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Handbook of Rock Art Research.

Edited by David S. Whitley. Altamira Press, California, 2001. ISBN 0-7245-0256-2. Pp 863. USD99.95

David Whitley has produced a handbook of biblical proportions ambitiously aimed at summarising rock art research throughout the world at the end of the millennium. Whitley (pp.7-8) states that the contributions from twenty five participating authors `are intended to serve as basic references and guides to rock art research'. Equally ambitiously, the handbook is intended to appeal to a broad audience by providing practical advice and detailed regional rock art summaries for academic specialists, students and enthusiastic amateurs.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first addresses analytical and management methods, the second, interpretive approaches, and the final section gives an overview of world rock art covering ten major regions including Europe, North and South America, South, Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Oceania, Asia and the Middle East. Whitley's introduction flags many of the issues central to rock art research today such as the role of Indigenous people, the dramatic but uncertain steps forward in dating and the repercussions resulting from increased public appreciation of rock art. Many of these issues are taken up and expanded upon by contributors in later sections of the volume although this is not generally a book where the reader will find views forcefully argued or debated. The history of rock art research outlined by Whitley in the introduction is biased towards North American research, a trend not overtly evident in the following chapters. The book concludes with a glossary and, while some of the definitions will be challenged by practitioners, all are clear and reflect the use of the terms within the text.

Contributors in the initial section have highlighted the ways in which rock art can be recorded, classified, managed and dated. Methods outlined in these chapters are general enough to be universally useful and could be adapted to most research questions. Although the potential of digital imaging and GIS technology in rock art research is noted (Loendorf Ch. 2), these subjects are not dealt with in depth. Techniques for dating of rock art on the other hand, are comprehensively covered including details of a number of methods, as yet untried in Australia. Two recent rock art dating projects publicised widely in the popular press -- the controversial claims concerning the age of pecked cupules in the Kimberley and the worldwide debate over the dating and preservation of the C6a engravings in Portugal -- have demonstrated the significance of chronometric dating to broader archaeological questions and heritage issues. Marvin Rowe and Ronald Dorn (Chapters 5, 6, 7) provide comprehensible descriptions, many with accompanying diagrams, which explain the physical and chemical processes of pigment and rock skin analyses and a comprehensive range of chronometric dating techniques. The innovative role that researchers working on Australian rock art are taking is evident especially with Optically Stimulated Luminescence development and techniques relating to dating organic material within varnish, silica and weathering rinds covering engravings. All chronometric dating chapters are spiked with cautionary tales and qualifying words such as `provisional', `experimental' and `inconsistent' which warn the reader of the exploratory nature of many dating techniques at this time.

The much debated issue of style as a chronological marker is addressed by Julie Francis in the final chapter (Ch. 8) of the first section. Francis analysed recently obtained chronometric dates for three rock art assemblages in North America and Europe and compared the resulting sequences with established stylistic traditions and found that, contrary to previously held classifications, many styles had persisted for thousands of years while other styles had been produced concurrently. This paper judiciously warns against the simplistic use of a culture-history notion of style. However, the pivotal role that a more active concept of style can play in rock art analysis (see for example Rosenfeld 2000, Conkey & Hastorf 1990) is not addressed at all anywhere in this volume. The editor (pp.24-6) suggests that the `style problem' is `fraught with difficulties' and it is for just this reason that an additional chapter addressing these particular theoretical issues warrants inclusion.

The second section of the book turns to the ways in which rock art can be interpreted. In keeping with the concept of a handbook, Robert Layton (Ch. 11) has contributed a paper which not only gives detailed examples of the ways in which ethnography has been used in the interpretation of rock art, but also gives additional practical advice to researchers planning to embark on ethnographic fieldwork. Papers by Margaret Conkey (Ch. 10) on structural and semiotic approaches to rock art research and David Lewis-Williams (Ch. 12) on neuropsychological explanations provide succinct overviews of their subjects and situate current rock art theory within an historical context. Interpretive frameworks influential within current Australian rock art research such as information exchange theory, stylistic behavioral theories such as identity via comparison or interpretations focused on environmental changes are not covered by the topics included within this section (cf. Morwood and Smith 1997).

The growing acceptance of shamanism as an explanation for the composition of rock art assemblages throughout the world is most evident in the final section of the book (Chapters 13-24) where twelve regional studies are presented. Shamanism has been used to interpret rock art from South America, North America, South Africa, Scandinavia, Ireland, Australia and most recently, European Palaeolithic cave art. The claimed universality of three stage neuropsychological visual phenomena experienced while in a trance state are said to result in a predictable range of rock art images. Lewis-Williams has expanded his use of shamanistic interpretations, based on ethnographic evidence and assemblage composition, to rock art bodies where the predicted range of images is present in a location where one of the trance inducing methods is likely to have occurred, such as the deep caves of Palaeolithic Europe. Such an interpretation relies on the assumption that all the images within the composition were painted together after the producer had experienced an altered state of consciousness. New chronometric dating methods applied to the full range of images in assemblages attributed to this phenomena should provide a means for skeptics to test such interpretations.

Each regional overview provides a descriptive introduction to the rock art, region by region, as well as an historical account of the people undertaking research and the approaches they have adopted (for example Jean Clottes: Palaeolithic Europe, Peter Garlake: Sub-Saharan Africa, Chen Zhao Fu: Asia, Richard Bradley, Christopher Chippindale and Knut Helskog: Post-Palaeolithic Europe and Georgia Lee: Oceania). As this volume has been produced for a worldwide audience, it is regrettable that maps have been omitted from several papers in this section. The papers highlight the diversity in rock art styles and techniques around the world and the differing methods adopted when research is undertaken. For instance, Paul Taqon's review of Australian rock art (Ch. 17) emphasises the involvement of Indigenous custodians in research, the wealth of new sites still being recorded, the drive to date assemblages and the incorporation of rock art research into broader archaeological projects. However, it is disappointing to see Tacon citing the controversial Jinmium, Kimberley dates in such a way that they may still be accepted as valid, and in fact, `the more than 60 000 year old' dates are cited by another contributor (Keyser Ch. 4:118), when more recent analysis has convinced most researchers that these dates should be rejected.

Contributors to Whitley's handbook have demonstrated that rock art studies at the turn of the century are moving towards a more central position in archaeological research. David Whitley has succeeded in producing a volume which summarises the past and sets the stage for future rock art research. It is sure to become a recommended student text and a frequently used reference source for practitioners.


Conkey M., and Hastorf, C. (eds) 1990. The Uses of Style in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Morwood, M. and Smith, C. E. 1996. Rock Art Research in Australia 1974-94. Australian Archaeology 89:12-38.

Rosenfeld, A. 2000. Meanings in chronology: `direct dating' and style. In Ward, Graeme K. and Claudio Tuniz, (eds), Advances in Dating Australian Rock-Markings: Papers from the First Australian Rock-Picture Dating Workshop. pp. 55-58. AURA Publication 10, Melbourne.
University of New England, Armidale
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Author:Ross, June
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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