The Presence of Absence: Why Does the Post-contact Rock Art of Torres Strait (Northeastern Australia) Not Include Paintings of European Ships?

Liam M. Brady, Ian J. McNiven

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract

Studies into the presence and absence of post-European contact rock art within Indigenous communities are particularly relevant to questions of colonial impact and influence. However, it is the presence of post-contact motifs and introduced subject matter that typically takes precedence in these studies. In this paper, we focus on the absence of post-contact paintings of European ships in Torres Strait (northeastern Australia) rock art. This absence is curious, given that Torres Strait peoples first encountered European ships over 400 years ago, yet the only paintings of watercraft are of their own double outrigger canoes. Furthermore, ethnographic information suggests many painted canoes were spirit canoes used by spirits of the dead, and European mariners were considered spirits of the dead who travelled in 'ghost ships'. Despite apparent epistemological and ontological congruence between Islander and Kaurareg canoes and European ships, we argue the latter were conceptually and metaphysically different to spirit canoes and thus fell outside of the representational (rock art) genre of watercraft that was limited to spirit canoes. The lack of Torres Strait post-contact rock art reveals that reasons for the inclusion of introduced subject matter in post-contact rock art are likely to extend beyond simple exposure to, and familiarity with, so-called new subject matter.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
JournalCAMBRIDGE ARCHAEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Early online date6 Jul 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jul 2021

Keywords

  • First Nations peoples
  • Torres Strait
  • European contact
  • Rock art

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