Perth was invaded in 2006 by a a strange looking being–it had large eyes, a nose, and no mouth, but an oval shape beneath its neck and an aura. Stencils of this creature quickly covered all available surfaces, and just as quickly was commented on in the press and by the indigenous aboriginals of the western Kimberley region of Western Australia. The wandering Wandjina, a powerful being who was “the supreme spirit of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Wunumbul people of Australia,” the one who “emerged from the sea and the sky, created the landscape, then returned to the spirit world,” but not before leaving their mark on rockshelter walls was reborn as a graffiti stencil on the streets of Perth.
In her Archaeologies article, Ursula Frederick studies the phenomenon of the Wandering Wandjina as part of a fascinating journal article on the interplay of traditional iconography and graffiti art in Melbourne and Perth. The above quotes are from this article, Revolution is the New Black: graffiti art and mark-making practices. In this article Frederick outlines her methodology in studying the graffiti from an archaeological standpoint, rather than that of sociologists who have attributed this art to social malfiescance and the like. She contrasts traditional studies of rock art with her observations about graffiti, coming across interesting questions that could inform traditional study of ancient art.
For example, she notes the different media used to create tags (pen, crayon, spray paint) and the limitations inherent in each method of tagging–the technology directly influences the size and complexity of the art. This may seem overly obvious to fans of graffiti, but in rock art size is linked with importance, or dominance, rather than functionality.
Frederick also disturbs our archaeological interpretations of rock art having a single meaning, and being viewed by a homogenous community who views this art in a single way. It would be difficult to find people who share the same interpretation of graffiti. I’m sure that more progressive researchers of rock art are already exploring this alternate approach, but the example in modern graffiti is well taken from Frederick.
This past week has generated some buzz in the archaeological world about the place of contemporary archaeology, and indeed it has been very much in the forefront of my mind as I help organize USA TAG 2011, which has the theme of “Archaeology of and in the Contemporary World.” The discussion on the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology mailing list generated good questions from Angela Piccini: “what is the *work* that contemporary archaeologies do? what would *good* contemporary archaeologies look like and how would we recognise their worthiness and who says? what would we (collectively?) aspire for contemporary archaeologies?”
Given these questions, I believe that Frederick has provided a great example utility of contemporary archaeology and its role in informing our larger discipline. Archaeology is necessarily a big tent–we do study the whole of human experience, after all. Why give ourselves arbitrary rules and limits?