In Australia, protective site works are more likely to be initiated by
traditional Aboriginal owners or custodians than by archaeologists, and
Aborigines are the principal stake holders in any matter pertaining to
Australian rock art (Ward and Sullivan 1989) or archaeology. They do
not regard rock art as an archaeological resource, but as a very
important physical manifestation of their tremendously rich spiritual
culture. Cultural re-assertion expressed in the demand for control over
cultural properties as experienced in Australia can reasonably be
predicted to occur in due course in other parts of the world, such as
the Americas, specific parts of Asia and perhaps southern Africa.
Archaeologists there would be well advised not to repeat the mistake
some of their Australian colleagues made, and oppose the curatorial
aspirations of indigenous groups over indigenous cultural remains. In
my own discussions with Aboriginal leaders they have themselves
consistently expressed the desire for employing rock art conservators,
and as they secure public funds for such projects it could well be that
Aboriginal co-operatives and communities will become the major employer
of rock art conservators.
Australian archaeologists have been divided over how to respond to Aboriginal aspirations to regain control over their material cultural heritage. In the case of rock art sites, the traditional owners have had the support of the Australian Rock Art Research Association since its inception in 1983. A contentious key issue was whether present-day Aborigines should be permitted to continue the cyclical repainting of images (Chaloupka 1992), usually termed ‘retouch’. Watchman (1992, 2000) has shown that this custom has existed for many millennia. It is a central tenet of Aboriginal beliefs that it is the sacred duty of the traditional custodians of a site to retouch or renew rock paintings when fading became evident. This responsibility has been handed down to them for countless generations, ever since the spirit beings who created much of the art had instructed the people to do so (Mowaljarlai 1992). Failure to comply with these instructions could result in malfunction of the natural order and punishment of the people concerned (Crawford 1968; Vinnicombe 1992). During European occupation of the continent, most surviving Aboriginal groups were removed from their traditional land, often forcibly, which led to the interruption of these traditional practices. In recent decades, however, there has been a trend to reinstate these practices to some degree, even in a revivalist sense (Morris and Hamm 1995). In the late 1980s this issue led to a confrontation between parties that either supported or opposed Aboriginal retouch of rock art sites, as a result of a specific project in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia (Ward 1992a; Clarke and Randolph 1992). The matter was extensively debated at the First AURA Congress, where a whole symposium was dedicated to it (Ward 1992b). While there is no clear-cut outcome evident, the extreme positions at either end of the spectrum appear no longer tenable, and Aboriginal communi-ties have become increasingly empowered in their quest to regain their culture.
In Australia this has thus become a principal factor in rock art research as well as site management issues. Such matters are generally taking place in consultation with the relevant traditional custodians, and researchers working in Australia are now well aware that they do so under the authority of those who own indigenous Australian material culture. This new understanding of roles has been quite beneficial to European researchers, if only to remind them that their own metaphysical and academic reality is ethnocentric. Developments in the reassertion of ethnic identities in various parts of the world are likely to lead to similar endeavours there, once these societies appreciate that rock art corpora can become foci of cultural renewal. While repainting has so far been primarily an Australian feature, it is certainly not uniquely Australian. In North America, Spier (1930) reported the periodic repainting of rock art from the Columbia Plateau, and Loubser (2001) notes evidence of the practice in southern Africa and Baja California.
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Bibliography of rock art conservation
The home-page of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) Inc.