To cite this page: Tan, Noel Hidalgo (2020, updated 11 March 2023) Rock Art of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian Archaeology. Available at: https://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/rock-art-of-southeast-asia/
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Rock art is a particular research interest and specialty of mine. Despite perceptions to the contrary Southeast Asia has a surprisingly high number of rock art sites – they are found in almost every country in the region. A simple of definition of rock art is that they are man-made markings created on natural rock surfaces. Rock art can come in several forms, the most common being rock or cave paintings. In Southeast Asia, they are often found in rock shelters and on cliff faces. But ‘art’ is a deceptive term because it can imply some sort of decorative or aesthetic function – using the simple definition of man-made markings, rock art can also include religious rock carvings, such as the Hindu carvings on Phnom Kulen, inscriptions such as the Singapore Stone or the Cherok Tok Kun relics – and to that extent, even modern graffiti. I sometimes consider megaliths to be a form of rock art in that they are a form of marking by way of landscape modification using natural stones. This is not a widely-accepted definition of rock art, but it should be noted that some megaliths in Southeast Asia are also decorated with carvings and paintings.
One of the most difficult aspects of studying rock art is properly attributing dates to them. Rock art is traditionally difficult to date directly and have often been dated in association with other archaeological material found in the site. Sometimes, these associations can be applied across sites – for some reason, almost every prehistoric rock art site in Thailand has the same approximate date of 3,000-5,000 years! Iconography is another way of dating rock art: art historical approaches have been used to date Hindu-Buddhist carvings; writing in the form of languages and scripts also give clues about their age; while certain imagery is useful in providing secure terminus post quem dates, such as images of steamships and cars.
Due to the nature of the subjects, rock art dated by iconography is recent and often not older than a thousand years. The most common and most mysterious type of rock art, red paintings, are thought to be prehistoric (even though defining an exact date is problematic) but are typically older than living memory. In more recent years, new techniques in direct rock art dating have been used in Indonesia and East Timor, yielding surprisingly early dates: hand stencil and a pig image in Sulawesi is date to 45,000 years – comparable with figurative paintings in Europe. The age of rock art in Indonesia, along with a large corpus of dated rock art in Australia, all suggest that there is rock art in Mainland Southeast Asia that is at least as old, and probably older.
There aren’t that many books on the rock art of Southeast Asia, and on the study of rock art in general. The list below is my personal recommendation based on what I have in my library, have read, and most importantly, that are available. I should note that there are a good number of books in local languages that are not listed. Newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you can read my personal list of publications and rock art bibliography below. For other sources of information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.
Last update on 2023-11-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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My Rock Art Publications
I first started researching rock art while doing my MA at Universiti Sains Malaysia, at the Gua Tambun site in Ipoh, one of the largest sites in Malaysia. I was an early adopter of the software DStretch, and in my MA thesis (vol 1 and vol 2) I was able to identify over 600 images, as well as work out a relative chronology of the paintings. For my PhD dissertation at the Australian National University, I wrote about the occurrence of rock art sites and religious shrines across Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Besides creating detailed recordings of the seven sites, discuss the various histories of the sites and how they came to be. Some of these sites, such as the Pak Ou Caves in Laos, showed a multiple layers of human activity at the site, while other sites like the Padalin Caves in Myanmar only had very distinct episodes of human occupation.
These days I try to document at least one rock art site a year and conduct a detailed rock art inventory and baseline record. Most recently, I was part of a team to survey and discover new rock art sites in Krabi province, Southern Thailand in 2021 and in 2023 conducted a rock art recording workshop for the National University of Laos to record a petroglyph site in Sainyabouli province. I have been dabbling with a regional rock art inventory and database, as well as experimenting with data-mining to uncover associations within the rock art corpus of Southeast Asia. Here are some of my featured papers and presentations, for a full list, please visit my Academia.edu or ResearchGate pages:
- 2022. Leave a Like and Subscribe: Using Social and Digital Media to Engage Schoolkids and Children of All Ages. In: N Agnew, J Deacon, N Hall, T Little, T Mcclintock, P Robinson, S Sullivan and P Taçon (eds.) Networking for Rock Art: Global Challenges, Local Solutions. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute, 27-28.
- 2021. Coastal Heritage: Exploring Caves and Indigenous Knowledge in the Lanta Bay (Southern Thailand). Journal of Indo-Pacific Archaeology, 45: 25-41.
- 2021. Recent Developments in Rock Art Research in Southeast Asia (2015-2019). In: BAHN, P., FRANKLIN, N. & STRECKLER, M. (eds.) Rock Art Studies (News of the World VI). Oxford: Archaeopress, 146-157.
- 2019. Mainland Southeast Asia: Rock Art. In: SMITH, C. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer.
- 2019. Final Report: Rock Art Record of Lewun Rockshelter, Shan State Myanmar | ြမန်မာိုင်ငံ ှမ်းြပည်နယ် လွယ်၀န်းေဒသ ေကျာက်နံရံပန်းချီလက်ရာ
- 2019. Rock Art in Mainland Southeast Asia. In: CLOTTES, J. & SMITH, B. (eds.) Rock Art in East Asia: A Thematic Study. Paris: International Council on Monuments and Sites.
- 2018. The Cliff Paintings of Pha Taem, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. Rock Art Research, 35, 62-78.
- 2018. Rock art at the cave of a thousand Buddhas, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. Archaeological Research in Asia, 15, 129-136.
- 2016. “What Rock Art?” Stories from Northeast Thailand. In: BRADY, L. M. & TAÇON, P. S. C. (eds.) Relating to Rock Art in the Contemporary World. Boulder, Colorado: University of Colorado Press.
- 2015. The Curious Case of the Steamship on the Mekong. Asian Perspectives, 54, 253-273.
- 2014. Rock Art and the Sacred Landscapes of Mainland Southeast Asia. In: GILLETTE, D., MURRAY, W. B., GREER, M. & HAYWARD, M. H. (eds.) Rock Art and Sacred Landscapes. New York: Springer Science.
- 2014. Rock Art Research in Southeast Asia: A Synthesis. Arts, 3, 73-104.
Southeast Asian Rock Art in the News
Rock Art Bibliography
If you’re interested in reading more about the rock art of Southeast Asia, here’s my extended bibliography of published and available research for your reference. This list is a work in progress – if you have a suggestion for inclusion, please let me know by sending me a message.