Book Review: The Archaeology of Rock Art


The Archaeology of Rock Art. Edited by Christopher Chippendale and Paul Taçon. New Directions in Archaeology Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. *** ISBN: 0521576199 (pb), 0521572568 (hb), UK£18.95/US$29.95 (pb), UK£50.00/US$79.95 (hb).

Ursula Frederick (Consulting Archaeologist, Sydney, Australia) UrsulaFrederick@ermsydney.erm.com.au

The study of rock art has long been considered as an archaeological pursuit. Archaeologists have played a major role in the recording, analysis, interpretation and management of the world’s rock art and as a discipline devoted to the study of the past, archaeology has an obvious interest in documenting and understanding ‘images’ that have endured the passage of time. What then is so unique about a book entitled the Archaeology of Rock Art ?

In their introduction the editors emphasize the archaeological approach of the papers represented in the volume and they suggest that many of the methodological and theoretical tools used in archaeology similarly direct the course of rock art studies. They proceed by drawing the methodologies used throughout the volume into three main arms: informed methods, formal methods and analogy.

A striking feature of the methodologies presented within the volume is the number of chapters which incorporate an informed critique of current archaeological models. Through revisiting such topics as the origins and development of Paleolithic art, the colonization of the Pacific, the relationship between ‘styles’ and dating, and the application of shamanistic interpretations of rock art, many of the papers resurrect old ideas in new ways and address ongoing debates through more contemporary perspectives. While the value, validity and practical application of specific methods employed in individual chapters varies, the challenge to past research makes for an interesting read and presents the reader with a well-rounded view of the way rock art studies are currently directed.

Methods aside, a number of broader themes are evident within the book. These include examining chronological sequences for different cultural traditions, the function of rock art as iconography and symbolic metaphor and the role rock art may have played in the mediation of stress and social transition. Questions regarding the function and meaning of rock art continue to prevail albeit framed within newer areas of scholarly endeavour, such as landscape and geographic modelling, information theory, and cross-cultural ‘contact’studies. In doing so the volume facilitates the resolution of broader archaeological issues, such as the application of dating techniques, use of ethnography, statistical, spatial and formal analyses and the difficulties of categorizing and ‘reading’ archaeological data.

Viewed regionally, the papers contribute a wealth of new information from vastly different areas, including Africa, Australia, North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

From the outset the editors recognize that no settled or standard approach to the archaeology of rock art has emerged. It is this very diversity and flexibility of methodological and theoretical constructs which is not only pivotal to the structure of the volume but is perhaps the defining characteristic of current archaeological investigations of rock art. The chapters do indeed hold a methodological focus in so far as many of them explicitly address the assumptions we employ, the problems and pitfalls of past research and the issues that continue to confound our results and problematize our interpretations.

The Archaeology of Rock Art is unique because it owns its origins. It is interesting because the influence of other disciplines is clearly apparent and explicitly developed in the methodologies and conceptual approaches to considering rock art presented throughout the volume. While the search to understand the meaning or motivation behind an image may, like so many archaeological questions, continue to elude us, this book demonstrates the capacity for meaningful information to be drawn from rock art in a variety of ways. Perhaps the clearest message that the book conveys is that this wealth of information is not achieved through the adoption of any single or standard approach but through the adoption and application of many ways of researching rock art, ways inspired and informed by many different disciplines. This book is an indication that the archaeological approach to rock art studies, however it is defined, is expanding outwards, covering vast theoretical territory while building on a solid knowledge and understanding of our own disciplinary frailties.