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Depictions of firearms in Australian Aboriginal rock art provide a unique opportunity to archaeologically explore the roles that this type of material culture played in times of culture contact.
In this paper we use a newly documented rock art assemblage of firearms painted at one of Australia’s oldest occupation sites—Madjedbebe (formerly Malakunanja II), to explore the complex role that firearms played in Aboriginal society and the artist’s possible motivations for depicting them in large numbers at this particular place.
From a global perspective, there are some well-investigated depictions of weaponry in rock art (including recent firearms) that represent encounters, especially during transition periods (e.g., Challis ), but it is clear that in some instances cultural protocols within particular societies have limited how far artists could stray from the normative values of their society to further personal aspirations (e.g., Black Elk and Neihardt : 11) suggests that “none of the 102 known rock-paintings of inter-group conflict from this area can be interpreted as the Bushmen losing the fight and in at least 60 of the conflict clusters the Bushmen are clearly shown as the victors.” These examples illustrate the complexity of trying to ascertain historical truths from even the most recent of rock art.
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This rock art provides evidence for early firearms as objects of curiosity and threat to local groups, as well as evidence for later personal ownership and use of such weaponry.
Moreover, we argue that the rock art suggests increasing incorporation of firearms into traditional cultural belief and artistic systems over time with Madjedbebe playing a key role in the communication of the cultural meanings behind this new subject matter.
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Consequently, archaeologists working with rock art have used depicted weaponry not only to explore the historical contexts and outcomes of cultural encounters, but also to establish rock art chronologies through comparative methods (i.e., Abbott and Anderson-Whymark ).
Many, if not all, of these rock art assemblages were created in turbulent times and contexts when value systems were being transformed.
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