Ontologies of Rock Art

Back in the days when I was an undergraduate, I was introduced to the mystical world of social theory. My tutors – Christopher Tilley and, later, Michael Shanks – introduced me to an obscure branch of archaeology that I had never been exposed to. At that time, archaeology to me and my contemporaries was merely to dig a hole, record it, and, if anything interesting was revealed, research it. To my surprise, the notions of hermeneutics, phenomenology, and semiotics being somehow connected to archaeology appeared to make sense (just about). To add to this smorgasbord of philosophical thought, the late Mark Pluciennik introduced me to the term ‘ontology’: the concept of human existence, experience, and the interaction between the ‘self’, reality, and objects.

These sometimes left-field concepts have followed me through much of my academic career. The social theory revolution (for want of a better term) has largely disappeared from mainstream academic undergraduate teaching, sometimes featuring as an aside to more empiricist practical and technical approaches to interpreting archaeology. However, occasionally peeking above the parapets are gems such as this: Ontologies of Rock Art.

For those readers who are unsure what ‘ontology’ is and how it relates to rock art… fear no more! The editors have produced a readable introductory chapter that explains the various ontological elements that can be used as an interpretative tool, such as indigenous knowledge (art and its association between myth and storytelling), metaphysics, politics, and social interaction between people and objects, and how they reveal meaning in art and the ideology that supports it. The objects, in this case, are engraved and painted images and the rhetoric they command.

The book is organised into 20 chapters and includes that all-important index. The chapters, divided into five parts, provide a good range of subject matter that is chronologically, geographically, and thematically diverse, discussing the indigenous imagery of Africa, the Americas, Australia, as well as how ontology can be incorporated into the interpretative aspects of rock art studies. Although the book focuses largely on contemporary and ethnographic indigenous groups engaged in the production and use of art, there are several chapters that deal with prehistoric rock art.

For me, the stand-out texts that craft the link between philosophy and art include David Whitley’s ‘Rock art, shamanism and the ontological turn’ (Chapter 3), Bruno David et al.’s chapter ‘Paradigm shifts and ontological turns at Cloggs Cave, GunnaiKurnai Country, Australia’ (Chapter 6), Inés Domingo Sanz’s ‘Shifting ontologies and the use of ethnographic data in prehistoric rock art research’ (Chapter 9), Carolyn Boyd’s chapter ‘Images-in-the-making: process and vivification in Pecos River-style rock art’ (Chapter 11), Emmanuelle Honoré’s Chapter 13, ‘An ontological approach to Saharan rock art’, and, finally, Jamie Hampson’s ‘Indigenous ontologies and contact rock art of far west Texas’ (Chapter 19).

In summary, this book is an important contribution to the theoretical elements now entrenched in rock art research. The editors should be congratulated for crafting such a novel philosophical approach, by weaving ontology into what is currently a large science- and fieldwork-based subject.

My only frustration is with the final finish of the book. Routledge have – as usual and disappointingly – published all images in very grey monochrome, when colour would be more appropriate: rock art is an extremely visible narrative. In some cases, it is even difficult to identify the subject matter due to the poor quality of the image reproduction. Additionally, the book cover could have featured images befitting the subject matter, rather than the meaningless ‘splodges’ that dominate the cover of this and other books within this series. Despite these niggles, the book will appeal to scholars across the social sciences – in particular social anthropology, archaeology, history of art, philosophy, and sociology – providing a new way to look at a visual narrative.

Review by George Nash.
Ontologies of Rock Art, Oscar Moro Abadía and Martin Porr (eds), Routledge, £120, ISBN 978-0367337803.