Skip to main content

Indigenous Heritage, Rock Art, and Cultural Identity in Post-colonial Nations

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

Rock Art, Indigenous Heritage, and Cultural Identity

The archaeological, historical, art historical and ethnographic work I have carried out in the RockART project confirms the importance of rock paintings and engravings as windows onto hunter-gatherer lifeways, some of which have vanished or on the point of extinction. I have demonstrated 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 (Fig. 1). This project has shown 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 has also demonstrated that appropriate management of fragile rock art heritage sites in national and state 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, my analysis of ethnographic and archaeological data has yielded meaningful results and practical suggestions regarding identity-formation and the presentation of indigenous rock art. These results are applicable to public rock art sites worldwide, including those in Europe.

Figure 1. Indigenous San rock art motifs are at the centre of South Africa’s coat-of-arms.

Summary of research undertaken and main results achieved
From 2014–2017, I documented more than 100 rock art sites, and analysed the method of presentation of 17 rock sites open to the public in the USA – at Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Seminole Canyon (west Texas); at Columbia Hills Park (Washington); at Grapevine Canyon (Nevada); and at Carrizo Plain National Monument and Sequoia National Park (California). In Australia, I undertook fieldwork in Murujuga (Western Australia) and in Kakadu National Parks (Fig. 2). The sample size in each national park was c. 100 persons. The short answer to the main question in Theme One – ‘Does the presentation of rock art shape and/or challenge cultural and socio-political identities today?’ – is ‘yes’, and more so in certain countries than others. Results indicate that sensitive and appropriate presentation of rock sites can and does make a difference. International visitors in particular are willing to travel thousands of kilometers to see rock art in its original location – especially if they are guided by someone with a strong connection to both the rock art motifs and to the landscape in general.

Figure 2. Insensitive sign in Kakadu National Park (Australia) featuring facsimiles of Aboriginal rock art. Photograph taken by the author (Dr Jamie Hampson).

The second theme of RockART focused 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). Because there has been much debate about intellectual property rights and identity (e.g. World Archaeology Congress, 2008) in recent years, it was important to investigate the role of indigenous imagery both on and off the rocks. By tracking the biographies of specific motifs, I demonstrated that rock art images – deeply symbolic and powerful things in themselves – deepen and strengthen social identity and cohesion.

In both strands of the project I utilised theory from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, art history, indigenous studies, intellectual property analysis, and visual heritage studies. RockART has helped to 'put people back into the picture'. The project does not directly compare far-flung rock art corpora or the indigenous groups that made the art. Rather, the case studies clarify 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 nation to the next. Thanks to mutually reinforcing strands of evidence and complementary, carefully chosen case studies, confident inferences and analogies have been applied. I have also made practical recommendations to several indigenous groups and heritage managers as to how best present rock art sites to the public. Specific problem areas include failure to prevent ingress of animals and plants; lack of suitable infrastructure such as barriers, driplines, and adequate signage (which inculcates sites with value); etc.

In sum, RockART has addressed 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.
• Ownership of rock art sites (and in situ motifs) in post-colonial settler nations, especially in the 8 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 – this includes analysis of archival documents (e.g. those pertaining to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 in Australia), in 9 archives
• Life history and use of 12 specific rock art motifs off the rocks

RockART has not only helped my own professional development, it has also made 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 has opened up new prospects and vistas of research that have started to 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.

Importantly, RockART has helped to realise the potential in creating revenue and jobs in rural, impoverished areas – specifically the Murujuga Archipelago in Western Australia. It is not just rock art sites in the national parks that are threatened; the lifeways and very existence of several communities are too. Academics cannot afford to miss timely opportunities to influence the ways in which indigenous groups and their arts are perceived. Site owners, heritage managers and politicians showed great interest in the project, and its sustainable nature; they realise that rock art images are powerful tourist attractions capable of generating tangible economic benefits on many different scales (local, regional, national).