Moluccan Fighting Craft on Australian Shores: Contact Rock Art from Awunbarna, Arnhem Land

Mick de Ruyter, Daryl Wesley, Wendy van Duivenvoorde, Darrell Lewis, Iain Johnston

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3 Citations (Scopus)
78 Downloads (Pure)


Two similar watercraft depicted in rock art at Awunbarna, Arnhem Land, Australia, are unlike the Macassan prahus and Western craft shown at other contact sites in northern Australia, but are sufficiently detailed to offer evidence for identification. Both craft appear to display triangular flags, pennants, and prow adornments indicating martial status. By comparing these two depictions with historically recorded watercraft from Island Southeast Asia, their probable origin is shown to have been eastern Maluku Tenggara in Indonesia. These motifs provide the first known direct archaeological evidence for ethnic diversity for the origins of mariners from Island Southeast Asia other than Makassar, Sulawesi. The rock-art depictions are representative of ceremonially decorated fighting craft used to lead trading voyages and raids, and may be linked to trade, fishing, resource exploitation, or slavery. This potentially unique identification of Moluccan watercraft in Arnhem Land rock art offers evidence of the elusive encounters between the Indigenous people of northern Australia and people from the archipelagos to the north, evidence with which to expand both the nature and context of Australia’s contact narrative.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-31
Number of pages18
JournalHistorical Archaeology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


  • rock art
  • culture contact
  • traditional watercraft
  • perahu
  • Arnhem Land


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