ROCK-ART AND THE DREAMING: AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF PREUNDERSTANDING BY DAVID
Leicester University Press 2002. (New approaches to Anthropological Archaeology). 235 pages, 76 monochrome figures, 10 tables. ISBN 0-7185-0243-4.
Landscapes, Rock-Art and the Dreaming convincingly challenges deeply held Western values, values which are deemed to be fixed and unchanging – written in stone, for Aboriginal Australian rock art, according to Bruno David, does not reflect passively the timelessness of Dreaming (1); this notion, and indeed that of Dreaming as ‘timeless’ with origins in deep antiquity, is a deeply flawed, if popular, Western construct. This construct has a fascinating history: European colonisers perceived the aboriginal communities of Australia in grossly negative terms; the Horn expedition set out in the mid-1890s to report on ‘the manners, customs, and appearance of the aboriginals in their primitive state’ – as a ‘dying race’ (p14). For archaeologists, Aborigines exemplified the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder, akin to the Neanderthals of European prehistory, an idea with currency for decades to come. Dreamings have thus been perceived first as evidence of unenlightened superstitious beliefs and more recently as evidence of primordial religious beliefs unchanged since deep antiquity. Aboriginal rock art particularly is often perceived as a testament in stone to the antiquity of Dreaming beliefs. In contrast, the nuances of Dreaming are explored in detail in this book; Dreaming is approached as:
Or, more simply, ‘the Dreaming – and life itself – are…at once beyond time and continuous yet transformative, always presencing the past, the present and the future’ (p206).
Explorations of Dreaming have occupied anthropologists primarily, but these analyses tend to assume Dreaming beliefs known to scholarship ethnographically are of ancient origins and have endured, largely unchanged, to the present. Only more recently have they stressed the diversity of Dreaming beliefs across the continent (e.g. Hume 2000), ‘its dynamism, its emergence in historical practice’ (p91). Archaeologists, in turn, have tended to focus on object-based research and avoided the rich Dreamings available to them for analysis. David brings these two areas of research together to offer a new, socially based Aboriginal Australian history. The book is part of an ‘anthropological archaeology’ series of publications which claims to produce ‘archaeological facts’ and to theorise this data with ‘speculative’ interpretations (frontispiece). Thus, there is detailed empirical evidence to support David’s claims as ‘facts’, but this is not research in the vein of the claimed ‘objective’ positivist tradition. Indeed, one of the first things to challenge positivist readers is David’s self-reflective standpoint: he acknowledges that the Western viewpoint – his Western viewpoint – can only ever reach an approximation of how Aboriginal people (past and present) understand their world. Towards this approximation, David’s theoretical direction draws heavily on Western philosophy, particularly Gadamer’s notion of ‘preunderstanding’:
The preunderstanding of European colonisers imposed a fixed and unchanging ahistory on Aborigines, while the Aborigines were themselves embedded in the preunderstandings of ethnographically known Dreamings. David’s application of this term promises exciting insights for archaeologists: if preunderstanding is a human consistency, then people as agents continually engaging with the material world make preunderstanding a condition of habitus, so that an archaeology of preunderstanding ‘opens a window onto identity and meaning in the past’ (p3-8). The aim is not to retrieve Dreamings of the past, however, but to trace the antiquity of the ethnographically known Dreaming and assess the implications of this for revising our understanding of pre-Historic Aborigines (p8).
Three lines of evidence inform the analysis: 1) specific ethnohistorical and archaeological contexts, 2) the archaeological excavation of specific ethnographically confirmed ritual sites of Dreaming significance, and 3) specific examples of rock art referred to ethnographically as Dreaming-related. This evidence indicates the ethnographically known Dreaming emerged in the late Holocene. David offers further archaeological evidence to support this view that ‘major socio-demographic transformations’ (p149) occurred in the late Holocene, including the intensification of systematic seed-processing in the arid zone, and the regionalization of rock art imagery in Cape York which begins in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, and intensifies in the late Holocene. This is a dense volume, the result of many years of related research both independently (e.g. David 1993) and in collaboration (e.g. David & Cole 1990; David et al 1994) and I focus on the discussion of rock art to review David’s argument critically.
David notes (chapter 5) that Gadamer did not address adequately non-linguistic representations in his concept of preunderstanding. Orientating his approach to the representation of preunderstanding in visual culture approached with Derrida’s concept of différance, David argues: ‘Ethnography enables us to trace archaeologically the antiquity of [Dreamings’] visual expressions [for] if the rock-art symbolizes a particular Dreaming belief today, then the art’s antiquity must necessarily give a maximum age’ (pp73-74). Indeed, ‘Given their identity as signifiers and signified of the system of preunderstanding we know ethnographically as the Dreaming, investigations of their antiquity may shed light upon the beginnings of the Dreaming’ (p74). A convincing example in this regard is a panel of the two ‘Lightning Brothers’ at Yiwarlarlay: a number of ethnographically recorded Dreaming stories agree that a fight between the two brothers over a woman produced thunder and lightning; the surrounding landscape represents this event, with the creation of a split rock outcrop where lightning struck and specific boulders called ‘Frogs’ where these amphibians sat to watch the fight.
David posits: ‘Given that the Dreaming is symbolically represented in the Lightning Brothers rock-art at Yiwarlarlay, can we trace back in time the antiquity of the Lightning Brothers story, or at least its visual representation on the shelter walls?’ (p75). Ethnographic documents suggest that in the mid-1930s the upper portions of the anthropomorphs were striped and the bottom half only in outline. A photograph from the mid-1940s indicates paint was added later, and in the mid-1950s the paintings were ‘completed’ (p76). With the recent date of retouching practices established, David proceeds to examine the antiquity of the original paintings ‘which may have existed in outline for a considerable period of time’ (p76). The rock wall (both painted and unpainted) is exfoliating and excavations immediately below the paintings produced important results: the oldest layers yielded unpainted exfoliated rock, while more recent layers indicated a greater density of site use along with fragments of in situ ochre pigments; further, painted exfoliated rock replaced unpainted pieces and the first European contact objects appeared – this layer was radio-carbon dated to the last 200 years indicating: ‘There is no evidence here for any great antiquity for the visual representation of the Lightning Brothers Dreaming story’ (p78). There are mitigating factors, for example that the dated pigments may only be retouchings of earlier paintings themselves (though there were no painted fragments in the older strata), and the art, though related to Dreaming stories, is not necessarily an indicator of the age of the stories, though it does suggest a minimum age. Nonetheless, a number of other rigorously examined examples lead David to conclude: ‘in Wardaman country, artistic expressions of the Dreaming known from ethnography…emerge only during late Holocene times. These findings have major implications for the antiquity of the ethnographically documented Dreaming beliefs and expressions in this part of Australia’ (p86).
Indeed, there are major implications, not only for understanding Dreamings in terms meaningful for Westerners (i.e. framed by a linear timeline), but also for rock art research worldwide and contemporary Aboriginal Australians themselves. The loose chronology obtained for paintings via excavations is encouraging for rock art researchers in search of dates for other rock art traditions (see also McDonald 1998). David takes this issue further by addressing the view that beliefs in Dreaming Serpents across a large proportion of mainland Australia may be some 4-6000 years old, as evidenced by rock art in western Arnhem Land. He problematises the identification (Taçon et al 1996) of four stylistic eras in the art, particularly how the chronologies ‘rely on indirect dating evidence of at times extremely poor reliability’ (106), and concludes that some of the art itself (particularly AMS radiocarbon dated wax materials) may be of great antiquity, but the diversity of the imagery suggests (unrecoverable) Dreamings associated with the ancient paintings are likely very different to those of the ethnographically known Rainbow Serpent Dreaming beliefs.
Marking David’s self-reflective stance, it is important to consider how Aboriginal people may be affected by such research and David attends sensitively to ‘the positioning of Aboriginal people in archaeological thought’ and the implications this has for such issues as public policy and political economy (see also Moser 1995). In David’s analysis, scientific evidence challenges the fixed and unchanging ancientness of Dreaming, granting Aboriginal people the historicity, social dynamism and adaptability they should have been afforded long ago. Yet Dreaming beliefs have been used as evidence in land rights claims (e.g. Hiatt 1990) – if in some places these beliefs may themselves only have arisen at the time of European contact (though the Lightning Brothers example is exceptional), it is conceivable that such evidence could be used against Aboriginal communities. David is sensitive to such issues, since the archaeological evidence does not challenge the rights of Aboriginal Australians as ‘first peoples’, nor does it imply that Dreamings, as indigenous cosmologies, began in the late Holocene – only that the Modern form did (p88).
In all, this volume offers a significant reconsideration of Dreaming – how Western thought has failed to approach Dreaming sensitively and framed Dreaming beliefs in its own terms, largely towards undermining Aboriginal self-determination; and an archaeological reconstitution of the ethnographically known Dreaming (as understood by Westerners) as ‘beliefs’ which are dynamic and relatively recent, rather than unchanged since deep antiquity. There are important lessons here: the analysis of rock art, for instance, will be of great value to scholars interpreting their own rock art traditions – not as passive images on rocks in sterile landscapes, but as visual culture which is itself agentic in specific landscape histories.
David’s efforts to understand Aboriginal Australian worldviews since the late Holocene in terms as close a possible to those of Aborigines themselves, but with full knowledge that this Western view can only ever be an estimation and framed by ‘the writer’s own culture of interpretation’ (p212), is a self-reflective success. None the less, it is this Western estimation – the application of European philosophy to indigenous worldviews – with which I take issue. On the one hand, his attempts to disengage Dreamings known ethnographically from both deep antiquity and the linearity of Western ‘time’ are convincing and important. On the other, the occidental terms ‘place’ and ‘landscape’ require further problematising. David suggests that to be meaningful places must be inscribed socially: landscape ‘becomes a canvas of cultural expression’ and ‘material inscription transforms the land into a…stage’ (p87), and rock art ‘socializes the land through a symbolling process that attributed metaphysical meaning to place by externalizing the cultural landscape onto the landscape and by socially engaging place’ (p70).
This approach to place/landscape is not new in archaeology and has been empowering, providing theoretical insights and methodological inroads into the past. For Aborginal Australians and other indigenous communities worldwide, however, the ‘land’ is not a palimpsest onto which culture is imposed. Rather, ‘nature’ is not far-removed from ‘humanity’ and other people also inhabit this land – from animal, bird and plant people, to dead people and other, non-human-people, people perceived as already extant in the landscape (see also Wallis & Blain 2003). From this indigenous, animistic view point (for recent theorising of ‘animism’, see e.g. Bird-David 2002), David’s application of Gadamer’s preunderstanding is inappropriate – it can not approach Aboriginal Australian Dreaming with sensitivity because it assumes that other-than-human-people are human constructions rather than beings already dwelling in the world. Such Western preunderstanding privileges sociality and human inscription over animism and spirits-in-the-land, devaluing Dreaming beings who, some Aboriginal people believe, painted themselves onto the rocks independent of human intervention – retouching helps keep them alive. In the Conclusion, David states ‘we can think of place as pre-ontological, yet structured and knowable through the social shaping that is preunderstanding’ (p206), evidencing how atheistic Western philosophical concepts fall short of even approximating indigenous worldviews. Later, David opines, ‘the experience of place comes even before a conscious and reflective awareness of spatial order’ (p206) – here, and perhaps more so in the statement ‘[place can be] already-meaningful and sentient’ (p207), David is more sensitive to Aboriginal Australian beliefs, and comes close to taking animism seriously.
Landscapes, Rock-Art and the Dreaming is a timely work, setting a new agenda for the study of Dreamings and other indigenous worldviews. The pertinence of its self-reflectivity in a series on anthropological archaeology, particularly, can not be overstated. Moreover, it offers a new direction for the archaeology of rock art and rock art landscapes in Australia and beyond. Its theorising of an archaeology of place will no doubt be valuable to archaeology; optimistically, this research has permitted a productive meeting of Western philosophy and indigenous worldviews – this aspect of the volume, however, requires further problematising.
Dr Robert J Wallis
Review Submitted: June 2003
1 David prefers the term ‘the Dreaming’ over ‘Dreamtime’, perhaps to avoid the Western construct of ‘time’ which is far different from Dreaming beliefs. I remove the definite article also, in an effort to further this dynamic and so approach ‘Dreaming’ (or Dreamings) sensitively.
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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