By Jean Clottes

Rock art is the most widespread form of art and the oldest. Ancient humans must have practiced dances and music, storytelling, body decoration, and other forms of art, but these, of course, were not preserved. Paintings, engravings, and carvings on rocks, however, have endured throughout the world. These extremely valuable artifacts testify not only to the aesthetic sense of their makers but, above all, to their beliefs, traditions, modes of thinking, and way of life. In fact, the concepts of "art" and "artist" did not even exist in the languages of many cultures—for example, in Australia the images were said to belong to the mythical time called "the Dreaming."

When prehistoric rock art is mentioned, most people think of the painted caves of the Ice Age, such as those at Lascaux and Chauvet in France or Altamira in Spain. Yet Europe is not the continent with the most sites, and more than 99 percent of world rock art belongs to post-glacial times. This does not, of course, detract in any way from its interest and value; a painting by van Gogh is hardly less valuable for being just one and a half centuries old.

Precise dating of rock art is difficult. The chronology of a majority of images remains tentative because we can only radio-carbon-date those made with organic material, such as charcoal or beeswax. The others—engravings, as well as paintings made with minerals, such as iron oxides for the reds—which are more numerous by far, can be assigned dates from the subjects represented (the shapes of known weapons, for example), from comparisons with well-dated rock art, or from archaeological remains found at the foot of rock art panels.

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No one knows exactly how many rock art sites still exist—probably more than four hundred thousand. In Europe, the famed Paleolithic art numbers no more than three hundred fifty sites, from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula to the Urals in Russia. Perhaps fifteen thousand more sites belong to five later traditions: the Levante art in shelters across the east of Spain; schematic art along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts in Spain, and the British Isles; the Fontainebleau Forest art near Paris; the Alpine art in France and Italy; and the thousands of engraved rocks in Scandinavian countries.

Africa is the continent with the most sites, estimated at over two hundred thousand. Sites are particularly numerous in two huge areas: the Sahara and adjacent regions, and southern Africa. Rock art exists in a number of places in the center of the continent, but in lesser quantity. In Asia, one can distinguish five main areas with rock art: the Middle East, Central Asia, India, China, and Indonesia. On that vast continent there may be more than fifty thousand sites.

In the Americas, rock art research has intensified in recent decades. Tens of thousands of sites probably exist from Canada to Patagonia, including more than fifteen thousand in Central and South America alone. They vary from the gigantic ghostly figures of the Barrier Canyon style in the American Southwest to vivid scenes with minute humans in the Serra da Capivara in Brazil.

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Paintings and petroglyphs (engravings) are all over Oceania, with hundreds of sites in Hawaii and on Easter Island. The most important country in the world for rock art, however, is Australia, for three reasons. First, its painted or engraved sites number one hundred thousand or more (the Cape York Peninsula, Arnhem Land, the Kimberleys, and the Pilbara are regions with innumerable and often spectacular paintings and petroglyphs). Second, it is the place with the longest uninterrupted rock art tradition, dating back perhaps fifty thousand years. Finally, unlike elsewhere, in many places in Australia, the indigenous beliefs and stories about the art have passed down to modern times.

Rock art is a major part of our cultural heritage. It is certainly the most ancient. It is also the most vulnerable. The millions of images on rocks constitute a kind of gigantic museum with its works helplessly exposed to the depredations of nature and human activity.

Preservation Problems and Threats

It is doubtful that the creators of rock art gave any thought to what the art would become in time. They chose places for their works in accordance with their beliefs and customs and for all sorts of purposes, such as materializing tribal myths, asserting their presence, or getting in touch with the supernatural and benefiting from its power. Sites with rock art often became sacred, and the images were believed to be the work of the spirits. Sometimes, as in the Kimberleys in Australia, when the paintings eventually faded, people believed that they were losing their potency, and they repainted them to restore their power.

With the passage of time, the works suffered from weathering and other natural phenomena, so that today we have but a tiny part of what ancient peoples created. This is obvious from the absence of paintings on exposed rocks—where only engravings and carvings have survived—while painted images are still present in caves and rock shelters. Nature took its toll even on those works in protected places. For example, the end of the Ice Age ten thousand years ago brought flooding to vast areas. Thus, four-fifths of the wall surfaces in Cosquer Cave in France were destroyed by the Mediterranean; art survived only in those chambers that remained above sea level. If the sea keeps rising, some of the most important paintings in the cave will be gone within a century.

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Over the millennia, natural catastrophes such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and even the slow evolution of the rocks themselves, have caused engraved rocks to split apart or painted cliff faces to collapse. In these instances, nothing much can be done. On the other hand, damage is often due to causes that can be controlled—for instance, when water seeping from cracks runs onto the walls, or when termites or wasp's nests threaten the exposed surfaces.

The greatest threats to the conservation of rock art, however, are human in origin. In most of the world, gradually or catastrophically (on several continents after contact with the first Europeans), traditional beliefs waned, and the art was no longer considered sacred or even valuable. This development had two consequences. The first was the loss of the stories—what the images meant for their makers and their culture, and what ceremonies took place around them. When all this went, the art lost its life and depth. The images may be beautiful and strike a chord in modern beholders, but the complexity of their meanings has vanished. Whenever the stories have come down to us from parts of Australia, Africa, and the Americas, we are amazed at what they reveal about the spiritual life of their creators.

The second consequence of the disappearance of traditional beliefs is that the art, no longer respected and valued, becomes more vulnerable to modern development. Innumerable examples exist of rock art sites flooded by dams, cut across by roads, or destroyed by buildings or by the extension of agriculture. When huge economic and social interests are at stake, especially, but not only, in developing countries—and in the absence of strong religious or cultural opposition to the projects—the perceived value of rock art becomes negligible.

Even when the art itself escapes outright destruction, pressure can be strong to develop the surrounding area and thus change the context of the art drastically. Rock art is part of the landscape, which often plays a major role in its meaning. Even modern tourists sense this when they experience the art in its natural environment. Extracting an engraved rock and putting it into a museum is like cutting off a gargoyle from a cathedral and exhibiting it singly. Would we consider that due respect is shown to a medieval cathedral or to the Taj Mahal if we did not destroy them but nevertheless allowed them to be surrounded by factories or commercial malls?

In the past twenty years, more and more people have become aware of the existence of rock art. This awareness could serve to enhance its value and facilitate its protection. At the same time, the explosion of tourism has created new threats. Too many sites remain unprotected and vulnerable to the ever-increasing floods of visitors. Under such circumstances, protecting rock art and its environment is challenging. How can one prevent irresponsible tourists or locals from making graffiti, enhancing figures for photographs, removing artifacts, and sometimes even stealing engraved rocks to collect or sell, often after damaging them and their surroundings, as is currently occurring, for instance, in parts of North Africa?

In most countries, adequate laws exist to protect the rock art and other archaeological remains. Unfortunately, in the absence of public pressure, they are often not enforced, and nothing happens when destruction occurs. In other instances, the laws are superseded by economic and political interests, as in the construction of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam in China. The example of the proposed Foz Côa dam project in Portugal is unique; in 1995, after the discovery of thousands of petroglyphs along the banks of the river, the Portuguese government, under public pressure, abandoned the project and turned the whole site into a protected area.

Current Preservation Efforts

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A major fight for the preservation of a huge rock art region is currently under way in the remote Burrup Peninsula of northwestern Australia, where a mammoth industrial plant is planning to expand after investing billions of dollars. Up to ten thousand Burrup engravings have already been destroyed or moved to another area as a result of industrial activity. Not so long ago, there would have been little discussion: industry would easily have won over art. What is new is that a powerful movement to protect the heritage and relocate the industry, not the petroglyphs, is gaining strength.

On all continents, associations of people interested in rock art fight for its preservation and recognition, initiating or supporting conservation actions, as in the Burrup case. Most of them are grouped in the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations.

Preservation efforts differ, according to the nature of the sites involved. Painted caves are easy to deal with. Nearly all are closed, and their access is restricted. In Europe (mostly in France and Spain), thirty-five caves are open to the public to allow people to satisfy their interest in rock art. After decades of limitless visits to the most famous (Altamira and Lascaux) and the damage that resulted, those caves were closed, and strict regulations were set for the ones that remained accessible; their climate is monitored and the number of visitors is strictly limited.

To preserve some of the better known and vulnerable rock art sites, faithful substitutes have been made. Over the past thirty years, more than two hundred thousand people a year have visited the replica of Lascaux, called Lascaux II. In Spain, the replica of Altamira enjoys even more success. The excellent Prehistoric Art Park of Tarascon-sur-Ariège in the French Pyrenees, with replicas and photos of rock art found in the area, opened in 1995. Other projects are under way, including one in the Ardèche in southeastern France, focused on Chauvet Cave. An ambitious museum and documentation center at Teverga, near Oviedo, Spain, which will feature European Upper Paleolithic rock art, is to open in 2007.

When rock art sites number in the hundreds in an extensive area, it is sometimes possible to protect the whole area rather than individual sites. Five examples—all on the World Heritage List of UNESCO—come to mind because of the excellence of the art and the efficiency of its preservation.

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In northeastern Brazil, the Serra da Capivara National Park includes four hundred fifty painted shelters. The park is entirely fenced, and guards monitor its entrances. The environment—flora and fauna included—is as well preserved as the art itself. In Mexico's Baja California, accompanied by local guides, one can visit the rock art sites of the Sierra de San Francisco with a special permit from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. In northern Australia, Kakadu National Park occupies an extensive part of Arnhem Land, and some of its best sites are monitored by rangers. Foz Côa in Portugal is guarded and can be visited only by appointment, with guides provided by the site's documentation center. The thousands of petroglyphs of Alta in northern Norway are within the bounds of a specially built museum. Visitors can easily see and photograph them along wooden passageways that do not detract from the natural surroundings. Other examples of efficient protection of art exist in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania (see sidebar).

The environmental, geographical, and cultural conditions of rock art are so varied that no fixed, intangible rules are applicable to all. For example, in Scandinavia, the art is scattered over thousands of accessible sites, only a small percentage of which are marked and provided with information panels. Since weather is overcast for long periods in this region, many visitors cannot photograph or even see the petroglyphs. To avoid visitor frustration and destruction from visitors rubbing the images with a stone or with chalk to enhance the art, curators used to paint the most visited petroglyphs in bright colors, using biodegradable paint—a method that seems shocking because it runs counter to the principle of not touching the art. After being criticized, curators in several areas abandoned this approach. Unfortunately, this choice led to new damage to the art.

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All rock art sites open to visitors are in danger of vandalism. When the art cannot be physically protected, as are the painted caves, or watched over by guards, one must appeal to visitors' sense of responsibility and take whatever measures may diminish risks. Stone pathways, or even inexpensive symbolic protections like ropes between poles, are used in many places to contain visitors to prevent them from getting dangerously close to the art, and from trampling fragile archaeological surfaces.

Steps for the Future

Despite all the good work, huge losses to our rock art heritage are foreseeable. As a consequence, we must apply our efforts in two directions: first, to better protect the art and eliminate or at least significantly diminish the impact of natural and human destructions; and second, to safeguard knowledge of the art in case the worst should come to pass.

Education and knowledge are essential, including relentless educational efforts directed at the general public, along with pressure on governments and decision makers to provide and above all enforce legislation for the protection of the art. These are the aims.

As for promoting recognition of the immense cultural value of rock art worldwide, one way is to propose major rock art sites for the World Heritage List of UNESCO, thus bringing the sites into the international limelight. To get on the list, a site must not only be exceptional but also well preserved and well managed. The burden is on the governments of the states where the art is located if they wish to gain the coveted honor and reap the economic benefits.

With the increase of rock art tourism, special efforts should be made to partner with tour operators and guides, as well as with local populations, who are better able than anyone to preserve the art and become custodians of the site. The cultural value of the sites is reinforced by linking preservation of the sites to a community's economic prosperity. A good example of this is the management of visits to the rock art of Baja California, which are handled by paid local guides. Workshops for those directly engaged in rock art management and conservation are another practical step to be encouraged.

Last but not least is the problem of data collection and the preservation of knowledge. UNESCO's World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) have started work on assessing rock art in Central and South America, before doing so in other continents. The situation of databanks is extremely disparate, from countries where hardly any information on the art is recorded, to others where the art is systematically registered by official or semi-official departments. As to the ethnology of the art, when any exists, it is rarely recorded in the same way as the images.

Also lacking is a world rock art museum. Such a museum would serve several purposes. First, it would constitute a growing archive for the future. Second, it would act as a fount of information on how to collect and store data—adapted to the economic conditions of the various countries, from the most sophisticated methods (e.g., laser recording in 3-D) to the most economical (e.g., tracing by nondestructive methods). Third, it could be a center for training researchers, managers, rangers, and guides. Fourth, a rock art museum could make rock art panels from around the world available for public viewing; current replication techniques (e.g., holograms, 3-D, laser, and photogrammetry) offer the possibility to create life-size replicas of tremendous quality, such as the ones at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, and Teverga.

Taken collectively, the above measures could advance preservation of rock art while raising the awareness of one of the most spectacular cultural achievements of humankind.

Jean Clottes, a leading expert on rock art, has authored or edited twenty-three books and more than three hundred fifty articles on prehistory and prehistoric art.

Some of the better-protected rock art sites include (but are by no means limited to):

Tassili n'Ajjer, Algeria

The Drakensberg, South Africa

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Range Creek, Utah, USA

Helan Shan, Ningxia, China

Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India

Naquane and Luine parks, Valcamonica, Italy

Mercantour Park, Alpes-Maritimes, France

Rio Martín Park, Aragon, Spain

Laura area, Cape York, Australia