- Images and Power: Rock Art and Ethics by Polly Schaafsma
Polly Schaafsma’s book on rock art and ethics is a thin volume but it packs in a lot of heavy food for thought. This is not a book for people who love to look at rock art images; there are few here, and only as needed to illustrate specific arguments. Instead, this is an in-depth discussion of some of the most complex and contentious issues facing those who study, manage, or have an interest in rock art. The work is strongly and passionately argued and is sure to stimulate debate, the whole point of the Springer series.
Schaafsma begins with a discussion of what rock art is, and whether or not it should be called “art.” Her voice on this issue quickly sets the tone for topics that follow. In response to Native Americans who believe that labeling their ancient imagery as “art” denigrates it by equating it with Western secular traditions, Schaafsma argues that to not call it art is a greater disservice, relegating beautiful works to simple “marks on rocks” and diminishing the heritage of the creators and their descendants. The author serves notice that the book will not simply be an impartial review of the debates pertaining to aboriginal rock art; it will be a passionate defense of positions that Schaafsma feels are most ethical.
Schaafsma considers differing, and sometimes conflicting, worldviews of Western science and indigenous people. Concepts of time, space, and landscape are discussed, as is the overarching question of whether or not we can begin to understand these concepts—pictured for us by ancient cultures—given the formative underpinnings of the cultures in which the observer has been reared. Western methods of recording and interpreting rock art, including a heavy reliance on ethnography, are contrasted with the understanding of rock art through oral traditions. Schaafsma highlights the value inherent in all approaches, but cautions that that they are very different ways of seeing the world and cannot be expected to correspond. She notes that to discard the voice of the archaeologist (admittedly dominant for two centuries) in favor of solely a native voice simply replaces one form of imperialism with another.
It is precisely the issue of making interpretations of rock art conform to certain expected or “acceptable” views of the past that produces the most strongly argued statements. Schaafsma is unequivocal: archaeologists cannot let themselves be pressured into distorting their research-based interpretations of rock art imagery in order to conform with the desires or expectations of relevant interest groups. Violence is a prime example. Many, including the general public, want ancient indigenous cultures to be models of peace. Schaafsma argues that rock art and other archaeological evidence simply don’t support this. There is much more in this book, including an important discussion of who can or should “own” rock art and the point at which it becomes the heritage of humanity, as well as on the widespread appropriation of rock art images for commercial purposes. I was disappointed, however, that the thorny issue of attempting to preserve rock art as opposed to letting it erode away received no more than a passing comment.
The book is finely written by a seasoned veteran of the discipline. It is meant to be provocative, and it is, but [End Page 84] it also strives for understanding. Aft er all, the one absolute is that all art produced by human beings is vitally important in defining who we are.