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It’s time rock art was better protected

17 August 2016

Rock art consists of human made marks on natural rock – paintings, stencils, prints, engravings, bas-relief, and even designs made of beeswax. It is found worldwide in caves and rock shelters, on rock platforms and boulders. These are special, often spectacular places that reflect ancient experience, identity, history, spirituality and relationships to land.

In June and July I spent several weeks locating and recording previously undocumented rock art with Traditional Aboriginal Owners in a remote part of northwest Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. Paintings, stencils and small figures made from the wax of native bees were rediscovered at 160 locations, more than doubling the known number of rock art sites in the process. When I asked the Aboriginal men we were working with what would happen if their sites and images were damaged or destroyed, they unanimously responded by saying that it would physically and psychologically hurt them, their children, their future and future generations. I have heard similar things from Aboriginal people in many parts of Australia over the past 35 years and have also witnessed Indigenous Australians moved to tears when visiting or revisiting particularly important rock art sites. This is because for them these places are like libraries that hold the history and stories of their ancestors, ancient experiences and lessons about the land.

Vandals scratched out a hand stencil at an important Aboriginal site in Tasmania. Photo: courtesy Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

But all rock art is increasingly at risk of being damaged or destroyed. The recent deliberate scratching of a hand stencil site in Tasmania is but one tragic example: vandals scratched two hand stencils believed to be many thousands of years old in a remote part of the Derwent Valley. Originally part of a set of five hand stencils, the two clearest were selected for ruin. The site and other hand stencil sites like it are extremely important for contemporary Aboriginal people of Tasmania who pass on stories associated with the stencils and their place in the landscape from one generation to the next. Surviving rock art sites are rare in Tasmania; only about a dozen hand stencil sites are well known.

Why would someone do this – desecrate ancient and important cultural heritage? Why does this sort of thing happen in many parts of Australia and across the world? For instance, recently children scratched out and destroyed one of the earliest depictions of someone on skis at a petroglyph (engraving) site in Norway – a rare depiction argued by archaeologists to be about 5,000 years old and a significant part of Norwegian heritage. Apparently they thought they were making it look better! We need to teach people – young and old and throughout the world – to not interfere with or even touch rock art wherever it survives. We also need to develop programmes in which people of all ages and backgrounds can make a difference in rock art preservation and conservation in a non-destructive way, perhaps as site stewards, or getting involved with schools and so on.

On 1 August I began a five year Australian Research Council Australian Laureate Fellowship with funding for a major research project on Australian rock art history, conservation and Indigenous well-being. Australia’s rock art is in peril not only because of graffiti/vandalism but also because of varied development pressures, poor tourist management and several natural impacts. New research is needed to address this. Thus the overall aim of the Laureate research project is to ensure the most precious aspects of tangible heritage that Indigenous people say needs safeguarding – rock art landscapes – are better conserved, appreciated and understood for the benefit of contemporary communities and future generations. This project has three key research questions:

Why are rock art complexes important for Indigenous people and especially for Indigenous well-being?

How can we better conserve and manage rock art landscapes for the benefit of future generations?

Why is there currently little rock art conservation concern in Australia compared to many other countries and why do rock art sites continue to be threatened by economic activity (such as mining, agriculture and infrastructure development) before their economic contribution and social values are evaluated?

Project team members will work in collaboration with Indigenous communities to better protect rock art within its wider cultural landscape, advance rock art conservation science, provide training and develop sustainable models for cultural tourism and rock art. Conservation management plans will be underpinned by new theoretical perspectives, including why some people vandalise or undervalue heritage. The project will generate new protocols and provide new interfaces between scientific, Indigenous, and public views of rock art, as well as fostering and celebrating rock art assets as keystones of national identity.

A major outcome will be the creation of innovative and comprehensive web-based resources in order to assist with education and heritage management, as well as to help increase public and political awareness. Hopefully this will contribute to a better future for world rock art and global cultural heritage in general and lead to the cessation of the scratching out of ancient imagery of vital importance to contemporary people.