Rock art conservation
Rock art is the principal research resource we have in palaeoart studies, the discipline whose ultimate scientific agenda it is to determine the origins of human constructs of reality. Consequently rock art is among the most important scientific evidence available to the species we call Homo sapiens sapiens: it would appear to be the major component of the corpus of evidence available to us to consider how that species constructed the conceptual artefact we consider to be the world we exist in. It is therefore reasonable to demand that the preservation and curation of this irreplaceable resource be afforded considerably more priority than has been given to it so far. Humanity lavishes billions of dollars annually on its art objects, its art repositories and its art industry. Yet from a scientific perspective the arts of historical periods are of almost trivial significance, at least in comparison to the arts externalising ‘alternative’ ontologies or metaphysical constructs.
Humanity’s efforts in preventing the destruction of the immensely valuable and clearly irreplaceable resource of rock art remain minuscule (Swartz 1981). Loubser (2001: 82-3) points out that the very concern with preserving ‘non-renewable cultural resources’ is a relatively recent result of the expansionist milieu of the 20th century. In the case of rock art, this concern is largely a result of the formation of rock art organisations in most parts of the world over the last few decades. There is a distinct correlation between those parts of the world where such rock art organisations are most active and outspoken, and the geographical areas where government agencies and archaeologists have become most sensitive to concerns about rock art. In the not-so-distant past, government agencies in most parts of the world were quite aloof from these concerns. The present state is one of transition. While in some countries it has become standard procedure to, for instance, conceal rock art under protective covering while excavating sediments below it (Morwood 1994), in a few other countries archaeologists in charge of major rock art corpora continue to blatantly vandalise rock art. When challenged they defend their actions (Jaffe 1996; Swartz 1997a, 1997b), or they are themselves implicated in the destruction of rock art (Arcà et al. 2001). In such a transitional stage it may be useful to consider the currents that contribute to the changes, and to review the direction of the discipline from that perspective. This might give us an idea of the direction in which we are heading.
Sometimes visitors, or readers of books on rock art, are surprised to see how well preserved Australian rock art is, and they assume this is because the traditions are recent. This is only partly true, more Australian than any other rock art is in fact of the Pleistocene. The reasons for its unusually good state of preservation are favourable environmental conditions (climatic, geological and morphological), a considerable geographical remoteness of much of the art, a lack of iconoclastic traditions, and a system of protection that is the envy of the rest of the world. The kinds of practices of some European connoisseurs of rock art, such as physical recording practices, would attract fines ranging from $5000 to $50 000 in Australia, depending on where the offence occurs and on other factors. The vandalistic practices of rock art recorders in some other regions — which include the application of various substances to petroglyphs, the wetting of paintings, and the production of rubbings and casts — have all been phased out in Australia for many years, if indeed they were ever introduced (Bednarik 1990a).
In the state of Western Australia it is even an offence to take a photograph of rock art for publication purposes without permission from the Traditional Custodians. It must be remembered that the rock art of Australia remains the cultural property of the Aboriginal people. Moreover, many rock art sites are sacred and may not be entered by uninitiated people, or by anyone other than initiated males or females, as the case may be. Consequently many of the most spectacular rock art sites of Australia have never been published — and will not be published. All information about them is of restricted access, and is not available at all outside of Australia.
In other cases, sites that are particularly sensitive to damage by human visitors (especially deep limestone caves with petroglyphs) are protected by a system of complete confidentiality about their locations (Bednarik 1990b). Indeed, the locations of some of the best cave art sites in the world are only known to two or three researchers, and their descriptions are published without providing any information about the site’s location. After all, for a site to be scientifically useful, the exact location does not need to be available to other scholars. It is usually adequate to name the district or the general setting for such purposes. There is now a trend in rock art publishing not to reveal exact locations in print. Where well-known sites are involved, even their names are suppressed. There are several reasons for this emerging policy:
1. It keeps casual visitors and sightseers away, especially after reports have appeared in the printed or electronic mass media;
2. Scholarly publications are accessible to the public, and any determined person can search out the appropriate literature;
3. All rock art sites are regarded as the cultural property of the Aboriginal people, and researchers have no right to reveal the locations of these sites;
4. It is fundamentally wrong to assume that a site is ‘safe’ if it is accessible only to scholars. The most pernicious damage to rock art sites is often not that caused by tourists, site vandals, local villagers or children, as is so often claimed. It is by the researchers themselves (Bednarik 1990a, 1990c, 1990d, 1991a).
In general, it is agreed that conservation threats to rock art sites can be divided into two basic types: those that are attributable to human interference of some type, and those of natural deterioration. In practice, however, the two cannot always be separated effectively: a factor of natural deterioration may be indirectly attributable to human modification of the environment. Sometimes the connection may be very obscure, if indeed it can be determined. For instance, ecological imbalances introduced by humans are frequently responsible for new conservation threats. Experience shows that it is judicious to first look for a humanly introduced cause in most instances of rock art deterioration.
This should have been obvious from logic. Most rock art is of a considerable age, and to exist today it must have survived many threats. So older the art, so more potential threats it must have survived, and so higher the expectation that it will survive longer still (Bednarik 1990e). This is because the older art has attained a condition of near equilibrium with its natural environment, which can be threatened only by major environmental changes, or by human intervention. I have shown that therefore the oldest art is proportionally at a greater risk from human interference (Bednarik 1990e).
It follows from this that, as one evaluates the natural conservation threats to a site, one should pay special attention to any possible factors that may appear to be natural deterioration, but are in fact attributable to human agency, however indirectly. For instance, increasing acidity of rainwater (Laver and Wainwright 1995) is attributable to industrialisation. The lowering of environmental pH leads to the erosion of rock varnish deposits formed over petroglyphs. The latter have so far often only survived under a protective varnish layer, and once this is lost the art cannot be expected to survive for much longer. The hydrology of a site may have been changed by human interference, now threatening an art that had managed to survive for a long time. Or morphological modifications of a site have affected its microclimatic regime, resulting in significantly differing environmental conditions which the art has not before experienced, and which poses a serious threat to it. An example is the deforestation which threatens many art sites in India. The removal of trees eliminates a protective shelter, exposes the site to rain, sun and aeolian erosion. At the same time it forces wild bees, who usually construct their hives in hollow trees, to occupy rock shelters instead, thereby damaging art (Tyagi 1991). In Australia it was found that damage by mud-daubing wasps subsided after the eradication of feral buffaloes. The disappearance of the buffalo wallows corrected an environmental imbalance and eliminated the supply of mud (Bednarik 1989). In short, there are many possible threats to rock art by what appear to be natural factors, but which are in reality humanly prompted changes. This is not to suggest that purely natural processes do not present conservation threats, only to say that the incidence of such threats is perhaps significantly smaller than sometimes intimated by commentators.
Melbourne, July 2003
The sub-headings of the introductory section of this site are: