Rethinking the age and unity of large naturalistic animal forms in early Western Arnhem Land Rock Art, Australia

Tristen Jones, Daryl Wesley, Sally K. May, Iain G. Johnston, Clare McFadden, Paul S.C. Taçon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The analysis of style is a widespread method for describing classes of rock art and plays a significant role in forming a chronology for Arnhem Land rock art assemblages. A longstanding issue identified in Arnhem Land rock art has been the ill-defined nature of the ‘Large Naturalistic Style’ (LNS) as originally proposed by rock art researcher George Chaloupka. We have re-examined the distribution, frequency and the stylistic design attributes of 163 early naturalistic macropod paintings from 88 rock art sites across the region utilising predominately legacy records. This provides us with an opportunity to re-examine Chaloupka’s stylistic category of the LNS and describe and map the stylistic attributes used by Indigenous artists in the depictions of early naturalistic animal forms that occur through the Early and Middle Periods (from Pleistocene to early Holocene). We examine Chaloupka’s LNS against established criteria for the definition of a style, such as whether it exhibits a specific and characteristic manner of production and if it is localised to a specific time and place. We present the first reported quantifiable dataset of design attributes for this regional art type. The results provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the temporal and spatial coherence of the Large Naturalistic Style class of rock art. Although a generalised standard depiction of naturalistic macropod forms exists in Early Period rock art, the original definition of LNS and its chronological placement in the rock art sequence is not supported. Therefore, we propose using the more generalised term ‘early large naturalistic fauna’ to represent this class of rock art, rather than LNS in the Arnhem Land rock art schema. This provides a platform by which future research can attempt to investigate the function of early large naturalistic fauna and the potential links of this class of rock art to group identity, ritual and religious behaviours in northern Australia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)238-252
Number of pages15
JournalAustralian Archaeology
Volume86
Issue number3
Early online date20 Oct 2020
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Keywords

  • Arnhem Land
  • macropods
  • naturalistic style
  • rock art chronology
  • superimposition

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