Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Rock Art as Material Culture: A Case Study on Uneapa Island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Rock Art as Material Culture: A Case Study on Uneapa Island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


This paper identifies and investigates the distribution patterns, physical properties and cultural associations of the four types of rock art found on Uneapa Island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. It generates a series of hypotheses relating to the production and consumption of cupules, three-dimensional, curvilinear and rectilinear rock art, and how this may have changed through time.

Keywords: material culture, rock art, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, interpretative archaeology.


Uneapa Island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea is home to four distinct types of rock art, which form part of a broader monumental ritual landscape. Archaeologists have long been interested in the role of rock art in meaning-making, and considerable energy has been invested in deciphering what different motifs communicate across time and space. I move away from a concern with the semiotics of rock-art design here and focus instead on Uneapa's rock art as a form of emplaced material culture.

Production and consumption are two of the central processes that define any study of material culture. While the idea of production sits relatively comfortably within a study of rock art, the role of consumption needs further deliberation. Material culture studies more consistently focus on forms of consumption activated through objects in movement--those that circulate and accumulate meaning through interaction at various locales (Miller 1995). Rock art is fundamentally different to this, in that more often than not it remains in the site where it was first created. Unlike the majority of other art forms, the place of production and consumption are often one and the same. As a result, the study of rock art has been intimately tied into a study of place (see Bradley 1997; Nash & Chippindale 2002) and the idea that "the insecurity in time is compensated for by security in place" (Chippindale & Nash 2004: 7). Therefore, despite the fact that archaeologists are not always privy to the range of social, cultural, political or economic factors motivating the production and consumption of rock art, or indeed how old it is, they can experience and consume rock art in its place. It is such direct physical connections between past and present communities that formed the basis of many interpretative landscape archaeology frameworks (Bender et al. 2007; Tilley 2004). Rock art is therefore consumed as a very particular and emplaced form of material culture, influenced not only by a person's visual knowledge (or lack of) but also all the senses stimulated by its particular locale and setting in the wider landscape.

In this paper, I outline the distribution pattern, relative and regional chronologies, and cultural associations of each of the four different types of rock art identified on Uneapa and generate a series of hypotheses about what such analysis reveals about potential social relationships restricting and/or enabling their production and consumption through time.


Uneapa Island (also known as Bali or Unea) is situated ~100 kilometres north-west off the tip of the Willaumez Peninsula, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. It is the second largest island (31.5 [km.sup.2]) in a group of eight islands known as the Bali-Vitus (Figure 1). Uneapa is home to a rich set of archaeological remains that includes thousands of modified and constructed stone features scattered across the island's landscape. Sites range from single modified stones to large-scale complexes of andesite "seats" and "tables", mortars, cooking places, grinding stones and carved boulders (for stone feature types, see Table 1). Rock art is both found in its own but also as part of larger stone feature complexes on the island. When I refer to rock art in this paper, I am explicitly referring to boulders or stone features that have been purposefully carved, pecked or decorated. …

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