Patricia Vinnicombe: 1932-2003

By Attenbrow, Val; Stern, Nicola et al. | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Patricia Vinnicombe: 1932-2003

Attenbrow, Val, Stern, Nicola, Veth, Peter, Australian Aboriginal Studies

During the last days of March 2003 the tragic news of Dr Patricia Vinnicombe's death circulated throughout the Australian archaeological community. Pat's extensive networks of friends and colleagues both in Australia and overseas were immediately in touch with each other, trying to make sense of what was to many an inexplicable and untimely loss. As details of the circumstances of her death filtered through from her family it became clear that she had been involved in doing what she had passionately pursued for many decades: the study and protection of indigenous culture and rock-art in all its myriad forms. Having just completed a walking inspection of rock-engravings on the spectacular Burrup Peninsula during the last weekend of March, Pat was involved in a meeting of specialists being held at Karratha and concerned with the future management and monitoring of Aboriginal cultural heritage on the peninsula. Pat died from a heart attack during that meeting, with her son Gavin in near-attendance.

Two years before arriving in Australia, Pat published People of the Eland, a magnificent account of the rock-art of the San of the Drakensberg Range, in southern Africa. This elegant volume not only brought an extraordinary and dynamic body of art to the attention of a global audience, but also helped to lay the foundations for a new generation of research into the meaning of prehistoric art.

Earlier studies of the rock-art of southern Africa were stymied, on the one hand, by colonial attitudes towards the San as a people so primitive that they were devoid of religious or spiritual sensibilities, and, on the other hand, by uncritical application of interpretations developed for European rock-art. Exhorted by the doyenne of European rock-art research, the Abbe Breuil, to develop her own strategies for delving into the meaning of the Drakensberg art, Pat was to pioneer an approach which employed myth and metaphor as a key into the cognitive world of the artists.

Pat's interest in this art was fostered in her youth, growing up as she did on a farm in the shadow of the Drakensberg Mountains. Together with her brother, John, Pat spent a lot of time exploring the art preserved on the cliffs and shelters of those mountains. From 1958 until 1961 she took time away from her work as an occupational therapist to make a detailed pictorial record of this art, producing hundreds of meticulous, painted copies, a selection of which were reproduced in People of the Eland.

Although her marriage to Patrick Carter took her away from South Africa for several years, Pat eventually returned to the Drakensberg Mountains with her husband to undertake excavations at selected rockshelters. Subsequently, a Fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, gave her the opportunity to write a detailed account of her rock-art research, published in 1976 by the University of Natal Press as People of the Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a Reflection of Their Life and Thought. In this work Pat combined quantitative analyses with insights drawn from anthropological and historical accounts to identify the visual metaphors that run through this body of art and to make inferences about what it was that the artists were celebrating in their paintings. Thus she showed that the Drakensberg art was an expression of both the lives and spiritual world of the Bushmen who had once inhabited this landscape. In 1977 Cambridge University awarded Pat a Doctorate of Philosophy for this seminal work.

In 2000 Pat picked up the threads of her Drakensberg research, accepting an invitation to join the Rock-art Research Institute at the University of Witwatersrand for three months as a Visiting Research Fellow. This provided an opportunity to catalogue hundreds of her original painted records and to begin the task of transferring them to archival paper, for posterity. …

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