Rock art plays an important role in recording history, which otherwise would not be recoverable, according to Griffith’s Place, Evolution, Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU) Director Professor Paul Taçon.
Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world were fascinated by the transport that brought new groups to their traditional lands.
At rock art sites and on early portable objects detailed paintings, drawings and engravings were made showing everything from various types of watercraft to horses, camels, elephants, airplanes, automobiles, bicycles and buggies.
Ships are the most common, and in Australia these include a range of Macassan and European vessels, usually away from where they were sighted and sometimes far inland.
At the famous Djulirri site in northwest Arnhem Land over 20 magnificent paintings of ships can be found, along with depictions of Aboriginal watercraft.
At the Tham Phrayanaga rock art site, also known as Viking Cave, in southern Thailand, there are over 70 painted ships including Thai, Chinese and Indonesian vessels associated with various ethnic groups.
These sorts of images would have served a variety of roles, says Paul.
“For instance, they are about recording historic events that had big impacts, informing other people about a changing world, empowerment and memory.
“They are also about creatively and affirmatively participating in cultural change.”
The depictions of ships and other forms of transport tell the story of the arrival of new people to Indigenous lands, something that would change Indigenous cultures in unexpected and profound ways.
Together with other forms of contact period rock art, such as depictions of new peoples and the strange animals and goods they brought with them, they form a unique historical archive of the reverse gaze of colonisation.
Interestingly, in many parts of Australia, southern Africa, North America and Southeast Asia Europeans were often shown with their hands on their hips.
Indigenous peoples of all these places adopted the same iconographic convention to distinguish a painting, drawing or engraving of a European person from that of some other group.
What this may say is interesting to consider as it has been suggested that the hands-on-hips posture is a domineering stance, Paul says.
“So, as can be seen, it is not just really old or highly spiritual rock art that is important.
“Imagery made after the arrival of new peoples to Indigenous lands can inform us about aspects of history, which would otherwise be lost.”