Academic journal article Antiquity

The Social Construction of Caves and Rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Social Construction of Caves and Rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)

Article excerpt


It is commonplace in archaeology to make reference to--and systematically investigate--site formation processes both natural and cultural (for a classic exposition, see Schiffer 1976). Among these investigations, it is not unusual, although less common, to focus attention on the way that a site's natural layout affected human activities--or how people made use of natural configurations in their daily lives. Examples include how geology and landform affect where people decide to live (e.g. Heydari 2007); the tendency for people to clean rockshelter floors by creating 'dump zones' toward the rear wall (e.g. Burns 2005); and the propensity for bedrock surfaces and ceilings to weather and exfoliate as a result of human habitation, especially firing practices (e.g. Hughes 1977). The ceiling height of rockshelters affects the movement of people and the layout of activity areas (e.g. Theunissen et al. 1998). Geology also influences the positioning of particular artistic designs, and the forms they take, as most famously exemplified by the spotted horse of Pech-Merle in France (e.g. Lorblanchet 2010). The natural layout of caves also structures social activities as these relate to various levels of liminality and sacredness, such as the painting of the most dangerous faunal taxa, and humans and other special anthropomorphic beings in the deepest and least accessible parts of French Upper Palaeolithic caves (e.g. Leroi-Gourhan 1965).

However, while caves and rockshelters may be recognised as negotiated spaces, they are rarely, if ever, treated as constructed architecture. This is despite a rich literature on dwelling and inhabitation perspectives in the social construction of the landscape (e.g. Ingold 1993; Thomas 2008) and the phenomenology of place (e.g. Tilley 1994). While such approaches to the archaeology of place have been the subject of a burgeoning literature on social interpretations of open landscapes and landscape features (e.g. Van Dyke 2008), they have not had major impacts on archaeological investigations of caves and rockshelters (for classic views of the social construction of place, see Tuan 1977 and Casey 1993).


Archaeological research often brings together varied specialist fields. One such collaborating discipline is geomorphology, whose objective is to shed light on the processes that caused sediments to be where they are today. The use of specialised geomorphological mapping techniques, such as have been used for the study of rock art (e.g. Delannoy et al. 2001, 2004), offers the researcher an opportunity to think of the materiality of a site in a way that connects its different components via the notion of amenagement.

Taken from the French, amenagement concerns how people are actively engaged in the construction of a given place through dwelling and inhabitation (see Ingold 2000 for discussion of 'dwelling'; Thomas 2008 for 'inhabitation'). The rock walls and the open spaces within caves and rockshelters are included in a site's social fabric by the way people engage with them. Here amenagement is more than 'management' or 'refurbishment', for, unlike these latter concepts, it foregrounds the active social configuration of place as construction. Amenagement creates the place that is lived and engaged with, rather than simply improving a pre-existing place. In this context, rock art participates in such a process of construction and site formation, not through a transformation of natural rock into a culturally transformed canvas, but rather through a fluid engagement with space as an already meaningful realm that is liveable, owned, usable or otherwise transformable in a process of ongoing construction and 'house-keeping', a process at the core of amenagement.

The concept of amenagement, with its emphasis on social construction in the course of inhabitation, is particularly apt for exploring the history of sites in cross- cultural perspective, especially in Australia. …

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