hypothesis that appropriate management of fragile rock art heritage sites in national parks can and does make a difference, challenging people's preconceptions of rock art and of the indigenous people who made it. In collaboration with conservation scientists and social scientists (archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, art historians, heritage managers), and combined with contemporary indigenous and tourist perspectives, an analysis of ethnographic and archaeological data is beginning to yield meaningful results and practical suggestions regarding identity-formation and the presentation of indigenous rock art. These results will be applicable to public rock art sites worldwide, including those in Europe.

Summary of research undertaken to date and main results achieved

To date, I have documented and begun to analyse the presentation of rock art sites open to the public in the USA: at Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Seminole Canyon State Park (west Texas); at Columbia Hills State Park (Washington); at Grapevine Canyon (Nevada); and at Carrizo Plain National Monument and Sequoia National Park (California). In Australia, I have undertaken fieldwork in Murujuga National Park (Western Australia) and in Kakadu National Park (Northern Territory). I have made progress in answering the questions: Does the presentation of rock art both on and off the rocks shape and/or challenge cultural and socio-political identities today, and, if so, how does the role of rock art in shaping and challenging identities vary from one country to the next? Preliminary results indicate that sensitive and appropriate presentation of rock sites can and does make a difference, especially in North America.

I have also begun work on the second theme (phases 3 and 4) of RockART, which focuses on the use of indigenous rock art motifs in unoriginal contexts in the three post-colonial countries – in national coats-of-arms, on coins, in Olympic sports team logos, in modern artworks, and in other socio-political and commercial contexts (e.g. T-shirts, coffee mugs, indigenous/tribal casino logos). At a moment when there is much debate about intellectual property rights and identity (e.g. World Archaeology Congress, 2008), it is important to investigate the role of indigenous imagery both on and off the rocks. By tracking the biographies of specific motifs, I am beginning to get a handle on the extent to which rock art images – deeply symbolic and powerful things in themselves – deepen and strengthen social identity and cohesion, especially in post-colonial nations.

For both strands of the project, I have utilised theory from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, art history, indigenous studies, intellectual property analysis, and visual heritage studies.

RockART does not directly compare far-flung rock art corpora or the indigenous groups that made the art. Rather, the case studies are clarifying what rock art means to contemporary peoples (both indigenous and non-indigenous), how people use it today, and how these meanings and uses vary from one post-colonial or ‘settler’ nation to the next. Thanks to mutually reinforcing strands of evidence and complementary, carefully chosen case studies, confident inferences and analogies can be made – RockART is beginning to 'put people back into the picture'. I have also made practical recommendations to several indigenous groups and heritage managers as to how best to present rock art sites to the public.

In sum, RockART is addressing the

• Significance of rock art in the past and present i.e. the motivations behind its creation, maintenance, management, presentation, re-creation, and use – and its social meaning(s) through time. What does rock art mean to individuals and to groups of people today? How do these meanings vary from one post-colonial country to the next, and how have these meanings changed through time?
• Ownership of rock art sites (and in situ motifs) in post-colonial settler nations, especially in the 7 national and state parks – special places where heritage is conserved
• Intellectual property rights that stem from this, including use of motifs as ‘title deeds’ in land claims
• Life history and use of 12 specific rock art motifs off the rocks


RockART is not only helping my own professional development, it is also making direct and indirect contributions, through my networks of international collaboration, to the further development of rock art research in several countries – including European nations with their rich traditions of rock art research. While rock art research is increasingly acknowledged as an important field, there are still strong regional and national traditions and boundaries that can and often do cause complications for truly interdisciplinary and international research projects. An integrative approach to the study of indigenous visual heritage, as adopted in RockART, is helping to bring down unnecessary and unhelpful barriers within and between research communities – thus promoting new interactions and collaborations within and outside Europe. RockART is opening up new prospects and vistas of research that will benefit the study of indigenous visual heritage and also the understanding of the role of rock art images in human lives well beyond the three geographical research areas.


BELEN REBOLLO, (EU Research Projects Manager)
Tel.: +441904324319


Life Sciences
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