Discovering Sarawak rock art

We’re interviewing…



Archaeologist Rachel Hoerman


By Patricia Hului


WHEN IT COMES TO archaeology, we have Indiana Jones to blame if we assume that all archaeologists wear leather jackets and fedora hats while digging up artifacts and fighting villains.

Rachel Hoerman, 32, looks nothing like Harrison Ford but is just as passionate as him when it comes to archaeology, specifically in rock art.

Hoerman has worked in archaeology, an anthropological sub discipline, for eight years and is currently a PhD candidate and lecturer in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Anthropology where she also earned her MA in 2010.

Hailing from Wisconsin, US, she is interested in archaeological approaches to rock art, human origins and migration, as well as rock art conservation and management.

She has participated in field collections and lab-based archaeological research in the American Midwest (Wisconsin), Mesoamerica (Belize, Mexico and Guatemala), the Pacific (Hawai’i, Guam, Western Samoa), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysian Borneo) and Australia.

Rock art may just appear as simple odd-shaped carvings and paint strokes on a cave wall, but archaeologists study them to understand cultural change and the origins of art and belief in this medium that has been produced in various contexts by many civilizations around the world.

Hoerman is currently working closely with the Sarawak Museum Department on rock art found in the southwestern region of Sarawak for her PhD dissertation on the documentation, scientific analysis and long-term conservation of the state’s rock art which could take her at least a year to complete.


Rachel Hoerman in the field.

Rachel Hoerman in the field.


First of all, what is rock art?

Rock art is a human modification of any naturally-occurring fixed and placed stones. They are signs of human art or writing but once you remove the stones from that place and put it in – let’s say – a building, it is no longer called rock art.

How did you get interested in rock art?

I started my academic life as an Art Major. I was making a living as an artist but didn’t think it had a long-term future so I switched to archaeology and moved around in a lot of different topics until I realised I was interested in ancient human creativity. It kind of merged with my own artistic tendency with my academic interest which is ancient human art.

Why did ancient humans create rock art?

People used to really look for a general explanation that would explain the practice. I was working in Australia with a traditional landowner who was talking about rock art as their storybook, so it is something people used to keep track of time, to record legends.

It could be from somebody hanging out in a rock shelter to something really sacred.

Why did you choose Sarawak to study rock art?

Because the research questions here are really fascinating…because there is such a long history of human habitations that we know for sure.

So the possibility to find rock art from a variety of time periods exists – which is exciting – but also because nobody else has researched it intensively.

There are a lot of interesting possibilities.

Can you pinpoint how old the rock art is?

It would be awesome to be able to assign them a time-frame because archaeologists love being able to order things, but rock art is notoriously difficult to date, and people very rarely have been able to put a date on there.

It is really difficult to date using radio carbon or uranium series dating, although there have been some success in Southeast Asia in doing it.

What is so enticing and exciting about Borneo specifically is that we know people were here 46,000 years ago because of Niah cave.

While Niah’s cave paintings have not been dated, the cranium of a modern human discovered at the site has been dated to 46,000 years ago and is some of the earliest evidence for the modern human occupation of Southeast Asia.

Walk me through your research process.

Ninety-nine per cent of the research process is in the library and the archives here at the museum. Many times the local people are really great informants on the archeology, but many times people don’t report their discoveries to the museum or to the authorities.

A lot of it is spent doing background research and trying to understand the history that when I get to a site and see a hole, I’m like, that was dug up in 1960s or something like that.

Ninety-five per cent of it does not involve Indiana Jones kind of work. I say five per cent of it is the Indiana Jones’s stuff which completely validates your existence as an archaeologist.

What do you think are the best practices in rock art site management?

I think the best practices are highly individualised plans that look at the rock art phases, as well as the present condition of rock and its environmental condition.

There is no great answer for that because each site is so different. At a coastal site, for example, the biggest challenge typically will be water moving back and forth whereas maybe at a cave site where it is isolated, it is mostly an environmental challenge because it takes such an effort to go up there.

It really depends on where the site is located, who accesses it and what accesses it. In South Africa, they have problems with animals rubbing up against it.

In your opinion, what do you think the public should know and do about rock art?

I think responsible tourism is the probably the best. Leave no trace, do no harm and enjoy it: Enjoy the fact that it is there, appreciate it for what it is such as evidence of human variety and other civilizations in the past.

Keep the site clean, respect the authority’s efforts to keep it preserved. Appreciate the fact you can access it as a member of the public.

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