Archaeologists uncover history of graffiti in Australia
|Rock-carved graffiti at the former Quarantine Station on|
Sydney's North Head [Credit: ABC]
Australians have been etching their thoughts on walls since Indigenous people began drawing on rocks and caves.
Archaeologist Ursula Frederick, from the Australian National University, is one of a group of archaeologists collecting the evidence.
She has an interest in contemporary graffiti, but has also spent time surveying graffiti at the former Quarantine Station at Sydney's North Head.
The area was used between 1835 and 1984 as a medical facility for migrants and travellers who were suspected of carrying infectious diseases into Australia.
There are more than 1,000 messages written in sandstone around its structures.
"You start to see expressions of communal identity expressions of the social hierarchy," Dr Frederick said.
"It becomes a case of asserting their survival under difficult circumstances."
Archaeologists are able to study old graffiti as if the messages were postcards from the past.
In the Torres Strait, for example, there is a so-called postal cave where generations of mariners left messages for other sailors to read.
Archaeologist Darrell Lewis has been drawn to the Top End, where old droving routes are scattered with water tanks and boab trees marked with the musings of stockmen.
Sometimes the messages abuse other stockmen and they are often crude and irreverent.
Dr Lewis makes etchings of the graffiti to preserve and study the messages.
Graffiti reveals layers of history
It has often been the outcast, the isolated, the transient and the trapped who have turned to graffiti to make their mark.
Archaeologists say there is plenty to investigate.
"You start to get a sense of what kinds of mark-making people are doing and why and what kind of messages were they are trying to communicate," Dr Frederick said.
"Are they just saying 'I was here' or is there more going on?"
Studying graffiti with archaeological methods involves making surveys as well as recording the physical details like colours, techniques and content.
"Archaeology can present a different view by looking at the material rather than just listening to what people say about it," said Dr Frederick
"Because sometimes those two things don't match up."
But studying graffiti comes with a degree of stigma in the archaeological community.
Archaeologists have resisted exploring graffiti because there is a tension between the profession's desire to preserve all types of heritage and the knowledge that sometimes, vandalism is responsible for its destruction.
"That's a bit of an issue for archaeologists because a lot of the heritage sites that we care about and do research on are exposed to vandalism," said Dr Frederick.
"It's a tenuous line and that's part of the reason why people have resisted exploring it archaeologically."
Another challenge with studying contemporary graffiti from an archaeologist's perspective is its fleeting nature.
Work is often layered with other work within the space of a week and sometimes structures with graffiti can disappear altogether.
While there are risks involved, there are benefits for the profession too.
"We wanted to excite younger scholars to see that there are other types of archaeology that can be done, that you can look at your contemporary work and apply archaeological methods," said Dr Frederick.
"There is a lot out there.
"I'm sure that we haven't even scratched the surface - so to speak!"
Author: Siobhan Heanue | Source: ABC News Website [June 23, 2014]