Rock Art Studies in Southeast Asia III: Interdisciplinary Interpretation of Rock Art

Programme Category: Archaeology
Type: Workshop
Date: 13-21 January 2014
Venue: Lampang, Thailand


Rock Art is an archaeological term for human-made markings or paintings on rock surfaces, and is mainly divided into petroglyphs and pictographs.  It is still unknown if prehistoric men who created rock art possessed a special status in the communities, such as that of shamans, hunters, pottery makers, etc.  However, they were recognized as prehistoric artists who left mysterious artworks that have been decoded for years.  Most of the rock art paintings are hunting scenes, landscape, geometricsand human hands. Some also represent humans with unusual costumes or humans performing acrobatic movements, believed to be dance performances during religious rituals. Through these paintings, archaeologists hope to understand the prehistoric lives, and have been working hard to interpret the physical and spiritual realms of prehistoric humans.

SEAMEO SPAFA recognises the importance of rock art studies in Southeast Asia, and the Centre organised training workshops in 2010 and 2011 for member countries’ archaeologists and scholars of related fields to increase the knowledge of rock art at sites in the region. The past activities focused on capacity-building in terms of archaeological research, documentation, and site protection and management. Equally significant subjects are site interpretation and awareness-raising, since archaeologists need to be able to interpret rock art, and formulate an explanation about the meaning and significance of rock art sites to the public. In doing so, the public will be more aware and engaged in the protection of the sites.

It is noted that, while rock art is a valuable source of artistic inspiration and a key to understand human society in the past, the significance of rock art as a kind of art form is not well recognised by the general public and visual and performing artists. This may arguably be due to the perception that rock art is a domain of archaeologists.

SEAMEO SPAFA understands that the study of rock art requires expertise from relevant and diverse disciplines, and hopes to address the above-mentioned issues by engaging artists from both the visual and performing arts in an interdisciplinary study of rock art with archaeologists, in order to better understand and appreciate rock art in different contexts, and to create a collaborative project which will be beneficial for raising public awareness.

Background Information

The workshop is based on enquiries into how contemporary artists are inspired by prehistoric art; and how they perceive it from an aesthetic point of view; as well as how archaeologists contribute knowledge of rock art to other academic fields and to the general public.

The activity is seen as an example of how the visual and performing arts can raise public awareness on rock art.


  1. To facilitate visual and performing artists in creating new artwork under the inspiration of prehistoric rock art, in collaboration with archaeologists
  2. To expand rock art knowledge to other academic fields
  3. To raise awareness in protecting rock art sites among the general public
  4. To exchange knowledge between archaeologists and artists

Methods to Achieve Objectives

The 10-day course (12 participants) consisted of introductory lessons on rock art in Southeast Asia as well as fine arts appreciation and interpretation. The group will visit a number of rock art sites in Thailand, and study the different aspects of rock art, including rituals and beliefs related to the sites. After the visits, the group will produce an interpretative project, utilising the various expertise of participants in narrating the meaning of the rock art sites through artwork that can include both paintings or performances.

Target Group/Beneficiaries

Visual artists, performing artists, anthropologists, and archaeologists


Output and Outcome

  1. The first collaboration between artists and archaeologists for site interpretation and protection
  2. Art productions generating more awareness about rock art sites.
  3. Knowledge on rock art studies in Southeast Asia expanded to modern artists and more such artworks in the future. 


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Post-Activity Report

On the 13-20 January 2014, SEAMEO SPAFA held a Rock Art Studies in Southeast Asia (III) Workshop in Bangkok and the northern province of Lampang, Thailand. Lampang was chosen as one of the locations for the workshop due to the province’s fame for producing ceramic goods and its mining operations, as well as Pratu Pha rock art site.

The workshop focused on the interdisciplinary interpretation of rock art with 12 participants from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Participants were artisans who specialized in artistic fields ranging from painting, sculpture, literature, dance performance, and music. The workshop was based on inquiries into how contemporary artists are inspired by prehistoric art and how it is perceived by them from an aesthetic point of view. In addition, participants learned how archaeologists and practitioners of related fields contributed knowledge of rock art to academic studies. The activity was seen as an example of how the visual and performing arts can raise public awareness on rock art.

The first two days of the workshop found the participants in Bangkok where they learned about theories on rock art in various archaeological aspects and artistic expressions. The participants then traveled to Lampang for a six-day excursion and field work, during which they gained inspiration in creating their own original art work from observing the traditional culture of local northern Thai villages.

In Lampang, the artists visited Doi Phakan, and participated in the cultural activities organized by the local villagers of Pong Sanouk Temple. Participants collaborated in creating art work that were eventually exhibited at Pratu Pha rock art site. During the workshop, the organizer facilitated observation and documentation that inspired the artists to interpret messages from the past at the rock art sites in producing creative art work and performances in music, theatre, and dance.

All in all, the 12 participants of the Rock Art Studies in Southeast Asia III Workshop benefited from an informative, yet enjoyable, study of rock art and sharing of perspectives, knowledge and experience.


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