Volume 8, Number 1, Jan. 1986, pp.5-7

Problems in the Conservation and Preservation of Rock Art

by Georgia Lee

Conservation of rock carvings and paintings is a new field, particularly in the western hemisphere. It is of interest to note that there has never been a major conference on this subject in the United States. The work at such sites as Lascaux in France is well known, but in this part of the world little attention has been paid to the rock art left by native peoples.

Rock paintings can technically be treated by the same methods which are used on mural painting, and one art conservator, Constance Silver, has worked on several sites in this country. She is developing various methodologies to mitigate the effects of vandalism, protect the remaining art, and stabilize the surfaces upon which it is applied. As part of the slide presentation made at the recent WAAC meeting, Silver's methodology was discussed, and a recent report she prepared for a state park in Texas was recommended.* Some of the problems discussed in the report include climate control (limited at outdoor sites), wind erosion, bacteria and lichen, rain run-off, mineral accretions, readhesions of detaching plates and the removal of graffiti.

As can be seen, the problems are myriad. The ultimate solution, of course, is to remove the rock art to a climate controlled museum. However, this solution is rarely practical due to the artifact's size, its isolated locations, and the fact that the ambiance of the site context is lost when the artifact is removed.

Sites in the United States have been subjected to damage not only by misguided individuals, but also, at least inadvertently, by government agencies. Dams have flooded rock art sites and target practice at certain military bases has obliterated or damaged rock art sites. Even the Park Service in affixing metal plaques which request that sites not be vandalized, has sometimes made the mistake of chiseling into a panel of rock art in order to affix the plaque.

As development races along here in California, we find that more and more priceless (and irreplaceable) sites are lost forever. Damage is often caused indirectly and usually by the increased numbers of people who come into contact with the rock art sites, who lack an awareness or sensitivity to them. Some ancient sites in California Valley in San Louis Obispo County are right next to oil drilling sites. A toxic waste dump is being planned within a few kilometers of one of the finest remaining sites in the country which is in Kern County.

If adequate funds were available, a greater effort could be made to conserve, preserve, or to move sites to safer locations. The Archaeological Conservancy in New Mexico often acquires sites which are endangered in order to protect them. Once acquired, however, problems such as vandalism will continue unless an on- site curator is present to prevent it.

We are not the only country with this kind of conservation and preservation problem. Rock art is found around the world, wherever rocks and people have come together. Easter Island, in the south Pacific Ocean, is one area where I have been working and the rock art, as well as the giant statues, have suffered greatly from erosion, lichen growth and vandalism. Some of the caves on the island contain large paintings which are in particular danger because water percolates through the cave ceilings. The resulting moisture encourages the formation of a variety of mosses and other growths.

Many field petroglyphs on the island are on lava flow at ground level. People and animals walk on them and the designs are gradually wearing off. Often visitors will chalk the designs for better photographic contrast, or obliging islanders will "score" the grooves with small stones to improve visibility. These practices have done a great deal of damage. In addition, the island plans to build a breakwater using materials from the island for construction. One whole area of basalt would be dynamited in order to utilize the rock and this action would destroy the petroglyphs in the area.

A symposium was held on Easter Island in September 1984 which dealt with the archaeology of the island. The subject of one seminar was the preservation, restoration and conservation of the works of art. Dr. Nicholas Stanley-White from ICCROM attended. A resolution was passed to implement a conservation program for the preservation of rock art. It was recommended that UNESCO, ICCROM, or a like organization, provide funding for a specialist to study the area and propose measures to protect these artifacts.

One thing upon which everyone agrees is that education is the only way to eradicate vandalism. Some people fear that by the time everyone is educated, that nothing will remain of this priceless heritage. For these reasons many have devoted years, reams of paper and endless rolls of film in an effort to document the designs and preserve this information for the future. UCLA has created an archive for rock art. It is the only one of its kind in the western hemisphere and as such is a remarkable resource for both scholars and students. A national non-profit organization, American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA, P.O.Box 1539, El Toro, CA 92630), is dedicated to the advancement of research in this field. The organization works for the preservation and protection of rock art sites, publishes a newsletter and symposia papers, and it hosts an annual symposium.

It is important to reinforce the fact that rock art is not casual decoration; it is part of the archaeological record and it has the potential to illuminate many parts of a culture. It can tell us about belief and ideology, myth and cosmography. We can catch a glimpse of supernatural beings and shamans, ceremonies and the world of dream. Rock art can reveal time, place of origin, spheres of influence and aspects of social organization. It is an irreplaceable cultural resource which deserves our efforts in its protection and preservation.

Georgia Lee
Doctoral Candidate
Archaeology Program,


Silver, Constance S. The Rock Art of Seminole Canyon State Historic Park: Deterioration and Prospects for Conservation, 1985. Report #4000-430 may be obtained from Texas Parks and Wildlife, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, TX 78744.

 [WAAC]  [WAAC Newsletter]  [WAAC Newsletter Contents]  [Search WAAC Newsletter]  [Disclaimer]

[Search all CoOL documents]