Rock art can be found throughout the world, in great variety—and often in great risk. What are the most serious threats to this ubiquitous form of human creativity? In what ways are these threats being addressed? How important are legislation and education in protecting this heritage? Three professionals with backgrounds in both archaeology and rock art discussed these questions and others with Conservation.
J. Claire Dean, an archaeological conservator in private practice, is a member of the Society for American Archaeology's rock art special interest group, and has served on the board of the American Rock Art Research Association.
Josephine Flood is the former director of the Aboriginal Environment section of the Australian Heritage Commission and the author of a number of books dealing with Australian rock art and prehistoric Australia.
They spoke with Neville Agnew, principal project specialist with GCI Field Projects and head of the Institute's Southern Africa Rock Art Project, and with Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: I think it would be useful to start by defining rock art.
Jo Anne Van Tilburg: Rock art is basically symbols placed on geological elements within the natural landscape—symbols that are agreed to contain evolved or traditional cultural and/or religious meanings.
J. Claire Dean: There are common names for rock imagery, including petroglyphs and pictographs. I also include in this what some have called geoglyphs or ground figures, such as we see in California's Mojave Desert area and elsewhere in the world.
Josephine Flood: I have had to write short definitions for glossaries, and my shortest is "symbolic markings on rock surfaces." A slightly longer one is "symbolic pictures or marks made on a rock surface." One would have to include things like abraded grooves and cupules, which are small, cup-shaped depressions made in a rock surface. These are nonutilitarian. They're often on the walls or ceilings of rock shelters and are the by-products of ritual. In Australia, we do know some of the rituals involved, which might be rainmaking in the case of abraded grooves, or, with cupules, rituals to bring out the life essence from a sacred rock, which arises from the rock as rock dust when the rock is hammered with another rock.
Levin: We find rock art on just about all the continents of the world. Is there another form of art that has the same universality?
Flood: I think it's unique.
Dean: I think, in general, it is.
Neville Agnew: I think the uniqueness of rock art, as a manifestation of human expression, is its deep antiquity and its geographical universality. It's the essence of human expression in various forms and ways over the entire span of human existence and in every part of the world. I do think that the word art is sometimes misleading. Rock art, although often beautiful, is actually more art as in the word artifact.
Dean: The use of the word art is something I have a particular beef about, and this comes directly from the folks that I work with. The tribal elders in the region where I live in the Pacific Northwest asked me not to use that term, because they find it offensive. That is the case elsewhere, although dislike of the term is not universal. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the word art for this type of work and use the term imagery instead, partly in deference to my elders but also because my work has taught me that there is something else here.
Levin: How much of what we would call rock art exists today in places where it still has meaning or function for native peoples?
Dean: It all has meaning and function to somebody. We underestimate how much of it is still in use. I work mostly in North America, and I would say that the bulk of it is actually of importance and of use to some native peoples somewhere. The imagery may not have been made by their cultural group—it may have been made by a group no longer there—but they consider it to be important and sacred.
Flood: In Australia what we would call rock art is still being made, which is quite exciting. The last rock painters have died—however, when people visit a site that has meaning for them, they tend to leave what you might call a visiting card in the form of either a hand stencil or, in soft rock, of abrasion and rubbing of a groove. That is the mark that they have been to the site. I really prefer the word markings to rock art because it encompasses the whole field. Art is an alien concept to Aboriginal Australians. There is no word for art in any of their two hundred fifty languages. There are words for paintings and engravings but not for art or markings in general.
Van Tilburg: I wish in a way we had never coined this term rock art. Art, in my definition anyway, is subjective self-expression. I don't believe that most of what we see in rock art is subjective self-expression. It's more of a shared expression of that which binds people to a community and to a place, and as such it becomes or encompasses the larger, collective symbology.
Levin: Well, for the purposes of this conversation, I'll stick with rock art, since that's the term most commonly used. I'd like to address the nature of the major threats to rock art around the world. Obviously these can differ from place to place, but are the major threats primarily natural or human?
Van Tilburg: At Little Lake, a very large site that we've been working on for some time in the Owens Valley in California, the land itself is protected, and therefore, human intervention, in a destructive way, is sharply limited. There are, of course, natural threats to the continued integrity or existence of the rock art.
Dean: Unfortunately, dealing with vandalism and human impact takes up most of what I do. Sites worldwide are, of course, subject to natural deterioration, unless they've been removed from the outdoor environment and brought inside. Even if we put a structure over a site to protect it, we're not completely sealing it in. The natural environment is ever present. Folks forget that often the very places that images are located in—a rock shelter or a cave or a cliff—were formed by and were subject to natural deterioration before the images were created. That natural deterioration is continuing. There are limited things we can do to mitigate it. It's often inappropriate and frankly pointless to try to stave off natural deterioration.
Agnew: It is indeed futile in the long term to try to stave off deterioration, but it's still incumbent on us to find ways to slow rates of deterioration, which can vary enormously. One of the things not adequately studied is the rate of deterioration of rock art.
Dean: Yes, there are ways to attempt to mitigate natural deterioration—and they are called for—but overall it is going to continue despite efforts to stop it. The human threat is the biggest and growing one, particularly vandalism. But there's other deterioration that takes place at sites, such as simple wear and tear as people visit. It's not intentional—it's what comes with the territory when folks visit sites in large numbers. And there's the growth of things such as ecotourism. We've got cases of visitors being brought to sites where there have not been good management plans.
Flood: Our Australian sites suffer badly from natural causes. As for human activity, we have extremely good legislation in Australia, on a state-by-state basis, which provides blanket protection for all rock art sites. We also have developed education programs, which we've done through film and written materials in schools and elsewhere, to teach people the value of it. There has been almost no graffiti in Australia since the 1960s or 1970s. But the problem we've got now is that because of education and the legislation with heavy penalties, people have gone back and tried to rub out their names written on a site. We've had some damage there. But human activity mostly is not a problem in Australia. I've been shocked as to how poor your legislation is in North America.
Dean: We have legislation in the United States, but part of our problem is enforcing it: having enough rangers to patrol places and having judges and district attorneys willing to back cases and prosecute them. In some areas we can get cases brought to court fairly regularly. In others, it's near impossible. We need a lot more education for the general public. In areas where education has been done locally, it makes a difference.
Van Tilburg: If we approach the problem of conservation from a preventative point of view rather than from a reactive point of view, then we might think about rock art as if it were a collection in an outdoor museum. If we took the approach that we have a body of work worth protecting, and we're the curators of it—we would then need to do a kind of risk management assessment. We would have to look at what this collection consists of and evaluate the threats it faces, then create an action plan. To do that, we have to quantify and prioritize risks, and then we have to allocate scarce public resources to the protection of this collection. In order to do that, we have to have the public on our side. The public has to be educated as to the value of this collection.
Agnew: I'd like to go back to Josephine's observation that education has been effective in Australia. Is this a focus in the schools? Or through media? And who funds this type of education?
Flood: I worked for the Australian Heritage Commission, and this is one of the things we tried to do. Our Aboriginal studies included educational modules written on conservation, heritage protection, and rock art. We got those into the schools, but also out at the sites themselves, because there are always people whom the message hasn't reached. Many of our sites are not in national parks and are very open to damage. What we do is to put a lengthy sign on site, which describes the site's significance and says firmly, Please Do Not Touch. In many cases we put a little rope barrier in front of the site—anyone could step over it, but visitors tend to police one another. There are all sorts of things you can do to increase public awareness without spending vast amounts of money. Of course, things like heritage programs on television are really important.
Agnew: Were those funded by the Australian Heritage Commission?
Flood: Some, yes, but educational authorities—and we have an authority in each state that is responsible for the preservation of these sites—have done a lot, as well. Producing kits for schools has been one of the most effective things.
Van Tilburg: When it comes to the allocation of scarce public resources, the American public, at least, isn't happy having their resources allocated to sites they're not allowed to visit. The public's capacity to participate in the educational effort of preservation may be limited in part by some of the legislation that has been enacted.
Dean: I don't think it's the legislation. I think it's agencies not having enough resources to do education and to provide the necessary protection. The other way to protect a site—make it out of bounds—doesn't always work. I travel all over the country so I've seen things happening in different places in different ways. What works in some cases can be tried elsewhere, and it won't work at all. Why that is the case is never very clear.
Levin: Is involving local communities one of the approaches that's more universally effective in protecting a site?
Dean: It's been demonstrated in many places that local involvement makes an enormous difference. A number of states in the U.S. have a site-stewards program. I think the first one was set up by Peter Pillis in Arizona [Arizona Site Steward Program], and it's made a huge difference to the condition of Arizona sites. And most of the people who are doing site stewardship work are not culturally connected to the sites that they're looking after. They invest time in a place, they feel they have a stake in it, and the idea of protecting it becomes central. Of course there are places where putting in a site-steward program is extremely difficult because many of these sites are out in the boonies, and you can't find volunteers who can check a site. It's not that easy because of distances and access issues. In North America, too, this business of access runs smack into some concerns of native communities who have some strong opinions about who should take care of sites, how they should be cared for, and whether there should be access at all.
Levin: Josephine, is public access an issue in Australia, where so many sites have continued significance for native peoples?
Flood: If sites are on Aboriginal land, you have to get special permission, so access is controlled by the traditional owners or custodians. Some sacred sites are closed to visitors but Aboriginal owners are proud of their rock art and keen to have some sites open to visitors with their own people employed as guides and rangers. In each region in Australia we have certain sites that are open to the public, especially in large national parks and in small regional parks. They are well set up for visitors with signs and the National Trust–style step-over barriers. You can't have rangers at every site, so we use education of the public and also informative signs at the site, which tell you what to do and what not to do. People tend to educate one another, particularly if you get to the youngsters and teach them in school to look after their cultural heritage.
Van Tilburg: I think the difference between the U.S. and Australia, perhaps, is that a lot of rock art, in California at least, is on land not open to the public for any reason. So we don't have many opportunities in California to offer the public organized, educational, and holistic presentations of what individual sites are about and their value to the community. For example, the California Department of Transportation plans to set up a public display area in San Diego County describing historical attractions available to visitors. Among those attractions are rock art sites. They would like to have images from the UCLA Rock Art Archive that describe sites located on public land, protected, and available to visit. We started doing some research, and do you know how many of those sites there are? Hardly any. So I think we need to produce more and more accessible information. We need to enlarge the strategies we have for asking the public to invest in site preservation. We all have to understand that if we're going to use public funding to protect rock art sites, we have to provide limited but reasonable public access.
Dean: As I understand it, the original mandate for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management did not really include recreation. It was economic. The use of the land has changed since those agencies were formed, and so we've perhaps got a situation where we have agencies trying to educate themselves because their traditional mandate has been to manage the land for reasons different from the ones they're being asked to consider at this point. The U.S. National Park Service is a little different, because Park Service land has had public access.
Van Tilburg: I agree. The National Park Service has good models for how to do the sort of thing that we want to see done—open some sites for educational purposes, provide site stewards, and involve the local community, including a native community with ethnographic connections to the site. We have to think in terms of adapting models from other types of archaeological sites to rock art sites.
Dean: Certainly the tribal groups that I work with would have grave concerns about increasing access to sites on federal or state land that are culturally associated with their groups. I know no one is suggesting that people be excluded, but I think it's an area where there would be a lot of resistance for many reasons, both cultural and historical. It's something that we have to seriously consider.
Levin: We've talked about some of the strategies that have been effective: local community involvement, general education, and installation of modest barriers at sites. Are there other strategies that have been effective?
Flood: As I've said, public education has been incredibly important in Australia. We have good legislation in each state, but what really prevents people at remote sites from cutting out rock art and selling it or taking it away for themselves are the programs on television and the education in schools about how this is illegal and wrong, and that there are heavy penalties. When cases do come up, which fortunately are rare, the media give them a lot of publicity. The media are on our side on this one.
Dean: In North America, looted rock art is a problem. If you talk to law enforcement agents who work these cases, they'll tell you there is a black market for rock imagery, and there have been prosecutions and apprehensions for the sale. It is completely illegal when it is taken off federal land and state land. There is also, I believe, some legislation that protects Native American religious sites [Protection and Preservation of Traditional Religions of Native Americans]. One of the problems that we have in prosecuting cases is that sometimes we're asked to come up with a market value for the stolen materials, which is difficult to do when the market is illegal to start with.
Agnew: Do we have any idea what people are paying for looted items?
Dean: I get asked that question, but I have absolutely no idea. It's probably something that I ought to know, but I find it so abhorrent, I have not chased it down. There are a couple of agents within the federal service who deal with that question, and I usually refer people to them.
Van Tilburg: One protection for archaeological sites in general, and rock art sites in particular, is designation as a National Historic Landmark. From there, interested property owners or community groups may be eligible for Save America's Treasures or other funding. At least one of the largest petroglyph sites in California is on the National Historic Landmarks list. However, it is time-consuming and expensive to put together the background information required to have a site named a national landmark. It takes a lot of energy to make it happen. But the various regional offices of the Park Service are very open to working with community groups and individuals to raise archaeological or rock art sites to the status of a national landmark.
Dean: That's a great idea, Jo Anne, but I think that Josephine has nailed it—it's general education that is needed.
Van Tilburg: Educating the public in the United States has been a topic of conversation among rock art researchers since I became involved in the field in the 1970s. We continue to request this kind of thing from agencies, educators, and other organizations. We continue to provide information to the public schools. But it's not on the radar of most educators, and for good reason. Most of them are in urban areas and are dealing with issues they feel are more pressing. So it behooves people working in rock art to find a way to make it relevant to the contemporary world. One way to do that is to take it out of the realm of secret information, in terms of site locations, and bring it into the full light of day. Rock art speaks to the universal. It is the one artifact that can be visible to the public and speak to the public. Dirt archaeologists learned in the 1960s that in order for archaeology to thrive, the public needed to be brought into the loop. Archaeology, in general, has benefited from that. Rock art has always been an avocational field, a place where people who had a peripheral interest in archaeology became experts in rock art. Now rock art is being brought back into the realm of archaeology—and also into art and art history.
Agnew: I'm pleased to hear you say that rock art is being brought back into the realm of archaeology. I actually think that archaeologists have ignored it, despite the fact that rock art is of the archaeological record. Archaeology enjoys much public cachet but rock art doesn't, and yet rock art has its own visual glory, often capable of speaking directly to the human experience.
Dean: I was a dirt archaeologist before I became a conservator, and I think one reason that archaeologists ignored rock art is that you weren't able to analyze it in a physical way like the materials that archaeologists traditionally find—you couldn't date it and you couldn't weigh it. Rock imagery is something we just didn't do, and so it became art history. Of course, the pure art historians took one look at it and said, "No, thank you."
Flood: In Australia, rock art is studied as part of archaeology. I started as a dirt archaeologist, but when I began working on Aboriginal sites, the two things were regarded as closely linked. The integrated approach works best. Rock art studies being taught in universities are closely linked with archaeology, which means that archaeologists get interested in the preservation of rock art sites.
Dean: I've been working in the U.S. for twenty years, and it's definitely better now in terms of the involvement of archaeologists. There has never been a time when we've had more graduate students in archaeology programs wanting to do rock image studies of one form or another. Interest has increased, thanks to the work of many people.
Van Tilburg: At UCLA, there are few students interested in rock art. But recently, in addition to improved field methods of recording, there are more theoretical bridges between anthropology and archaeology and rock art—more ways in which scholars are using the tools of anthropology and the scientific method to understand rock art.
Levin: How well have we documented the rock art that is out there?
Flood: We have a national archive, which is the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. I was very involved in this when I worked for the Australian Heritage Commission, and we produced forms for recording sites that required detailed information. The institute also has wonderful photo archives, and it keeps the original photos and films in controlled conditions. The Institute was very keen that people use top-quality cameras and films. These archives are now being digitized, but because permission from Aboriginal elders is required before their use, they are not easily available even to bona fide researchers. On the topic of archives, I would like to suggest that perhaps the Getty Conservation Institute could establish an international repository for rock art photographic collections that could rise above state and national politics in countries like Australia.
Van Tilburg: A significant thing about digital resources is that you don't need an international repository, per se. Each institution, no matter where it is located, just needs to have a server once its files are digitized. Access can be given in kiosks anywhere in the world. Someone can, with the proper id, access the files and use them for research or conservation. So the repository doesn't need to be a physical place. The UCLA Rock Art Archive, which was the first such archive at the university level in the Western Hemisphere—if I believe what I was taught as a student—has in its files images and paper files dating back roughly to the early 1920s in California, and other, more limited files from several other states. We've digitized a large portion of that. Recently, when I was at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, we talked about how that museum might work with UCLA and the archive to allow this kind of kiosk establishment to be set up there, and whether the Smithsonian would be a proper server for that sort of thing. It takes leadership, and obviously the first step is to digitize the files. The technology we use at the archive to digitize files is primarily to preserve them, because they were previously stored in nonarchival conditions. If we were to do it today, we would use different and better technology. You're constantly trying to catch up. In my opinion, the best solution is to have this material on a server, internationally available to researchers. This is what must be done for this material to be useful.
Dean: One problem is that we have no standards for recording. You basically pick and choose, and this can make it difficult to use the data and do any comparison work. We're also shortchanging our resource because we don't have standardization. In one project that I'm in the middle of writing up right now, the same site has been recorded three times by three different groups of people. You'd think it was three different sites. You wouldn't realize it's the same darn place until you pull a photograph out.
Van Tilburg: Right, but think back a hundred years or more, to when the Smithsonian Institution sent an army of ethnographers into the field to record the language and customs of indigenous American peoples. There were standards. But you can go into the Smithsonian Institution archives and you'll find that some kept to those standards, recording everything carefully, and others piled everything in a shoebox. Standards are important, but they won't be adhered to by all people, and that can't be the rationale for accepting or rejecting data into an archive. If that were the case, we wouldn't accept anything at the UCLA Rock Art Archive.
Dean: I agree it can't be the rationale, but we should still make some effort to improve the standards for good documentation, and to try to produce some kind of guidelines that eliminate a lot of the problems.
Agnew: We've been talking mainly about North America and Australia but not Europe, where the rock art is in pretty good shape. In Africa, it is not. Africa is one of the great repositories of rock art in the world—in the Sahara, and southern Africa, and in places like Ethiopia, where there is wonderful rock art that is hardly recorded and, I am sure, disappearing as we speak. I would appeal for better cooperation between archives and research institutes to address the global issues of rock art preservation.
Van Tilburg: I like the idea of a neutral place that might be able to call a meeting and explore options that challenge us in the field to rise above territoriality and provincial concerns for the greater good, which is worldwide preservation of this precious heritage.
Dean: That kind of international cooperation could increase general awareness and aid in areas of the world that we haven't talked much about, Africa being one of them. I was recently in Yemen, and there are some extraordinary sites in Arabia. But how many of us have even seen photographs of them? Increasing general awareness and education is necessary to provide protection for this resource.
Van Tilburg: I would note that the Trust for African Rock Art [TARA] is doing something to help in Africa. As for documentation, it is clearly the key to good site conservation. Preservation comes with good information about the nature of the site and an assessment of the risks that it faces.
Levin: One thing we haven't talked about is training in rock art conservation.
Van Tilburg: Maybe Claire can speak to this, but conservation-methods training in rock art is a key issue, I think.
Dean: I couldn't agree with you more—because one day I'd actually like to retire. Our conservation students have to do internships in their training, and I get inquiries from students every year wanting to do internships with me. Sometimes that's possible, but frequently it isn't, because they have to do a yearlong internship, and sometimes I don't have enough work to feed me, so hiring someone else is a little tough. But they're interested. We have to build on that interest, and that's going to take a certain involvement from our conservation training programs. I'm delighted that the UCLA program [the UCLA/Getty Master's Program on the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials] is getting off the ground, but we need more than that. We need the programs back east, which are primarily fine-art based, to take more of an interest. Over the last few years, they have improved the archaeological and ethnographic components of their training, but they need to do more.
Van Tilburg: The UCLA program is in the forefront of introducing the idea of conservation to people who have archaeological backgrounds, and that kind of interdisciplinary cross-pollination is very useful. Once we all have the same vocabulary, we can be on the same page and effectively address these important issues.