Symbols of a Seascape: Archaeological Assessment of Maritime Motifs in Yanyuwa ‘Rock Art’

Author: Iris Jacobs

Jacobs, Iris, 2023 Symbols of a Seascape: Archaeological Assessment of Maritime Motifs in Yanyuwa ‘Rock Art’ , Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Aboriginal art from northern Australia has captivated archaeologists worldwide, but relatively little research has assessed the significance of rock art in the construction of maritime identity. This paper draws from a dataset of 3,183 images collected from 65 sites in the Sir Pellew Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria during the Yanyuwa Rock Art Project (YRAP) and collaborates with the extensive ethnographic record of Yanyuwa culture. Synthesizing a formal analysis of motifs with information shared by the Yanyuwa community with researchers over the past 43 years allows for the enhanced identification and interpretation of distinctive maritime attributes. The ocean-centric imagery represented includes ceremonial and cosmological iconography, marine animals including dugong, spotted stingray, blue-ringed octopus, and hammerhead shark as well as dugout and bark canoes. The spatial distribution and significant proportion of maritime-themed paintings across Yanyuwa Country sheds light on the way Saltwater People use visual symbols to link the sea with the land. The Yanyuwa dataset is further compared with marine specialist rock art from diverse geographic regions, including Hawaii, Indonesia, Chile and particularly Scandinavia. These findings contribute to a deeper understanding of Indigenous seascapes and challenge prevailing ideas of the “Western” versus the “Traditional” in this context. This archaeological engagement with Yanyuwa rock art builds on previous ethnographic research and adds another layer of knowledge that sits alongside, and is enriched by, Yanyuwa knowledge.

Keywords: Archaeology, Maritime Archaeology, Rock Art, Yanyuwa, Seascape, Gulf of Carpentaria, Anthropology, Saltwater People, Sea Country, Coastal and Island Archaeology, Traditional Knowledge, Borroloola, Marine Science, Maritime Cultural Landscape, Pellew Islands, Indigenous Archive, Yanyuwa Rock Art Project (YRAP)

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr. Liam Brady