A Different Look: Comparative Rock-Art Recording from the Torres Strait Using Computer Enhancement Techniques

Article excerpt

Abstract: In 1888 and 1898, Cambridge University's Alfred C Haddon made the first recording of rock-art from the Torres Strait islands using photography and sketches. Systematic recording of these same paintings and sites was carried out from 2000 to 2004 by archaeologists and Indigenous Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal communities as part of community-based rock-art recording projects. Computer enhancement techniques were used to identify differences between both sets of recordings, to reveal design elements that Haddon missed in his recordings, and to recover images recorded by Haddon that are today no longer visible to the naked eye. Using this data, preliminary observations into the antiquity of Torres Strait rock-art are noted along with recommendations for future Torres Strait region rock-art research and baseline monitoring projects.

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Cultural materials from the Torres Strait islands in tropical far northeast Queensland reveal a visually striking repertoire of highly visible, decorative objects, such as turtle-shell masks, headdresses, carved and incised drums and tobacco pipes, sculpture, and canoes. Many of these objects were collected or recorded in the late 1800s and early 1900s by collectors, explorers, anthropologists, and government residents in the islands, and now reside in museums and personal collections all over the world. More recently, a contemporary Torres Strait artistic tradition has emerged that focuses on ancestral subjects in the form of painting and lino prints. This tradition of painting has become internationally famous through recognised artists such as Alick Tipoti, Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, David Bosun, and Victor Motlop (e.g. Mualgau Minaral Artist Collective 2001), and thus continues the distinctive Torres Strait artistic traditions. While description and analysis of these more visible forms of Torres Strait artistic expression are evident in the literature from the region (e.g. David et al. 2004b; Farr 1987; Fraser 1978; Kaus 2004; Moore 1984, 1989; Mosby and Robinson 1998), one form of artistic expression from the Torres Strait islands--rock-art--largely has been overlooked until recently.

AC Haddon, the noted Cambridge anthropologist, made the first recording of rock-art in Torres Strait in the late 1800s. Little rock-art research was undertaken after that time, most of it carried out sporadically by amateur rock-art recorders, anthropologists, and travel writers. (1) Two aspects of the results generated from a systematic rock-art recording project carried out across the Western and Central islands in 2000-04 are discussed here: (1) comparison of the first rock-art recordings from Torres Strait (Kirriri and Pulu) undertaken by Haddon through photography and sketches with those same pictures and sites recently redocumented using computer enhancement techniques; and (2) preliminary data concerning the antiquity of Torres Strait rock-art. Comparative analysis of individual pictures and sites is used to illustrate the usefulness of computer enhancement as a tool to assess the deterioration, recording and preservation of rock-art, and the recovery of faded or deteriorated pictures. Temporal data from recent archaeological research are used to shed some light on the antiquity of Torres Strait rock-art.

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Torres Strait, north-eastern Queensland

The Torres Strait islands (Figure 1) are scattered across a 150km stretch of water between Cape York and south-western Papua New Guinea. Geographically, the islands are divided into three main groups: Western, Central, and Eastern. The geological makeup of the Western and Central islands is granitic (Badu Suite of granite) and high acid volcanic rocks (Torres Strait Volcanics) (Von Gnielinski et al. 1997), while the Eastern islands are made up of acid volcanic rocks (Maer Volcanics) (Willmott et al. 1973).

The islands are home to Islander and Aboriginal communities--Saltwater People--who are renowned as some of the world's most marine-oriented peoples (McNiven 2003; Sharp 1992, 2002). …