Patricia Joan Vinnicombe was born in 1932 in Mount Currie District, East Griqualand.
She grew up in the neighbouring Underberg District at the foothills of the Drakensberg on the farm West Ilsley, KwaZulu-Natal Province where numerous Bushman rock art paintings in the area became part of a world that she came to love from a very tender age.
Patricia's attention to Bushman rock paintings was reflected in her artistic skills that were stimulated while at school where she made copies of paintings. Pat (as she was fondly known) developed these skills and learnt tracing techniques during her time at the University of Witwatersrand where she qualified as an occupational therapist in 1954 (Deacon 2003).
Pat was drawn back to the Bushman images on a ridge behind her parents' farmhouse and to the many others that filled the valleys leading up to the High Berg (Lewis-Williams 2003).
She continued copying the paintings, and she developed and perfected a technique using transparent polythene and watercolour tempera mixed with detergent as a fixative. While working in London as a therapist, Patricia held an exhibition of her work at the Imperial Institute in London in the mid-1950s (Deacon 2003). Encouraged by the response to the exhibition, she developed a more detailed method whereby 23 possible attributes for each image were recorded (Ibid.). This method soon gave Vinnicombe sufficient credibility and support in South Africa to be able to trace paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains (Deacon 2003; Lewis-Williams 2003).
In 1958 with a grant from the Human Sciences Research Council and under the supervision of Mr Berry D. Malan, Secretary of the Historical Monuments Commission, Pat undertook a thorough survey of the Darkensberg to record all the rock paintings within it. Mr Malan suggested that Pat embarked on a programme of numerical analysis, and Dr CA Schoute-Vanneck of the University of Natal guided her in working out a recording programme amenable to punch card analysis. This approach provided a foundation for analyzing the images in all their complexity (Deacon 2003; Lewis-Williams 2003).
Whilst working in the Drakensberg, Patricia met Cambridge archaeologist Patrick Carter, who was excavating in Lesotho and below the escarpment, in KwaZulu-Natal; Patricia and Patrick got married in 1961.
Resident in Cambridge, Vinnicombe was awarded a Research Fellowship at Clare Hall, where she continued to analyse the data she had collected in the Drakensberg.
Edmund Leach, Isaac Schepera and Peter Ucko, amongst others, encouraged Vinnicombe in her work. She was also influenced by anthropological theory in general (Deacon 2003). Pat soon realised that in order to make sense of the numbers she was working with, she would have to explore records of Bushman history, life ways and belief. She worked closely with John Wright to piece together other strands of evidence from twentieth century Bushmen ethnography and historical evidence and corresponded with David Lewis-Williams on the significance of the Bleek and Lloyd archive at the University of Cape Town (Deacon 2003; Lewis-Williams 2003).
In 1967, the editor of the South African Archaeological Bulletin, Mr Ray Inskeep, published the methodology that Pat had devised. Also in 1967, Pat published, in the South African Journal of Science, some preliminary results of her work and suggested that numerical techniques would provide a means of comparing the art in different regions.
The magnitude of Vinnicombe's task is reflected in an astounding 8,478 individual images that she recorded. The 1967 publications marked a turning point in southern African rock art research. Pat's methodology suggested that rock art required more attention and provided rock art researchers with a scientific hold, her new ideas and techniques pointed to a novel direction that would, and indeed did, transform the study of Southern African Rock Art (Deacon 2003; Lewis-Williams 2003).
Vinnicombe's ideas and analytical techniques first bore fruit in 1972 when she published a review of three new books on Bushman rock art in antiquity. In the same year, Pat published, in Africa, her aptly entitled article Myth, motive and selection in Southern African Rock Art in which she launched a new paradigm for the understanding of rock art in South Africa.
It was here that she began to put together San ethnography and rock art. Her emphasis was on the eland antelope, which, as her numerical analyses confirmed, was the most frequently painted subject and the one on which the artists expended most care. These efforts and all her quantitative work and insights came together in her splendid 1976 book People of the eland: rock paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a reflection of their life and thought.
Appropriately, the University of Natal Press published it and the University of Cambridge awarded her a doctoral degree. The book that began a resurgence of interest in Southern African rock art research includes 200 of her extraordinary tracings, reproductions and photographs. Her illustrations in People of the eland are curated at the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzberg and represent a portion of a much larger collection (Deacon 2003; Lewis-Williams 2003).
Vinnicombe and Patrick Carter lived for periods in Ghana and Tanzania. In Ghana Pat participated in rescue excavations organised through UNESCO to document sites that were subsequently flooded by the Aswan dam in Egypt. In 1974 while Patrick was Curator of the National Museum in Dar-es-salaam, Desmond Clark invited him to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, Patrick and Vinnicombe surveyed for rock art sites in the Hadar and Dire Dawa provinces (Deacon 2003).
In 1978 Pat Vinnicombe and her son Gavin immigrated to Australia. In Australia Pat was employed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberraan and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales.
Vinnicombe completed a survey of aboriginal sites and spent several fruitful years in the Sydney region where her cultural heritage management work (particularly in Gosford-Wyong) set the paradigm for subsequent decades of research and Cultural Heritage Management.
In 1980 Pat worked as Research Officer in the Department of Aboriginal sites at the Western Australian Museum in Perth, managing cultural heritage around the metropolitan area. Principally, though, she was concerned with Aboriginal rights, land claims and welfare.
She focused on rock art and material culture, particularly on the Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley and on the Burrup Penninsula. Over the last 20 years, Pat devoted herself fully and selflessly to the interests of the people and this work continued with passionate intellectual rigour. Her integrity and sensitivity to handling conflicts between aboriginal communities and government officials, environmentalists and archaeologists over use of rock art and ritual sites, endeared her to many people.
In 1997, she retired, but continued her work with a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to study ceremonial dancing artefacts (Deacon 2003; Lewis-Williams 2003; Olofsson 2003).
In 2001 Vinnicombe spent 3 months at the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), University of the Witwatersrand where she undertook a joint project to complete the task of working on many of her field copies made in the 1950s and 1960s that were never redrawn.
She began this project cataloguing 868 sheets of tracings with nearly 8500 individual images, breathtaking copies she made some 40 years ago, and had not looked at since she originally made them in the mountains. S
he returned to RARI in 2002 with more copies and was to return again in May 2003 to continue the work. Patricia Vinnicombe died suddenly on March 30 2003 in Karratha, Western Australia, while attending a meeting to assist with negotiations about the management of Aboriginal sites on the Burrup Peninsula. Students, researchers and her many friends will remember Pat for a long time.