Broken Hill: AURA Inter-Congress Symposium October 2009
Convened by ben Gunn, the Australian Vice-President of AURA, this event was as pleasant as it was successful and productive. Held at the Social Democratic Club in Broken Hill, western New South Wales, on the weekend 17 and 18 October 2009, it followed the established tradition of AURA’s Inter-Congress Symposia, the purpose of which is to provide the opportunity for members to meet during the sometimes lengthy intervals between the full-scale AURA Congresses. This means that it was a relatively small event with a relaxed atmosphere, but still meeting the academic standards set by the Congress. One of the original reasons for establishing these intermediate meetings was that if congresses are spaced more than four years apart, it can mean that there is no opportunity for university students specialising in rock art research, for the duration of their course, to attend such an event and present their work in the formal public setting it offers. Indeed, the Broken Hill event was very well attended by promising students and young researchers, particularly from Adelaide. Several people commented that it was most reassuring to see the young generation so well represented, and to witness their enthusiasm, high level of motivation and academic competence. Especially the contingent from Flinders University of South Australia needs to be mentioned here as an inspiration.
To my mind, the most outstanding aspect of Broken Hill 2009 was the skilfully managed thematic continuity that ran through practically all sessions, astutely designed by Chairman Gunn. With a short conference encompassing wide-ranging thematic specialities it is obviously difficult to maintain a reasonable level of such continuity, but somehow ben managed to create a perfect sequence. After the traditional ‘Welcome to Country’ by Custodian Maureen O’Donnell, the first session was entitled ‘The past 25 years’, referring to the history of AURA and presenting some highlights of that period as well as general discussions of historical trends during that time. This was followed by a session dealing with a more current concern, especially of the Symposium Chairman: the effects of bushfires on rock art sites in Australia. Presentations of a few regional studies ended the first day of proceedings.
On the Sunday, these issues connected to various site management topics, and the afternoon offered a smorgasbord of general rock art subjects. The concluding session was a panel discussion with audience participation, impeccably staged by Claire Smith, concerning future directions of rock art research in Australia. It focused on the current proposals for rock art research centres at various universities. In addition to the packed program (there were in fact eight stand-by papers) posters were also presented, and throughout the proceedings, the audience had much opportunity to participate.
The format of the Symposium, with all meals provided, was deliberately designed to prevent participants from straying during the breaks, which greatly facilitated intensive and useful discussion at practically every opportunity for the entire two days. This included particularly the opulent closing dinner on Sunday night, where both outgoing and incoming committee members gave their accounts and presented their presidential/vice-presidential addresses with considerable flair. The Symposium was attended by eighty people, many of whom commented on the uniformly high standard of the presentations.
The most pleasant aspect of AURA is the often so palpable enthusiasm and cordiality driving this organisation, which to my mind accounts for its continuing vitality and success. We tend to have what are best defined as ‘rather robust debates’, enthusiastically defending or attacking one or another probably fairly obscure issue, and feathers do fly then. But at the end of it all, for instance at the closing dinner, all enmities evaporate and we remember how strongly our common purpose binds us together. John Campbell, the new AURA President, in his maiden speech, defined the particular qualities of AURA by reminding us how, in 1988, the First AURA Congress happened to coincide with an international anthropological conference in Darwin. He, like many others, had registered to attend both events and planned to alternate between the two parallel meetings. He soon found himself spending more and more time at AURA, eventually deciding that he preferred the more congenial and more passionate atmosphere he found there. This contagious enthusiasm remains the hallmark of AURA and all its ventures.
That certainly applies also to the many dozens of post-conference fieldtrips AURA has conducted over the years. The Broken Hill symposium was followed by three, first two one-day excursions led by ben Gunn, followed by a week-long extended fieldtrip covering numerous rock art sites in the semi-arid north-east of South Australia. On the Monday, most conference participants travelled in a convoy of some thirty off-road vehicles to two petroglyph sites north of Broken Hill, Euriowie and Sturts Meadows. Peter Beven, the owner of the second site, welcomed the group, which ben divided into two halves because of its unexpectedly large size. Fortunately Sturts Meadows is an extensive site of some 18 000 petroglyphs.
The following day was dedicated to a visit of the Mutawintji rock art complex, which features both petroglyph and rock painting sites. The group was led by three traditional custodians. On Wednesday, a group of twenty-five set out west, along the Barrier Highway, to commence a week of intensive rock art tours through the Olary-Yunta region and beyond, including the spectacular Flinders Ranges. Bearing in mind that the tiny Yunta Hotel, where we had to stay two nights, only has a maximum of fourteen beds, I tried to discourage prospective participants, with limited success, but we somehow managed. Indeed, the entire journey was an unmitigated success, and when it ended on 27 October at the red cliffs of Deception Creek in the northern Flinders Ranges, we had seen tens of thousands of petroglyphs. At some of the numerous sites we had been to, such as Tiverton, they seemed to stretch as far as the eye could reach: part of Australia’s greatest cultural treasure. Part of the incomparable treasure the Indigenes of Australia bequeathed to humanity, which connects the present with the Dreamtime. Protecting this immense heritage is a very worthy cause, and one which unites the members of AURA.
R. G. Bednarik
The home-page of the Australian Rock Art Research Association, Inc. (AURA)