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Graffiti records the stories of conflict

Graffiti records the stories of conflict

Western cavity, Pudjinuk Rockshelter. Credit: Amy Roberts,  Flinders University

Archaeologists from Flinders University have analysed 188 engravings in a remote South Australian rockshelter, which depict symbols of conflict and stand as a record of frontier disputes and the strife brewing in Europe ahead of World War Two.

The ‘graffiti’ was engraved over or adjacent to Aboriginal rock art at a culturally-significant rockshelter in limestone cliffs of the Murray River near Waikerie in South Australia.

‘Of the 188 motifs identified, only one engraving remained that could be positively identified as a pre-European Aboriginal design – a ‘treelike’ motif,’ says Professor Amy Roberts, the leader of the research. ‘The rest of the identifiable historical inscriptions were the work of members of frontier conflict/punitive expeditions, local European settlers and a non-local Aboriginal man. Of the motifs that can be confidently identified, one incorporates a swastika, engraved in 1932.’

The first European historical inscriptions were engraved by members of volunteer police parties on punitive expeditions and were part of a historical trajectory that later culminated in the Rufus River Massacre.

Fiona Giles, of the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation, says: ‘We need to tell these stories to protect our history and heritage so that our culture is respected and not lost. For us, as traditional owners, this rockshelteris a highly significant and special place. It tells the stories of our ancestors and shows our deep connection to the river and reminds us of how our people lived before Europeans invaded our world.’

The published research forms part of an ARC Linkage Project grant led by Professor Roberts, which is creating the first comprehensive study of the colonial frontier in South Australia’s Riverland. By coalescing archaeological, anthropological and oral history evidence, meaningful narratives and new understandings are being created for and with Aboriginal descendants.


The engravings reveal the deep aboriginal significance of the rockshelter, the traumatic period of European invasion and frontier conflict as well as ongoing impacts of colonial settlement, says Professor Amy Roberts, who is working in collaboration with members of the local aboriginal community.

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