Arrernte Rock-Art: Interpreting Physical Permanence in a Changing Social Landscape

By Gunn, R. G. | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Arrernte Rock-Art: Interpreting Physical Permanence in a Changing Social Landscape


Gunn, R. G., Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Using the general outlines of custodians' interpretations and the existing literature, this article examines the correlations of archaeological evidence and ethnographic information from some Arrernte rock-art complexes in Central Australia and presents an outline for interpreting and assessing the significance of Arrernte rock-art.

Introduction

Rock-art (pictograms and petroglyphs) has long been recognised as both a social construct and a physical object (Chippendale and Tacon 1998). Like most 'art' it is involved in a physical and social environment that has changed over time, and both its physical properties and its sociological environment will continue to evolve in the future (Bednarik 1994; Berger 1972; Bolle 1995; Duvignaud 1972; Wolff 1981). This article examines two aspects of the relationship between the physical and social spheres within the Arrernte context of Central Australia. Specifically, how does the archaeological evidence reflect the general social framework of Arrernte rockart and to what degree can archaeology predict the social context?

In Australia, the anthropological and archaeological aspects of Australia's Indigenous rock-art were first identified a century ago, although further detailed studies did not occur until the decades 1950-70 (e.g. Basedow 1904, 1925; Crawford 1968; Elkin 1949; Mountford 1965, 1968; Spencer and Gillen 1899, 1927). Throughout the 1990s, and paralleling the empowerment of Aboriginal communities over some aspects of their culture, there was a resurgence in the study of the ethnography of Aboriginal rock-art (e.g. Morwood and Hobbs 1992; Mulvaney 1993, 1996; Veth et al 1994) that has continued to the present day. Despite these efforts and the great increase in the application of archaeological data and methods (Chippendale and Tacon 1998; David and Chant 1995; Flood 1997; Lorblanchet and Bahn 1993; Rosenfeld 1999; Ward 1989; Ward and Tuniz 2000), rock-art remains a peripheral study area for both archaeology and anthropology (cf Whitley 2001:16-21). In saying this, however, it is recognised that some areas of Australia have greater potential for such research than do others. In some areas, Aboriginal communities do not wish to divulge sensitive information to a generally uninvolved and sometimes insensitive audience. Alternatively, and to varying degrees, the traditional knowledge was destroyed following the initial colonial genocide or lost through the subsequent dislocation of individuals or whole communities.

However, in a few areas that are also rich in rockart, information is still extant and custodians are keen to have it recorded for future generations (e.g. Chaloupka 1993; Godden and Malnic 1982; Gunn 1995, 2000a; Merlan 1989; Mowaljarlai and Malnic 1993; Tacon 1992a). In consultation with traditional custodians, general patterns of meanings and significance can be developed. Such interpretative patterns do not necessarily indicate specific meanings for rockart motifs or other artefacts; however, they can assist in the interpretation of the Aboriginal use of their contemporary landscape. Traditional interpretative patterns can also greatly assist in the formation of management directions and priorities in regard to this major component of Aboriginal cultural heritage.

The country

Arrernte country lies within the central and eastern areas of Central Australia (Figure 1). It is focused on the east-west trending MacDonnell Ranges that emerge dramatically from sandy plains and sandridge deserts. The few large rivers that emerge from the ranges (the Finke, Todd, Palmer, Hugh and Hale) flow to the southeast and dissipate in the sands of the Simpson Desert. Although having sizeable channels, these rivers carry water only after heavy storms and otherwise offer only limited, dependable water reserves at waterholes where they cut through the ranges, or in sandy soaks. Detailed environmental information is provided elsewhere and so will only be briefly summarised here (e. …

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