A Re-interpretation of Rock Art in California and Europe through a Look at Traditional Californian and Australian Basket Imagery

Authors: Jessica Marshall (Cañada College, America)
Speakers: Jessica Marshall
Topic: Cognitive Anthropology and Language
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL COMELA 2021 General Session


Within the framework of archaeological investigation, the interpretation of images of paint and carving on rock is a more recent endeavor. Some rock art researchers have attempted to provide explanation and interpretation without evidence to support their conclusions, and/ or have used their own cultural lens for the interpretations of images found on rock. Although some have been systematic in gathering data, few studies have been based on the scientific method in California, Europe, and the mediterranean as hypotheses around images have been difficult to test. Interpretation and explanation should be the end product of investigation, not the initial point of departure. Hunting magic continues to be accepted, for example, uncritically and dominantly, as a valid explanation for much of the rock art in California. We must question our own and others’ conclusions through looking at additional data available to us.

In Australia, images found in prehistoric rock art also occur in sand drawings, body paintings, bark paintings, wooden shields, spear throwers, baskets, acrylic paintings and other forms of contemporary art. Some Aboriginal Australians still remember the symbolic meaning and context of these images, allowing archaeologists to test interpretations and meanings. An understanding of images can come through directly asking the traditional holders of the land and relatives who made the images on the rock, and what they meant by the symbols used. By asking people about the meanings of rock art, we can interpret that art serves the purpose of inter-generational communication. Using the concept of connections between images in multiple forms of art in Australia as an interpretive methodology: do images in prehistoric rock art in California also occur in traditional basketry made today in California? in Europe? in the mediterranean? Based on cross- cultural comparisons between place, how can this inform our methods to better record imagry in sites?

Many images move across time and space within cultures. I’m not claiming that meaning of images is fixed, as there are many contemporary examples of images that have changed in interpretation and we all know that culture is not stagnant. However, I am arguing that by looking at examples of images found in historical records around point of contact or by asking people the meaning of symbols today that we can get closer to what the original meaning of symbols may have been in the past that we find on rock.

Keywords: rock art, images, symbols, old languages, indigenous languages, inter-general communication