Professor Jo McDonald, Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, didn’t always want to be archaeologist; in fact it wasn’t even her second choice of career. Now one of Australia’s leading specialists in the study of rock art she became hooked after participating in her first “dig”.
“After my first field trip, I realised I’d have much more fun on excavations than I’d have in any court room if I’d continued with Law. I was also very fortunate to learn from John Clegg at the University of Sydney, one of the country’s first teachers in rock art who was very innovative for his time and looked at things differently,” says Professor McDonald.
“He helped me understand rock art from the artist’s perspective but this was grounded in the knowledge that you couldn’t necessarily know the artist was thinking when they painted it. This perspective has informed my research ever since.”
A 7th generation Western Australian, Professor McDonald grew up in Sydney, and returned to Perth in 2012 when she joined the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management.
“Heading up the Centre as well as having the opportunity to hold the Rio Tinto Chair in Rock Art Studies was such an exciting opportunity. Not only does WA have some of the best rock art in the world, the Pilbara and Western Deserts are places of such national significance in our cultural landscape,” she says.
“Part of our work is to research national heritage values and those of outstanding significance value. There are three rock art centres in Australia, and we are the only one in WA.”
Prior to joining UWA, Professor McDonald was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. Her four year research project is studying rock art, social and environmental change in two of the great deserts of the world: the Western Desert in Australia and the Great Basin in the USA.
“These deserts have totally different rock art and obviously the people who inhabited them were culturally very different. It’s wonderful having the opportunity to compare these two unique deserts and to try and understand how hunter-gatherer peoples have used art to negotiate their social spaces and relationships. I’m looking forward to going back in a couple of months, to finish my fieldwork there,” she says.
Professor McDonald says one of the key challenges facing the preservation of Australian rock art is making people aware of how important it is to understanding the country’s history.
“When members of the public come across my team when we’re out in the field, they’re always really interested in what we’re doing and want insights into what the artwork might mean and how old it is.
“I find this really encouraging and from my experience, the public rarely damage these art works intentionally, once they understand its value. Most damage occurs through ignorance. So there’s a really important job to do in raising public awareness about why the rock art is so important to telling Australia’s deep history and the very different stories of Aboriginal people through time in different parts of the country.”
In the meantime the Professor, who has only spent two weekends in Perth this year, is off on another expedition.
“I’m taking 12 undergraduates to the Burrup Peninsula. This is an annual field school (funded by Rio Tinto’s Conservation Agreement and with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation) and is one way we increase our understanding of the significant rock art in the area.
"It’s a great training opportunity for students, working with rock art specialists and Aboriginal rangers. It’s a real highlight for everyone involved. We’ve then got out last fieldwork session of the year on one of the outer islands of the Archipelago, for the ARC Linkage Project Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming.”