Rock art is globally the most important visual record of humanity’s ancient past

Rock art consists of paintings, drawings, stencils, prints, petroglyphs, sculptures and figures made with beeswax, in caves and rock shelters, on rock platforms and boulders.

These are special, often spectacular places that reflect ancient experience, identity, history, spirituality and relationships to land. An important aspect of rock art is that it is fixed in place.

Head

Professor Paul Taçon

ARCHE collaborators:

Associate Professor Maxime Aubert, Associate Professor Adam Brumm

Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research collaborators:

Dr Jillian Huntley, Dr Sally K May, Ms Fiona McKeague

PhD candidates:

Ms Irina Ponomareva, Mr Samuel Dix, Ms Emily Miller, Ms Andrea Jalandoni

ROCK ART IN AUSTRALIA AND SOUTHEAST ASIA

Australia has one of the most outstanding and diverse rock art records. The earliest rock art of northern Australia and nearby Southeast Asia was made at least 30,000-40,000 years ago. In many parts of Australia and some locations in Southeast Asia, rock art was made until the second half of the 21st Century, unlike Europe where the practice ceased thousands of years ago.

Archives of human experience

When appropriate, archaeological excavation accompanies the study of rock art and is integrated into larger studies of modern human behaviour and symbolic material culture. As modern humans settled the globe, they transformed natural landscapes into culturally meaningful places. Some of the most significant changes in symbolic behaviour occurred as modern humans dispersed across Asia into Europe and Australia. Thus rock art is an archive of deep-time human experience. Studying rock art in combination with genetic, fossil and other archaeological evidence we can detail the journey from archaic to modern human, as well as the emergence of the modern human mind.

Fieldwork expertise

Professor Paul Taçon leads rock art research at Griffith. He has more than 85 months field experience in Australia, Canada, China, Southeast Asia, southern Africa and elsewhere, and has made many important discoveries, especially in Australia’s Northern Territory. ARCHE members take a broad approach to the study of rock art with projects in northern Australia, various parts of Southeast Asia and China focused on scientifically dating rock art, new survey and recording, conservation, new ways to interpret and promote rock art for the general public and the significance of rock art for Indigenous peoples.

Projects

  • History places: Wellington Range rock art in global context: with Dr Sally K. May (Australian National University), Dr Liam Brady (Monash University), Dr Duncan Wright (Australian National University), Joakim Goldhahn (Linnaeus University, Sweden), Professor Ines Domingo Sanz (University of Barcelona).
  • The peopling of East Asia and Australasia: with Professor David Lambert, Dr. C. Millar, Professor E. Willerslev, Dr D. Curnoe (UNSW), and R. Li (initially funded with ARC LP12).
  • Sarawak rock art and human evolution: with Mr I. Datan (Sarawak Museum), Dr C. Leh Moi Ung (Satawak Museum), Mr M.S.S William (Sarawak Museum), Dr D Curnoe (UNSW), and Ms Rachael Hoerman (supervised U. Hawaii PhD student) (various small grants).
  • The Mirarr rock art project: with Dr Sally K. May (Australian National University), Dr Duncan Wright (Australian National University), Mr John Hayward, (supervised Australian National University PhD student) and Mr Iain Johnston (supervised Australian National University PhD student) and others (funded by the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation).
  • The Late Pleistocene peopling of East Asia and associated climate-environment history: with D. Curnoe (UNSW), X. Ji (Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Kunming, China) and others (initially funded with ARC DP08).
  • Australian rock art conservation: with Professor S. Sullivan (Stepwise Heritage & Tourism), Mr. N. Hall (Stepwise Heritage & Tourism), Dr. Neville Agnew (The Getty Conservation Institute), Ms Tanya Koeneman (Environment NSW) and others.
  • Australian rock art history, conservation and Indigenous well-being (ARC FL16 in review).
  • Rock art dating in Sulawesi: Associate Professor Maxime Aubert with Dr Adam Brumm, M. Ramli, T. Sutikna, E. W. Saptomo, B. Hakim.
  • Rock art dating in Borneo: Associate Professor Maxime Aubert with Dr Pindi Sttiawan
  • Rock art dating in China: Associate Professor Maxime Aubert with Benjamin Smith, Professor Paul Taçon and Tang Huisheng
  • The rock art of the Philippines: Associate Professor Maxime Aubert with Professor Paul Taçon
  • The rock art of Altai: Associate Professor Maxime Aubert with Professor Paul Taçon

PhD projects

  • Conceptualising a global rock-art database through practice-led research: Centralising heritage data collections using a collaborative approach exploring linked data and information visualisation within an open source application: with Mr Robert Haubte (supervised Griffith PhD student) and Dr Jason Nelson.
  • The archaeological investigation of rock art in the Philippines: with Ms Andrea Jalandoni (supervised Griffith PhD student) and Associate Professor Maxime Aubert.
  • Siberian rock art as an indicator of ethno-cultural areas of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age: with Ms Irina Ponomareva (supervised Griffith PhD student) and Associate Professor Maxime Aubert.
  • Boundaries, connections and cultural heritage management challenges: the rock art of the Chillagoe-Mungana limestone belt, Queensland: with Ms Nicola Winn (supervised Griffith PhD student) and Dr Kerrie Foxwell-Norton

Present grants

2016-2018 Australian Research Council Discovery Project, $490,100

History places: Wellington Range rock art in global context

This project aims to investigate one of Australia’s most extraordinary bodies of rock art, spread across Arnhem Land’s Wellington Range, in order to answer important archaeological research questions, provide traditional owners with a comprehensive digital record of their rock art heritage and develop a long-term management plan. Field research will include survey, 2D and 3D rock art recording, limited excavation and sampling for dating. The project is designed to situate Wellington Range rock art in regional and global contexts in order to better understand long-term north Australian Aboriginal experience and its expression in relation to other hunter-gatherer groups and to gain new insight into human cultural and cognitive development.

Collaborators: Dr Sally K. May (Australian National University), Dr Liam Brady (Monash University), Dr Duncan Wright (Australian National University), Professor Joakim Goldhahn (Linnaeus University, Sweden), Professor Ines Domingo Sanz (University of Barcelona).

2014-16 Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, $395,205

The oldest rock art in Asia and the early human occupation of island Southeast Asia

Recent research revealed that humans were producing rock paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi by at least 39 thousand years ago (and possibly up to 46 thousand years ago). The rock art, therefore, is essentially contemporaneous with the earliest cave art in Europe and may be the world’s oldest given the arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia at least 50 thousand years ago. This project will further investigate the early rock art of Sulawesi as well as other key Indonesian islands located along likely migration routes from Borneo to New Guinea. The results will have major implications for our understanding of the cultural behaviour and dispersal of the earliest modern humans to colonise Southeast Asia and Australia.

Sole investigator: Associate Professor Maxime Aubert.

Grant details

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Relevant publications

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