Academic journal article Antiquity

Beswick Creek Cave Six Decades Later: Change and Continuity in the Rock Art of Doria Gudaluk

Academic journal article Antiquity

Beswick Creek Cave Six Decades Later: Change and Continuity in the Rock Art of Doria Gudaluk

Article excerpt


Iconic rock art sites are characterised not only by the strength of their visual impact and the complexity of their art, but also by interpretations that deeply inform developments in archaeology. Often, they are deeply researched over a long period.

When, in 1977, Macintosh published a reappraisal of his earlier (1952) article on Beswick Creek Cave in the Northern Territory, Australia, his cautionary tale against ascribing meaning to rock art motifs engendered the site with iconic status. His reassessment of his initial identification of species in the rock art of the site of Doria Gudaluk (renamed by himself and by Elkin (1952) as Beswick Creek Cave) demonstrated that the "mental code of the artists' schematisation cannot be cracked without keys provided by highly initiated informants" (Macintosh 1977: 197). Macintosh concluded that: "If one had intended to set up a designed and controlled experiment as in a laboratory, for the purpose of testing validity of interpretation, one could hardly have staged a more perfect experiment, giving a more significant result" (Macintosh 1977: 197).

Based on a visit to this site in May 1952, Macintosh (1952) originally published a full inventory of the motifs at Doria Gudaluk and identified the species depicted. His reappraisal compared his interpretations with those of Elkin (1952), who had been on the same field trip but had stronger relationships with the local community. Macintosh found that 90 per cent of his initial subject identifications were incorrect. As an anatomist, he found this especially perturbing. His study was critical to the development of rock art research because it demonstrated that the identification of representational meaning in figurative paintings is problematic without local knowledge.

The archaeological community took Macintosh's reappraisal to heart. Maynard (1979: 86) reflected upon Macintosh's experience to contend that meaning is always "highly specific and usually esoteric" and, as such, is "probably completely intractable". Clegg (1978) argued against constructing the meaning of motifs, as it is impossible to ascertain securely either the subject or motivation of the artists. Clegg and others (e.g. Franklin 1984) adopted the typographic convention of an exclamation mark before their own categorisations of motifs to emphasise their view that the names allocated to motifs may not reflect the intentions of the artists, referring to !fish, Itracks and so forth. Clegg's point has been absorbed into the contemporary rock art literature: few scholars today would argue for definitive interpretations of either subject or motivation in rock art. As Morphy (1989: 1) observed, there is an important gap between the motifs depicted and the cultural concepts that they may represent. This understanding is embedded in studies of how Aboriginal peoples attribute meanings to art in other, neighbouring parts of northern Australia (Lewis 1988; Morphy 1991; Tacon et al. 2003; Domingo Sanz & May 2008; May & Domingo Sanz 2010; David et al. 2013), as well as in the theoretical works of Conkey (1987), Gell (1998) and Hodder (1989), among others.

To reduce rock art research to the study of meaning is, however, to overlook information on past cultural developments, practices and interactions that can be obtained through descriptive, quantitative and archaeometric analysis (Domingo Sanz 2012: 307). Rather than seeking meaning per se, current approaches to rock art research focus on archaeological analyses that consider the distribution of designs within Palaeolithic societies (Farbstein & Svoboda 2007); determine style through differences in the representation of particular motifs (Pigeaud 2007; Domingo Sanz 2008); analyse the art in context, in terms of either the site (Ross & Davidson 2006; Moro Abadia & Gonzalez Morales 2007; Roberts et al. 2015), the landscape (Bradley 1997; David 2002; Domingo Sanz et al. …

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