Art and identity: Aboriginal rock art and dendroglyphs of Queensland's Wet Tropics

Buhrich, Alice (2017) Art and identity: Aboriginal rock art and dendroglyphs of Queensland's Wet Tropics. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

PDF (Thesis)
Download (9MB) | Preview
View at Publisher Website:


That is a cassowary foot… and we are the cassowary clan. Dugulbarra fieldworker's initial reaction to locating a Wet Tropics dendroglyph (March 2014).

Identity is a key concept in Australian rock art research. Archaeological interpretations of rock imagery recognise that motifs and their production convey information, not just about the artist, but also about the cultural and social context in which motifs were produced. Rock art studies provide a unique window into the world view of the artists that is not available through other archaeological material. Aboriginal custodians are also interested in the relationship between imagery and identity, often through a lens that does not separate the social, cultural and physical landscapes. Dendroglyphs, although rare, offer similar opportunities to explore visual expression, identity and place.

The Wet Tropics of Queensland offers a unique set of circumstances to investigate style in Late Holocene visual culture. The rock art, affected by the high humidity, was likely created relatively recently (Edwards 2007; Gunn and Thorn 1994; Ward et al. 1995) while dendroglyphs, only as old as the trees on which they are carved, are not likely to exceed a few hundred years in age (Buhrich et al. 2016). In this thesis, I explore the relationships between rock art, dendroglyphs and language in the Wet Tropics of north Queensland to understand relationships between stylistic choices and social context. My research identifies that rock art production was, and continues to be, strongly linked to cultural identity. However, in the Wet Tropics at least, language was not the main factor in determining style in either rock art or dendroglyphs. Across Australia, Aboriginal social and cultural identity was multi-faceted and individuals belonged to a complex web of intersecting identities that included language, clan, totems and moieties. While language has emerged as the most significant in post-colonial Australia, my findings suggest this may not always have been the case.

Wet Tropics Aboriginal groups have consistently voiced the need for researchers to collaborate with them in all stages of research. My research design responds to this by incorporating both formal and informed approaches through quantitative (site and motif recording) and qualitative methods (multiple interviews with relevant Aboriginal people). By combining these forms of data, the rock art and dendroglyphs can be studied within context of broader Aboriginal cultural landscapes.

Forty-five rock art sites and twelve dendroglyph sites were examined, in six language areas. While similarities identify a Wet Tropics rock art style characterised by painting as the main technique, significant differences were found between rock art styles in the eastern and western zones of the study area which, in some cases, intersect linguistic boundaries. Dendroglyphs, found in the east, where figurative designs dominate the rock art corpus, are mostly non-figurative like the western style rock art. Furthermore, dendroglyphs and rock art are found in different contexts, suggesting that, as forms of visual expression, they had distinct roles. Today, rock art sites and dendroglyphs continue to be highly significant to Aboriginal people, as part of a living cultural landscape that incorporates story places, walking tracks and ceremonial sites.

Item ID: 51812
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Aboriginal archaeology, Aboriginal heritage, boundaries, cultural heritage management, culturally modified trees, dendroglyphs, identity, North Queensland, rock art, shields, Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, wet tropics, world heritage area
Related URLs:
Additional Information:

For this thesis, Alice Buhrich received the Dean's Award for Excellence 2018.

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Buhrich, Alice, Goldfinch, Felise, and Greer, Shelley (2016) Connections, transactions and rock art within and beyond the wet tropics of North Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series, 10. pp. 23-42.

Buhrich, Alice, Ferrier, Åsa, and Grimwade, Gordon (2015) Attributes, preservation and management of dendroglyphs from the Wet Tropics rainforest of northeast Australia. Australian Archaeology, 80. pp. 91-98.

Date Deposited: 19 Dec 2017 05:24
FoR Codes: 19 STUDIES IN CREATIVE ARTS AND WRITING > 1901 Art Theory and Criticism > 190102 Art History @ 20%
21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2101 Archaeology > 210101 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeology @ 80%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950503 Understanding Australias Past @ 30%
95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9503 Heritage > 950302 Conserving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage @ 70%
Downloads: Total: 3468
Last 12 Months: 130
More Statistics

Actions (Repository Staff Only)

Item Control Page Item Control Page