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date: 13 November 2019

Introduction: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art

Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art highlights a number of conceptual themes and issues that go to the heart of rock art research. Rock art research in the early twenty-first century is daunting in its complexity and scope due largely to major technological advances in digital recording and chronometric dating, the increasing employment of sophisticated methods and theories harnessed not just from archaeology and anthropology but also from a wide array of disciplines, and greater awareness of Indigenous voices, ethical responsibilities, and political sensitivities of working collaboratively with Indigenous communities. As archaeological and anthropological approaches to rock art mutually inform each other’s research agendas, new methodological and theoretical ways of approaching, conceptualising, and historicising rock art symbolism, biography, authorship, gender, sexuality, spiritualism, agency, and relationality continue to develop to shape future research agendas.

Keywords: rock art, symbolism, representation, hyperreality, historicism, agency


Rock art holds a special place in the study of human history: it is at once a highly visible expression of culture and social practice, in that it is often found on exposed rock surfaces for all to see, while it also enables us to access the more subtle gestes (e.g., Fritz & Tosello 2015; Leroi-Gourhan 1964), the hand movements and socially mediated personal expressions of individuals who have long passed away. This is a dual opportunity for research, of a kind rarely offered by other traces of human activity, where details of the past normally lie hidden beneath accumulated sediments or lie on surfaces whose individual components have been reworked from their original settings, devoid of investigable cultural context. Yet both archaeologists and social anthropologists have been slow to take up the challenge of rock art. For archaeologists, other than in western Europe, especially Spain and France, it was not until the 1980s that rock art began to feature seriously in research endeavours. For social anthropologists, this was the case the world over. There are reasons for this, in both cases relating to priorities stemming back to the beginnings of the discipline and methodological challenges.

The 1980s saw major breakthroughs in methods—for archaeologists in particular the ability to directly date tiny samples, such as with the emergence of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating (Petchey this volume; see also Pike this volume; Roberts this volume)—and intellectual approaches. Important among these was a shift from positivism and processualism (the idea that the key to understanding cultural practices and the archaeological record was best served by studying their processes, each culture type generating its own kinds of social behaviour) to symbolic behaviour and postmodern and postprocessual concerns that took better account of the varied ways that different peoples understand the world to operate. There was an increasing awareness of self-representation and the effects on knowledge of differential power relations in the search for a postcolonial world, involving a need also for ‘Indigenous archaeologies’ (e.g., Langford 1983; Nicholas & Andrews 1997; Watkins 2005). Our ability to now date rock art without unduly damaging it also allowed the art to accurately enter discussions of history and interests in human creativity; to investigate the temporality, diversity, and implications of the evolution of symbolism for how we have come to know the world (our own and other peoples’) through representations, such as in visual expressions including the rock art whose history could now be traced back over tens of thousands of years.

These developments of the past few decades have affected archaeological and anthropological practice the world over, although regional and even national agendas and frameworks of enquiry remain prevalent (‘treasures of history’ continue to be cherished as regional and national icons of identity across the world, as is the case of Lascaux in France, Altamira and a suite of other sites along the Cantabrian coast in Spain, and the rock arts of Arnhem Land in Australia and of Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, all World Heritage sites, for example). With our increased interest in and ability to study rock art, new global influences, especially in methods but also in research agendas, emerged to articulate with those more local, regional, and national agendas. Sometimes those broader influences involved Grand Theories by which to interpret the more esoteric signs of the past that researchers began to focus on within individual regions—a prominent example is ‘shamanism’ (e.g., Solomon this volume), widely (but not universally) adopted in various parts of the world to explain why people made rock art in regions far removed both physically and culturally from where the ideas first came—although almost always these Grand Theories came and went, or at least declined in interest as more local and more applicable explanations were sought or became apparent (as befits the greater social awareness that goes with a more postcolonial world) (e.g., David et al. 2004; Langford 1983; Yellowhorn 1996). Such increased awareness of both the specificity of cultural practice and its location in a broader, articulating world; of the appropriation of other peoples’ pasts by those who write history (and archaeology) (e.g., McNiven & Russell 2005); of social and cultural diversity and the rights of people to own their own past and construct their own history (Atalay 2006; McBryde 1985; White Deer 1997); and of the need for recognition of that diversity also brought an increased awareness of the need for collaboration, both internationally and cross-culturally (e.g., Davidson, Lovell-Jones, & Bancroft 1995; Langford 1983; Nakata & David 2010), but also across disciplines, each of which brought new perspectives that could enrich the others. Those multiple perspectives allow us to promote not just a deeper, more nuanced notion of each part, of the local, but also of how each perspective, individually and together, fits in a much grander world. These varied perspectives better enable ‘caring for Country’ (e.g., Brady, Bradley, & Kearney 2016; Burgess et al. 2009; Rose 1996), to borrow a phrase often used by Australian Aboriginal peoples when conveying the need to maintain a healthy consideration of places and of the living yet ancestral presences that continue to reside in those places. The art found on the rocks, as expressions of pasts that extend into the present and that symbolize those pasts, is one very important aspect of such living ancestral presences.

What Is Art?

The concept of ‘art’ has undergone a range of definitions over the years, in part due to its elusiveness, in part because different authors have tried to capture different aspects of its many properties (e.g., what an artwork ‘means’ to its author, or how it is read by a viewer, how it is studied, how it works subliminally on our imagination, how it is used or thought about cross-culturally, how it affects cultural mores; the list goes on). Here, we treat visual ‘art’ in a modified rendition of how it is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture’. We do away with the second part of the OED’s definition, ‘producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’, because while beauty and emotional power remain affective properties of visual inscriptions and of the making of art (all peoples create with an appreciative [aesthetic] sense that helps define their visual cultures), not all artworks were necessarily primarily produced for beauty and emotional power (and, indeed, in archaeology often we do not know the intention of the artist). In some cultures, for example, a visual mark may have been made primarily as a mark of ancestral or spiritual power, such as in some Australian Aboriginal paintings aimed at effectuating the fecundity and rejuvenation of species and the elements (in the sense of ‘increase’ or ‘maintenance’ rituals, for example; e.g., Spencer & Gillen 1927), or the presence of ancestral beings (e.g., Blundell et al. this volume), or the passing on of ancestral power and knowledge to initiates (e.g., Taylor this volume), or the marking and commemoration of particular events (e.g., David et al. 2004). It is worth noting Morphy’s (1991: 35) cautionary reminder that there is no ‘ladder’ of progress in the development over millennia of ‘art’, and, cross-culturally, the term ‘art’ is problematic because it does not capture well most non-Western notions of image-making. By reducing image-making to ‘art’, we normalize the West’s notions of imagery and distance those of others, exoticizing the latter in the process.

IntroductionTowards an Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock ArtClick to view larger

Figure 1 Rock paintings of animals appearing to “drink” from water flow marks on rock surfaces, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.

Photos by Jean-Michel Geneste.

What Is Rock Art?

If art concerns the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination incorporating aesthetics culturally defined, rock art concerns such visual expressions on rock. Often researchers exclude from the definition of ‘rock art’ marks created as a result of ‘functional’ activities, such as grinding grooves, or of the actions of mechanical imprinting, such as hand stencils, but such exclusions are not as obvious as they may at first appear. For example, how grinding grooves are aligned on a rock surface is not entirely determined by the optimal mechanical properties of the act of grinding—an aesthetic, cultural sense of order comes into play. Or a hand stencil may be done in red rather than in white or black and with fingers bent or straight or hands splayed or clasped. All such decisions involve senses of appropriate order and creativity and of appreciation and thus aesthetics. We refrain also from limiting the definition of rock art to ‘anthropogenic imagery’, in the sense of designs purely created by human hand, because people also interpret other parts of the landscape in creative and aesthetic terms, making meaningful shapes out of them, sometimes working on them, incorporating those meaningful shapes into their lived experiences (such as with the spotted horses at Pech Merle, where the right-hand horse is painted on a rock whose edge was already shaped like a horse’s muzzle, or the ghostly shapes defined by redeposited calcite concretions and enhanced by painted black lines at Cougnac [see David 2017: 149, 165]). In effect, the extent of such shapes of the rock surface or other related features (such as water channels or places where water accumulates) is often integral and even mobilizing features, such as in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana where zoomorphs appear to ‘drink’ on the rock precisely where water flow marks appear (Figure 1). The water marks on the rock are manifestations of an image ‘in’ the rock even prior to the painting, although it is the addition of the painting that usually makes it so to the archaeologist (e.g., Nash this volume).

Rock art can be portable, such as with paintings on rock plaquettes or tablets, or carved beads (‘art mobilier’, or mobiliary art). Or it can be fixed in the landscape, as with paintings on shelter or cave walls (‘art parietal’, or parietal art). A third term, ‘art rupestre’ or rupestrian art, refers to all arts done on rock (i.e., both mobiliary and parietal art). None of these terms presupposes any particular aesthetic worth (throughout this chapter, by ‘aesthetics’ we mean a sense of balance, order, or attractiveness, as variably culturally defined), although this is not to deny that aesthetics came into play in the creation and subsequent appreciation of or response to the art.

What Is the Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art?

The archaeology of rock art, then, explores this world of artistic inscription on rock from a viewpoint of the historical positioning of art as material culture (or rather, as material behaviour) (see Conkey, this volume, for a discussion of the need to attend to ‘context’). The social anthropology of rock art is more concerned with how inscriptions are made in real-life social and cultural settings, why they are made, and how they operate in the world of living communities. In practice, the archaeology and anthropology of art can easily merge one with the other, however, because our topic of interest feeds into the two disciplines as multiple dimensions of the one thing: social practice (the making and meaningfulness of art to those communities who use it) is founded on historical precedents (traditionally more the realm of archaeological enquiry); material culture calls on us to behave in certain, often unintended or unintentioned ways (working in ways other than those intended or other than those imagined, respectively). Where possible, a polyvalent approach that considers historicity, material behaviour, and social dimensions of cultural practice and meaning allows for a richer approach to the art.

What Is Symbolism?

Visual marks on the land, as expressions of human creative skill and imagination, work on the viewer in ways beyond the mark itself: they come to affect how we see the world, how we represent it through symbols as points of reference. These are social constructs, made in particular places and particular times, in each case building on what went on beforehand: once we come to understand something in a particular way, that understanding affects what goes on afterwards.


Symbolism’s ‘work’ is well expressed through the notion of the ‘hyperreal’, first developed in 1981 by philosopher Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (English translation, 1994). Umberto Eco soon came to further explore the idea in his Travels in Hyperreality (Eco 1986).

‘Hyperreality’ concerns how we understand things through how we represent them, so much so that we come to know reality itself through those representations. Knowledge of the world and of ourselves emerges not just in conscious experience, but also through the subliminal influences that bear onto our experience of the world as ontological blind spots. Hyperreality is rarely discussed in archaeology, let alone in rock art research, and yet it is fundamental to our discipline because how we characterize objects and sites affects how we understand their place in people’s lives. In doing so, it affects how we see things and places and the people we write about and therefore how we historicize, present, and presence people today. Hyperreality affects how we understand the peoples and cultures not just of the past, but of the present also (for how we see the past historicizes how we see the present). Social life today is worked on through these representations, as the realities we come to know.

Let us explore how hyperreality works through a story. It is not directly related to rock art, but it is a useful one because its familiar topic enables us to shed light on how hyperreality also works in rock art.

Sometime between 1610 and 1620, Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore was born in Lupiac, Gascony, in the southwest of France (e.g., Bordaz 2001; Courtilz de Sandras 1700; Guilde de Tréville 2000; Oulé 2002; Petitfils 1981). Today, no one knows the exact year of his birth for those records were lost in a fire it is thought.

Be that as it may, he was born in his parents’ home at the Chateau de Castlemore. Soon enough, in 1635, during the reign of King Louis XIII, the young Charles became one of Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu’s Guards. Sometime between 1638 and 1640, he approached Field-Marshal Tréville to become a musketeer. He was soon appointed a cadet in the King’s Guards, and, in 1644, following Richelieu’s (1642) and Louis XIII’s (1643) deaths, he was finally admitted a musketeer (Guilde de Tréville 2000). But, in 1646, the musketeers were disbanded. De Batz de Castlemore was assigned to Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Chief Minister (the king was then only eight years old), not to rejoin the reinstated musketeers until 1658. On 25 June 1673, at about sixty years of age and after considerable success as a high-ranking military officer, Charles de Batz de Castlemore died in Holland during the siege of Maëstricht.

Charles was better known during his lifetime as the Comte d’Artagnan—the name by which he is also best known to us today—having taken his mother’s maiden name, Françoise de Montesquiou, daughter of d’Artagnan en Bigorre. By the time of Charles’s death, his military feats had become legendary. We know this because of numerous contemporary official documents, letters, journals, and eyewitness accounts. But we have also come to know him through, firstly, the writings of his contemporary Courtilz de Sandras’s (1700) largely fictional biography, Memoires de Monsieur d’Artagnan, and subsequently and more pervasively through Alexandre Dumas’s novels, in particular Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) (1844), Vingt Ans Après (1845), and Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848–1850), where he (or rather, ‘d’Artagnan’) features as the hero. Since the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, we know him best through television adaptations and Hollywood blockbusters.

And this is where the notion of the hyperreal comes into its own. From the moment that we know that the historical d’Artagnan of the 1600s was the inspiration for the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas’s novels (and indeed, even from the first use of the word ‘musketeer’), we cannot now think of the historical man without Dumas’s hero also filtering in. To a significant degree, we now perceive of the historical d’Artagnan through the fictional character even when we also understand that the two are different. We come to know reality itself through how we represent it, as a hyperreality—a nexus of the ‘real’ and the imaginary—so that reality itself becomes a mutual informing, a merging of the two (a ‘fictional autobiography’, as it were).

In rock art, as in archaeology generally, the power of representation likewise guides how we think of things. It chaperones how we come to ‘know’ the past and how we come to know cultures, both ours and those of others (and, in a similar vein, how we affect each other). We therefore need to keep in mind that our knowledge of a site, an object, a painting (and peoples and cultures) is as a hyperreal ‘third space’ (Bhabha 2004; see also Russell 2006) between the subject of our attention and our imagining of it. When we study rock art to understand the past or to understand peoples and cultures, our imaginative representations of those artworks (e.g., through culture-historical pigeon-holes, or motif identifications, or disaggregated marks on a wall, or any selection of images out of a complex variety) will affect how we come to understand that historical past and those cultural ways of being. This is the sociopsychological power of the hyperreal.

Historicizing Symbolism

How, we may ask, has our ability to construct the world through symbols, in hyperreality, come about? This is the stuff of cognitive archaeology, and again rock art plays an important part. There was once a time when our distant ancestors did not make and use visual symbols, did not represent their world through representations that referenced something else other than themselves. Tracking the emergence of cognitive modernism relative to our biological evolution is a dominant theme in archaeological research, in the search for how we became who we are today. For this, we seek the origins of art, and we have long done so; only now we think of both regional developments and the antiquity of those developments in different ways than we used to. No longer is Europe the place of origin for our species, as the ‘Dawn of Belief’ (Dickson 1990), because anatomically modern humans had evolved more than 100,000 years before they eventually colonized Europe. Again, a broader spatial perspective is required, one that permits a spatial history, a view of the world through the movements of our ancestors.

Whose Rock Art?

Rock art researchers often ponder over who was the intended audience for rock art in the past. This issue is intimately tied to questions of authorship and who created the art and also of its function(s). In most cases, it is assumed that rock art was made for special reasons and that such specialness was probably associated with ritual or ceremony performed by elites—or at least by a subgroup of society. Irrespective of whether these ritual specialists are considered shamans or other kinds of spiritual specialists, the normative position is male. It is rare to find a researcher’s pictorial representation of a Palaeolithic rock art site that includes women as artists, for example (Gifford-Gonzalez 1993: 37; Solometo & Moss 2013: figure 4; Tomášková 2013; see also Conkey & Williams 1991). Yet anthropological research on the production and use of rock art teaches us to think more critically about the potential male gender biases of our analyses. For example, across many parts of Australia, rock art was produced by men and by women, with some rock art sites being of restricted access to men only and others to women only (Smith 1991).

The issue of gender and rock art is both complex and vexed. As rock art researchers, we need to be reflective and constantly aware of inherent biases in the way we construct categories of analysis and in how we interpret rock art sites and past research. For example, to what extent is a published ethnographic account biased towards male sites and male perspectives due to the male gender of the researcher (this question applies also to female sites and researchers)? More challenging, in what ways are the dichotomous sex and gender categories of male–female and masculine–feminine respectively (as we variably know them in contemporary Western society) relevant to past societies? Do anthropomorphs with mixed sex and/or gender attributes represent third-sex and gender categories (Hays-Gilpin 2012; Solomon 1992)? Or are such mixed attribute images a deliberate ritual strategy of ontological destabilization, boundary blurring, and liminality? And, perhaps most challenging of all, how many rock art researchers question the hegemonic heteronormativity of interpretative frameworks (Dowson 2000)? An unquestioning application of normative categories of gender and sexuality in rock art investigation not only misrepresents the present, but also potentially misrepresents the past (Foucault 1976/1979). Kelley Hays-Gilpin (2012: 203) also asks another important question that moves beyond the representation of gender and on to the expression of gender: ‘What were the cultural roles of making rock art in shaping the gender identities of men, women, and other-gendered persons?’ While Hays-Gilpin (2012: 205) rightly notes that it is difficult to identify the gender of rock art producers without access to ethnography, the gender of rock art users—or at least those who visited rock art sites—may be accessible to varying degrees through archaeological analysis of associated activity deposits (recognizing the inherent difficulties of assuming gender on function). Furthermore, any rock art image may not be the product of just one individual, especially if one also traces the trajectory of the entire process from the acquisition of needed materials (e.g., pigments, tools for making petroglyphs) to preparation of the image-making site.

Anthropological research also teaches us that social restrictions on access to rock art sites can be achieved not only through physical prohibitions and sanctions on visitation but also through layered and hidden meanings and polyvocality. An example is the sacred painting of Yaripiri (a mythological snake) at Ngama Cave in Warlpiri country, central Australia. Faulstich (1992) notes that on either side of the ‘naturalistic’ painting of Yaripiri are a series of U-shaped ‘abstract’ motifs. The unrestricted interpretation of the U-shaped motifs is that they are representations of Yaripiri’s ribs and unborn progeny. The restricted interpretation of the U-shaped motifs, however, is that they refer to sacred boards used by men in ceremonies (details of which are respectfully not discussed by Faulstich, cf. Mountford 1968; see also Munn 1973: 169). In this sense, we are reminded of Howard Morphy’s (1980: 19) instructive comment that ‘It is one thing to demonstrate a possible formal resemblance between a signifier and an object that its shape is derived from and quite another to demonstrate that this relationship is relevant to its interpretation or even to understanding its present meaning’. For the Warlpiri, abstract motifs at Ngama Cave provide scope for polyvocality, multiple subject representations, and multiple levels of meaning. As such, asking questions about the singular meaning of paintings at Ngama Cave would be naïve, whereas questions of plural meanings would require more sophisticated understandings.

Ethnographic case studies in the production and meaning of rock art, particularly in the Australian context, alert us to the potential cosmological conflation or ‘flattening’ and epistemological simplification and singularization that occurs in much rock art interpretation globally, such that rock art is often seen to have a single function, a single audience, and a single symbolic or representational meaning. This simplification often goes hand in hand with a parallel historical conflation that sees a single function for rock art, even in situations where the art spans dozens and in many cases hundreds of generations. In situations where rock art has been dated, such as through AMS radiocarbon dating of organics within pigments, the date of art production is taken as coterminous with the date of use and engagement. In reality, the date of production is simply the beginning of what in many cases is the long biographical life of rock art images (Charlin & Borrero 2012; Morphy 2012). Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for archaeologists and anthropologists to recognize the legitimacy of long-term rock art biographies. This neglect is reflected in the view that what Indigenous people thought of rock art in recent times is of little ethnographic interest where the rock art is considered ancient and its original meaning long since forgotten. We now appreciate that contemporary engagement with ancient rock art sites is part of the ever-emergent and ongoing biographic qualities of those sites. Reuse, reinterpretation, and reinscription are fundamental and defining qualities of rock art sites. Such defining qualities further shine a spotlight on the epistemological naïvety of searching for ‘the original meaning’ of rock art sites. It is in this sense that excavations of activity deposits associated with rock art can provide important clues as to how long rock art images have been available for viewing and engagement by people visiting sites. Equally important is documenting contemporary engagements with rock art places by local communities and understanding the ontological, epistemological, cosmological, and social position and relationality of rock art in these communities (e.g., Baracchini & Monney this volume; Blundell et al. this volume; Brady, Bradley & Kearney this volume; Brady & Taçon 2016).

The issue of the long-term and multigenerational nature of rock art is central to contemporary Indigenous peoples and how they decide to engage with and allow others, such as rock art researchers, to represent their ancestral rock art. Clearly, there are issues of politics and power at play here, and Indigenous peoples have long memories of the forces of marginalization and appropriation associated with colonialism. Many of these issues go to the heart of the power to construct identity. If Indigenous peoples lose control over how their rock art sites are researched and represented, then they lose control over how they themselves will be represented and how these representations play into the hands of identity politics. In a simple example, if rock art researchers focus on the antiquity of rock art and not on its ongoing significance, use, and engagement, then they run the risk of representing contemporary Indigenous owners as somehow temporally and hence culturally detached from their ancestral rock art. In settler colonial contexts such as Australian and North American, such silencings and representations (overwhelmingly by others) of cultural detachment run the risk of delegitimizing Indigenous associations with their ancestral sites, fuelling non-Indigenous representations of contemporary Indigenous cultures as inauthentic, and promoting and popularizing Indigenous ownership and control of cultural sites and places as illegitimate (McNiven & Russell 2005). Few researchers consider the epistemic injustice and violence (Fricker 2007; see also Mignolo 2009) associated with such a silencing of Indigenous voices or that, in the future, an archival void of Indigenous voices can be misinterpreted as an accurate reflection of cultural absence (Jones & Wesley 2016). This issue often gives rise to the situation where the factual contents of contemporary Indigenous oral histories are questioned and even rejected because they are not substantiated by written archival records (e.g., Barker 2006: 79). Such misinterpretation reveals the power of archival information to take on the futurizing role of a colonizing agent in its own right. For Indigenous Australians, questions over links between archival silence and cultural absence have even formed the basis of a Royal Commission of Inquiry (Bell 2008).

The importance of embracing and incorporating Indigenous narratives into rock art research agendas is clearly most relevant for rock art sites that have traditional owners. Such narratives may involve customary stories specific to known sites or involve the ways people engage with sites previously unknown. The ethical imperative for the inclusion of Indigenous narratives necessitates incorporation of multiple ontologies and epistemologies into research agendas (Jones & Wesley 2016; see also Ballard 2014, on the question of ‘historicities’). However, care is needed not to dichotomize ontologies and epistemologies simply as Western versus Indigenous (see Harding 1998). All societies are ‘ontologically multimodal’, and it is highly likely that rock art researchers working collaboratively with Indigenous communities will find considerable ontological and epistemological overlaps (Harris & Robb 2012; McNiven 2016: 34). And it should not be forgotten that the collaborative process is not unilineal, emanating from the academic researcher asking Indigenous peoples to be involved; the process is more complex and nuanced than this and can be initiated from many different directions (for the concept of the ‘cultural interface’ and its application in archaeology, see Nakata & David 2010). There has been the development of genuine collaborations, with a key focus on the co-production of knowledge, starting with the framing of the research problems of concern, interest, and value to all parties (e.g., Blundell & Woolagoodja 2005; Bradley with Yanyuwa families 2010; see also Blundell et al. this volume).

Exploring Conceptual Boundaries Through Rock Art

As is the case with the images by which we represent the world, the terms we use also come to shape how we know things, how we think of them. In the language of rock art research, it is common to differentiate between ‘naturalistic’ and abstract renditions, the latter presumably ‘signs’ or geometric designs that are recognized symbols of something else, like road signs that indicate how we should behave or how we should think of things, as if they are there to guide thoughts and behaviour. The naturalistic and figurative designs are often thought about as images that merely reproduce an external reality more or less compromised by the technical competence and cultural perspective of the artist, as if they essentially copy ‘nature’. Yet we learn from artists the world over that the decision about how to depict is as much conditioned by how relations between things are understood to be. Thus, in Wardaman Country, in northern Australia, during the ethnographic period of the 1800s and 1900s, magpie larks or peewee birds were rendered anthropomorphic after the Ancestral Beings of the Dreaming. The birds are not recognizably birds in the art, for in that cosmological framework they also have another form, that of the people who affiliate with them through ancestral connections. On the other side of the world, and during much earlier times, we also find that animal depictions are not simply visual clones of animals of the wild as we know them ourselves today. In the later phases of the Upper Palaeolithic in western Europe, Annette Laming-Emperaire (1962) and then André Leroi-Gourhan (e.g., 1965), and later George Sauvet and his co-researchers (e.g., Sauvet & Sauvet 1979; Sauvet & Wlodarczyk 1995), thus showed that particular animal representations tend to be associated with images of other species, while others yet are excluded. In Middle and Upper Magdalenian rock art, for example, there is a common association of bison (Bison bonasus) with reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), and of aurochs (Bos primigenius) with red deer (Cervus elaphus), but a clear-cut disassociation, a spatial and thematic separation of bison and aurochs on art panels (Sauvet & Sauvet 1979). And dangerous animals, carnivores especially, are found in the deeper recesses of caves, as are human or human-like representations. These examples alert us that so-called naturalistic representations are not just images of inherent, natural orders; rather, they signal something more, an association of one thing with another, a relationship of a very particular kind that enables people to make sense of their world, a sense that is not evident outside those very particular cultural perspectives. It is the job of the archaeologist, then, to identify such associations, to make sense of the image as an expression of relationships, more so than is evident by the animal or other object in the shape of its image. So-called naturalistic representations are also abstractions, they are also signs of things that remain aloof to those whose cultural secrets have not been revealed. The notion of ‘sign’, rich in semiotic theory and know-how, goes beyond the abstract line and geometric design; it is a property of all representations, of all things that are more than themselves.

IntroductionTowards an Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock ArtClick to view larger

Figure 2 The French A15B road sign (of a deer) that indicates “wild animals crossing”.

Photo by Jean-Jacques Delannoy.

When is a deer a deer, for example? French archaeologist Elena Man-Estier (personal communication; see also Man-Estier & Paillet 2013) illustrates such notions well through a contemporary example. Since 1977, France has used as its official road sign for ‘wild animals crossing’ (road sign A15B) an image of a deer inside a triangular white area outlined in red. That deer image could represent any wild animal so that, in the Dordogne area of France where wild boars are plentiful, we often find along the road the A15B sign (of a deer) accompanied by a second sign devoid of imagery but with the word ‘sangliers’, meaning ‘wild boars’ (Figure 2). The pairing is a warning to drivers that they are in an area where wild boars may cross. Here, the depiction of a deer does not signify a deer at all (other than it, too, is a wild animal) but the possibility of wild boars crossing; the deer is not a deer but a boar (and the ideas that connect them both). What would we make of the image if we did not know the local rules of signage, the significance of the deer as a wild animal that could signify all others, and the dangers and probability of animals crossing (given that the aims of the archaeology would be to work out such associations in the first place!)? Archaeology could undoubtedly ‘easily’ reveal that such signs are repeatedly, and only, associated with roads (if those roads still showed their tracks and if remnant pre-1977 signage did not confuse things), so an association with thoroughfares could probably easily be worked out. Semiotic associations between signs would probably also be revealed: the ‘sangliers’ of the associated sign in the presence of the deer image. The rest is more open to the imagination.

We need to be careful also of the other terms we use. An example, used earlier, is ‘naturalistic’ to describe a recognizable image. Yet, in rock art research, naturalism is usually used to describe an image that approaches photo-realism. ‘Figurative’ can be less so, but still recognizable in shape, still attributable to the form of something we know from our surroundings. This is an important distinction that allows us to declare how closely we think a depiction resembles something in the material world, although to what degree each of these terms could also be used to describe something of the imagination remains open to debate.

In Europe, the Palaeolithic–post-Palaeolithic divide at the end of the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago allows for a significant ‘carving out’ of types of imagery and intellectual concepts. The art of the Upper Palaeolithic is usually seen as the art of ‘hunter-gatherers’, early humans who painted and engraved depictions of animals, often as symbols of the hunt (although the association of species, their variable distributions within caves, and a demonstrated noncorrespondence between depicted taxa and eaten taxa—as determined by animal bones in shelter and cave floors—have shown that there is more to those depictions than items of food). Nevertheless, Upper Palaeolithic rock art is often largely thought of as the art of hunters and of the natural world. In essentially those same regions, the post-Palaeolithic, post–Ice Age era saw an end to such arts and the beginnings of the arts of peoples with other lifestyles, not so much hunters or hunter-gatherers as more social beings who manipulated and controlled their environments: Mesolithic, Neolithic, and subsequent communities. Now the art (for example, so-called Levantine art) focuses on social scenes, implements, people. We move out of the world of ‘nature’ into one of ‘society’ and ‘culture’, it is often thought or implied. And yet everything else about the archaeology argues against such a distinction, whether it be that in both cases the artists are fully modern human beings or that artistic expressions in some ways more like those of the European post-Palaeolithic appear early on elsewhere in the world, in the sense that they contain social scenes with people and implements and depictions of social activities. So, what are we to make, then, of this implicit association between fauna and natural being during the Ice Age in Europe versus people, social actions, and the tools of human activity as social being during later times? Are these associations that reveal something of our past, or rather are they expressions of our own preconceptions today? Are they subliminal blind spots in the ways we understand and model the past, ours and that of others? Does the presence of animals in the art of glacial times, as food or otherwise, indicate something of the ecology of cold places (with greater emphasis on meat and fish in the diet of peoples in cold places, or at least high latitudes, being a pattern evident in ethnographic societies; e.g., Cordain et al. 2000; Lee 1968)? And what about the plants: Why do they not feature in the art—or do they (see Ouzman et al. this volume)? And the other marks on rock walls, the ones we rarely hear about—not so much the abstract ‘signs’, but the animal scratches and colour spots that preexisted and that would have affected how people ‘signed the land’ (Bradley 1997) with artworks because they were already there (be they individual shapes made of rock, or the texture of rock surfaces, or the play of shadows and the like). What do we record when we study rock art, what do we leave out, and why?

Each of these factors causes us to ask more questions of the art. Was it to be seen? At Les Combarelles, in southwestern France, 12,000–14,000 years ago artists finely incised more than 600 designs on the rock wall, mostly more than 160 metres into the rock where sunlight is entirely absent. Here, the long corridor is narrow and pitch-black, access requiring artificial light and never accommodating more than one person at a time. In most cases, the incisions are so fine that they are hard to see, even with side-light (but see Man-Estier, Deneuve, Paillet, Loiseau, & Cretin 2015). This was not simply an art to be seen, a strange thing to say about a visual art. Yet it causes us to think of it not so much as a visual art as a performative one: whether it was the act of making or its subsequent social engagement that mattered, rock art was not merely placed on a wall, but rather performed through how people engaged with it—as it is today also, but in different ways that befit the times. We are reminded of this also by the fact that in the decorated caves of western Europe, there are usually few if any traces of occupation in the form of food refuse and the like. Some people came into the caves deep in antiquity, but why they went there was not as everyday occupation, but rather to undertake specialized activities of which the art was an integral part. Again, archaeologists and anthropologists have an opportunity to explore precisely how those engagements took place, what they were all about. Seeing rock art in this way allows us to ask about the particular ways that people express(ed) themselves, how people relate(d) to the art, about their cultural specificities.

The Life of Images

Just as images have both lasting and changing properties, so, too, do the ways we think about them and how we remember them. How do inscriptions left on rock walls hold personal and social ‘memories’ into the future? Contemporary artist Maud Bonnet explores this idea of what it means to (re)collect the past in the present, sometimes a past that stretches back a considerable time, sometimes one that is still close to now, but one that is always ever-present. In words and objects, Bonnet ‘collects’ peoples’ recollections of events in their lives, sometimes traumatic, sometimes more everyday memories that would not normally be heard by others socially distant. Those memories are physically inscribed on and in transparent, hermetically sealed jam jars so that the texts and imagery can be seen from the outside (Figure 3). Her artworks articulate well how the past, even one’s own, is re-expressed through time, made sense of anew in its socialization, even while the rawness of experience pervades. Those artworks are at once communicated material extensions of personal recollections, of the senses and emotions felt, and new beginnings, raptures and ruptures in time sometimes separated by silences to re-emerge in new ways, in new contexts. In these materialized recollections, we reinvent without ceding links with what happened beforehand, even through multiple silences and forgettings.

IntroductionTowards an Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock ArtClick to view larger

Figure 3 Maud Bonnet’s “curiosités anamnésiques”, (re)presenting and (re)presencing memories through objects and words sealed in jam jars, as reworked preserves of the past.

Photo courtesy of Maud Bonnet.

Seeing Bonnet’s collected memories through the transparent veil of jam jars—preserves of memories—the material externalizations of personal feelings and experiences allow others to access and (re)tell something of those experiences, of the days of their happening but in the present. In time, we will only have those material expressions to go by, yet they again will be passed on to future generations, perhaps as photographs of the artists’ works, and those future generations will again make what they will of the depicted experiences and their representations. In that same sense, the artworks encapsulated in the caves are not materialized memories frozen in time, although the shapes and colours may appear fixed. They are curiosities of the viewer as much as expressions of the depicter, giving new meaning to what once was. Through the silences of time and the refigurings, they are, in Bonnet’s words, ‘curiosités anamnésiques’, amnesias told anew. And in this, rock art research allows us not only to see through the glass of time, but to open its contents, to reaccess pasts told and retold, and to reshape those pasts in and for the new times.

Even with the changes that take place through time, the fixity of parietal art on landscape surfaces gives it a lasting visual property, marking the land and, in doing so, inscribing authorship to and belonging in place. For many (especially Indigenous) peoples around the world, this act of marking, and the endurance of the mark, signal the continuing presence of ancestral forces who not only wrote themselves into the landscape, but who create(d) place in the process. The art signals the ongoing, living presence of ancestral forces (e.g., see Taylor this volume). For Indigenous communities for whom rock art continues to form a critical dimension of culture and identity, the ongoing life of rock art images is often central not only to the reproduction of people, but also to the reproduction of their environment and of the cosmos more generally. In such contexts, rock art has agency in its own right. In some cases, the agency is associated with the ancestors who are known to have created the art. In other cases, the agency works through association with ancestors who are known to have engaged with works of art that have a nonhuman origin. In both cases, contemporary peoples know that rock art, whether of human or nonhuman origin, was critical to the reproduction of the life-world of their ancestors. Here, reproduction of the self is reproduction of an ‘ancestral template’ (Layton 2012: 452), whereby rock art forms a critical, tangible, and recursive expression of ancestral presence in the material structuration of the self in the past and into the future. This material structuration works both on an intrasite and intersite scale, such that the location of long-duration (‘ancient’) rock art sites as persistent places in the landscape continuously imposes on successive generations. In this sense, each generation cannot simply choose the rock art sites it inherits, but it is empowered to choose the rock art practices that it fosters and forgets, reiterates and reinterprets, creates and curates, and passes on to subsequent generations.

For many Indigenous groups, engaging with this ancestral template occurs through the ritual repainting of images such that rejuvenating and respecting the image is coterminous with rejuvenating and respecting spiritual forces with which the image is associated. Perhaps the best-known example of this rejuvenation process is associated with Wandjina of the Kimberley region of northwest Australia. In some cases, more than forty layers of repainting have been identified (Clarke 1978). Despite repainting, Wandjina are not considered paintings by local Aboriginal people, but ‘powerful sentient beings aware of visits to their caves by humans’ (Blundell et al. this volume). In this sense, Wandjina are alive, and people enter into a mutually beneficial dialogue with these powerful spirit-beings. It is a reciprocal social relationship whereby people look after Wandjina and the Wandjina look after people (Blundell & Woolagoodja 2005).

The notion that certain types of rock art are living spiritual beings with sentience brings in the issue of the agency of rock art. If we take Alfred Gell’s (1998: 123) conceptualization of agency, the agency of sentient paintings rightly is seen as operating through a ‘network of social relations’. However, Gell takes a Western rationalist viewpoint and sees the agency of objects as an extension or expression of agency ascribed or projected by people. Yet this etic perspective clashes with an emic ontology whereby objects, such as certain categories of rock art, possess inherent and autonomous agency and intentionality because they are sentient life forces in their own right. As rock art researchers, the closer our investigations come to emic perspectives, the closer we come to understanding the ontological and epistemological position of rock art in the societies we aim to understand. Whether such understanding brings us closer to comprehending the meanings of the rock art is another issue because there are varied research questions that one may wish to address, not all of which are necessarily approached in this way.

In some cases, spiritual forces can close down the dialogical and agentive relationship between people and rock art if they believe the requisite specialist knowledge has not been maintained by human communities. For example, Liam Brady, John Bradley, and Amanda Kearney (this volume) document how the Yanyuwa of northeast Australia and the Zuni of the American Southwest associate physical deterioration of rock art not with a Western ontological construct of natural weathering, but with the ancestors taking back their art such that it is no longer available for people to observe and engage.


We have structured this book into four parts, each addressing a major aspect of rock art research. Part I reviews geographical and historical dimensions of rock art around the world; it is aimed to give a sense of what there is, of the intellectual journeys and regional research traditions that investigators have taken, and where the road appears to be going. We have tried to partition the world into broad geographies, to give good balance also to the other parts.

Part II explores concepts that explicitly target what the art (might have) meant to the artists and to the cultures in which they lived and in which the art was used or continues to be used. These are varied perspectives that also consider how researchers bring their own preconceptions into the fold.

Part III addresses methods: how do—and how can—we study the art, both spatially and temporally?

Part IV considers how we present research results to the broader public and how it is rendered meaningful by a broad array of people and communities for whom the art may have vastly different kinds of significance.

All of these four parts articulate, so that the study of the art cannot be thought of as the province of a single one only. What happens in one affects the other.


We thank Stéphane Jaillet for alerting us to Elena Man-Estier’s example of the wild boar in the French road sign of a deer, to Elena for permission to cite her on this, Jean-Michel Geneste for the examples of animals ‘drinking’ on the rock in Figure 1, Maud Bonnet for her inspiring ‘memories preserved’ and Figure 3, and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (project number CE170100015) under whose auspices this research was undertaken. And thank you to Meg Conkey and Liam Brady for much appreciated comments on an earlier draft, and Ben Leonard for editorial suggestions.


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