By Neville Agnew

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As we grapple with preserving art from our own time, produced often with ephemeral materials, the challenge remains of preserving humanity's oldest art, made often with the most enduring of materials. We call it art—rock art. Certainly, as art, it is frequently powerful. Nobody would deny the strong aesthetic sense of the finely depicted figures and animals painted or engraved on rock surfaces. Nor can we imagine that the artists were unaware that they were creating beauty. But mystery and enigma of meaning are there, too. The art was, it seems, not necessarily or, indeed, ever made as art only for art's sake.

Rock art is found everywhere in the world—in rock shelters in Mexico, on rocks under the blazing Sahara sun, and in deep limestone caverns in France and Spain. When the Palaeolithic art of Lascaux was discovered in 1940, the world was stunned by the artistic power of the images. Increasingly, other European rock art dating from around 15,000 to 30,000 years ago is being found, most recently on engraved rocks that stud the Côa Valley of Portugal. This site was catapulted to international attention by a fight between preservationists and those who proposed construction of a dam that would submerge the sites. The government subsequently canceled the project.

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Vast amounts of rock art have survived without the benefit of controlled environments and the solicitous attention of museum specialists. Much must have been lost, but over thousands of sites survive in the Americas, Australia, Africa, Europe, and Asia. The sheer volume of rock art and its diversity of form—from superbly realistic depictions to stylized abstract forms to complex geometric patterns—tell of the human urge to create that runs as an unbroken strand back into prehistory. The hand stencils typical of some Australian sites are also found near Marseilles in the Palaeolithic cave of Cosquer, cut off by the rise of sea level after the last Ice Age and now accessible only by scuba divers. Such are the commonalities of human expression.

Paintings and rock engravings must have been intensely personal to the artist and the clan and were often secretly located to serve an inward vision. No evidence of individual identity in the artists' work is found, though clearly, to our eyes, the skills of individual artists varied. Like all ancient painting and much other art, there is no indication of a desire to leave any personal identifying mark.

Unlike other antiquities, rock art is not collected and has not become a high-value commodity—yet. Perhaps this is because it is not easily removed, and, intransigently, it often fractures and crumbles when efforts are made to do so. It is integral with the landscape and belongs there. And although attempts, always illegal, are sometimes made to remove particularly appealing panels, more usually the art is vandalized through ignorance.

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The long existence of rock art is in contrast to much contemporary art, which already poses a conservation quandary for the curator, collector, and conservator. The March 1998 Getty Conservation Institute conference entitled "Mortality Immortality? The Legacy of 20th-Century Art" focused on the issues of ephemeral, degradable, and incompatible materials used with great élan by today's artists, who seize upon the myriad new products in experimental and novel ways to create their art. For the primeval painters of rock art, only natural pigments (red, brown, and black ochers), white clays, and charcoals, mixed sometimes with blood, fat, or plant juices as binders, were available. Perhaps most unusual of rock art materials is beeswax, found in a few instances in Australia—the ancients were radical experimentalists with their materials, too! Made with these basic and natural materials, vast amounts of art have endured. But now, tragically, much is being lost through development, vandalism, and misguided attempts at saving the art. Among the harmful practices are wetting rock paintings to temporarily enhance colors—would you throw water on the Mona Lisa?—applying coatings intended to protect, and chalking engraved rocks.

What the art meant to its makers and what we think it might have meant are two very different matters—the subject often of hot debate. Research groups like the Rock Art Research Centre of the University of the Witwatersrand under David Lewis-Williams have developed persuasive interpretations of the San art of southern Africa, based on shamanic and trance experience, that show that the intent was to influence the world: to make rain, to heal the sick, to ensure success in the hunt. The difficulty of interpreting ancient rock art is illuminated by Professor Lewis-Williams's oft-quoted example: how would a person quite alien to the canons of Western religious art view, say, da Vinci's The Last Supper? Of the 13 men at a meal, there is no hint that one is divine, only that he is the focus of the painting. Without knowledge of the symbolism and the narrative point—Jesus announcing that one of his disciples will soon betray him—how could accurate and meaningful interpretation be made?

We face the same problem with rock art. Is this simply a hunting scene? A dance? With the San art, clues are sometimes there: enigmatic lines connect figures, which themselves may have hooves or, more obviously, antelope heads. To aid interpretation, there exists a vestige of ethnographic record. In the 1870s, the German philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd interviewed the last of the San in South Africa, recording more than 12,000 pages of lore. The metaphor for the visionary experience of trance dance has been vividly recorded in recent times by ethnographer Richard Katz in an interview with Kxao # Oah in the Kalahari: "God keeps my eyeballs in a little cloth bag. . . . And now when I dance, on the nights that I dance and when the singing rises up, God comes down from heaven, swinging the bag with eyeballs above my head, and he lowers the eyeballs to my eye level, and as the singing gets strong, he puts the eyeballs into my sockets and they stay there and I heal. And when the women stop singing . . . he removes the eyeballs, puts them back in the cloth bag, and takes them up to heaven."

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No such expressive records exist for most of the rock art of extinct cultures elsewhere in the world, although in the art of the U.S. Southwest, use of the ethnographic record is developing and shows that many motifs derive from trance visions. Parallels exist: in the Southwest, it was the bighorn sheep that the shaman associated with the power of rainmaking; with the San, it was the eland, the largest of all African antelope.

Another startling parallel in the rock paintings of Australia, Africa, and Mexico's Baja California is superimposition on earlier art. This is so antithetical to our notions, given the aesthetic quality, as to seem baffling. Only when we realize that what was important to the artist was the act of creating, for the purpose of the moment, does the overpainting begin to make sense.

As counterpoint to the explosive artistic energy of the 20th century, we would do well to remember the astonishing legacy of art on the canvas of primeval man. One month after the "Mortality Immortality," conference, the GCI, with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Rock Art Research Centre of the University of the Witwatersrand, opened an exhibition in Washington, D.C., "The Painted Rocks of Africa: Other-World Visions of the San." The success of this exhibition underscores a growing appreciation of rock art among the public, as well as its potential educational message.

The GCI has long been involved in rock art preservation. Over the last decade, the Institute collaborated with the University of Canberra on a rock art conservation course, held training courses at native American Chumash rock art sites in California, and undertook a project on the rock art of Baja California, studying deterioration and developing with Mexican officials and the local community a management plan for this World Heritage area. In June 1998, the GCI began a series of workshops on rock art conservation with the National Monuments Council of South Africa, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, and ICCROM, focused on the 11 southern African countries. Assessment of significance, public awareness, conservation, and training are among the workshop themes. The first meeting was held recently in the Drakensberg region of South Africa, an area rich in San art. Follow-up meetings will occur in other countries—the next being in Zimbabwe in 1999.

In its origins, the "purpose" of all art is to communicate by visual images, as art critic Robert Hughes has noted. Rock art's universality in time and space tells us something about what it is to be human. It reminds us that for the past 40,000 years we have not changed in our essence, that the art of the 20th century is part of this continuum. The need to influence the course of life through the creation of images is one that has persisted—from the artists of Cosquer to those creating now, at the end of this millennium.

Neville Agnew is group director of Information and Communications for the Getty Conservation Institute.