Academic journal article Rock Art Research

First Record of Painted Rock Art near Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia, and the Origins and Distribution of the Austronesian Painting Tradition

Academic journal article Rock Art Research

First Record of Painted Rock Art near Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia, and the Origins and Distribution of the Austronesian Painting Tradition

Article excerpt


During recent fieldwork in West Timor, Indonesia, a rock art locality was discovered in an uplifted limestone marine terrace bordering the coast near Kupang (Fig. 1). The motifs comprise hand stencils, anthropomorphous figures and geometric motifs, all painted high on the cliff wall. Patches of red pigment also occur over extensive areas of the walls. Today these are not discernible as images, even with the aid of enhancement techniques, and it is unclear whether they are the remnants of weathered images or merely pigment applied to the wall. The style, subject, colour and geographic and physical placement of the motifs all fit comfortably into what Ballard (1992) has defined as the Austronesian painting tradition (APT) and relates them to a broad corpus of painted rock art found throughout the western Pacific.

The Austronesian painting tradition

Specht (1979) was the first to distinguish a separation between the painted and engraved rock art of the western Pacific. He examined data of variable quality from 383 sites between Torres Strait and Tonga and noted that the engraved rock art had a coherence in terms of motif range and location, consisting 'generally of curvilinear geometric forms including spirals, concentric circles, face-like forms, and various other concentric forms' on boulders close to water courses or the sea, and in Austronesian language areas (Specht 1979: 74). This style of art has become known as the 'Austronesian engraving style' (hereafter AES) (Wilson 2002: 46). Specht (1979) also thought the painted rock art and engraved rock art separated geographically with paintings mostly at the west of the distribution and petroglyphs in the east. Rosenfeld (1988:134) reviewed the art of the western Pacific and also concluded that there appeared to be little overlap between painted and engraved rock art and suggested that perhaps they represented two separate 'artistic traditions'. She also noted some coherence amongst the painted rock art in terms of the focus on geometric and anthropomorphous motifs.

Ballard's (1992) study of western Pacific rock art focused only on the painted art. Like Rosenfeld (1988) he recognised 'a unity in the painted art' of the islands from Timor in the west through to Bougainville in the east, which encompassed geographic and contextual placement of the paintings as well as 'a commonality of techniques, colours and motifs' (Ballard 1992: 98). He also noted that the painting sites throughout this region showed a high co-occurrence with Austronesianspeaking areas. Building on Specht and Rosenfeld's earlier observations, Ballard (1992: 98) thus suggested that the painted rock art might reflect a 'single symbolic tradition of cultural and historical significance' which may have accompanied the 'spread of Austronesian speaking communities' through Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) and into the Pacific. He thus proposed the term Austronesian painting tradition (APT) to characterise this rock art.1 hr view of the occurrence of some motifs in the painted rock art repertoire which he thought had affinities with those on Dong Son bronzes dating to after 2100 bp, Ballard (1992: 98) reasoned that the APT might be associated with a later Austronesian diaspora rather than initial spread.

Testing these models is difficult, especially for ISEA, as there are few detailed analyses or even descriptions of the motifs from the rock art sites in this region. Ballard's (1988) paper on the Dudumahan rock art site in Kai Kecil, SE Maluku, remains one of the few that contains a detailed and comprehensive description of motifs and shows that, aside from a range of geometries, small anthropomorphous figures, often in active poses, dominate the rock art corpus (Ballard 1988: 150-1). Boats are the next most frequently occurring motif group (Ballard 1988: 152-3). Red pigment stencils are identified as dominant generally in the earliest phase of the APT (Röder 1956, 1959; Wilson 2002; Ballard et al. …

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