In rock art conservation the simplistic notion that ‘the experts surely
know best’ is false. In precisely the same way as the methods and
strategies of yesteryear’s rock art conservator are superseded and
outdated by contemporary thinking, our present priorities will be
superseded in a very short time by ever more enlightened attitudes and
practices. It is essential that this be fully understood by the rock
art conservator, and that management decisions be based on
reversibility of measures, and on the full appreciation of our severe
limitations due to a chronic lack of relevant basic research. The
overriding factor in all rock art management must be the understanding
that we cannot afford to ‘get it wrong’: the resource is, after all,
not renewable, and any alteration of the environment is likely to have
unforeseeable effects as well as those one desires.
To appreciate these dynamics it is useful to consider certain parallels elsewhere. Recording methods that were accepted or at least tolerated just ten or twenty years ago are frowned upon today, or even thoroughly condemned in various cases. The reasons for these changes in attitude, be it in recording or in conservation, are largely attributable to the sudden rise of rock art science over the last decade or so, which introduced methods of analysing rock art and which promises to develop ever more sophisticated approaches. The general principle that has been espoused as a result over the past ten years is that rock art recording work as well as any rock art conservation, preservation or site management work must be conducted in such a way as not to prejudice present and future scientific methods (Bednarik 1987b). Many people currently making decisions about rock art sites are not adequately familiar with present scientific research methods, and no-one, including rock art scientists themselves, can know the types of future methods. Hence the rule is very simply that direct interference with rock art is to be avoided in all except absolutely desperate cases.
In rock art conservation there are no standard diagnoses or treatments. Each site is different, and the management of each must be planned in a site-specific manner. One of the few truly universal rules that have emerged in recent decades refers to the concept of ‘site fabric’. This is intended to mean all physical aspects of a rock art site, including accretionary deposits and lichens, the art itself, traces of later human responses, even of vandalism in cases, and also the general site setting, or what is described as its ambience. In modern rock art conservation, the integrity of the whole site is increasingly emphasised, as well as genuine consultation of those groups that are stakeholders in the rock art and the site. These ideals are central to the tenor of the IFRAO Code of Ethics (see ).
Scientific information about rock art would be readily available, but it has attracted relatively little attention: how was the rock art created, when, and by whom? These questions are perfectly answerable through the use of refutable propositions, yet they have traditionally attracted little sustained research effort. For instance the amount of replicative research, so useful in the study of early portable art, is diminutive in petroglyph studies. Studies of inclusions in rock art paints (brush fibres, airborne particles, extenders etc.) are in their infancy, as are studies of paint composition. Thus the speculations we have about ‘meaning’ and so forth lack any factual basis, they are simply the outcome of pure and often baseless conjecture. Management decisions have to be frequently based on the significance of rock art, and yet this significance is being decided on the basis of very questionable criteria.
Similarly, in the area of rock art conservation and site management, we have to contend with a widespread lack of appropriate basic research. This applies to the effects of lichen as much as to those of other biological factors, rainwater pH, insolation, wetting and drying as well as freezing and thawing cycles, not to mention those of humanly applied chemicals, or other human influence (Bednarik 1990e, 1991a). For instance, in South Africa, Meiklejohn’s work (1995, 1997) has shown how little we really do know about fundamental issues that concern rock art management, and much the same has been found in other countries.
It seems that the best way to summarise present perceptions about rock art conservation and management is to say that this is not the domain of archaeologists, and that specialists with the appropriate knowledge need to appreciate the value of open peer review, and of frank dissemination of results from such projects. Rock art does not belong to the state, it was merely handed down to us by countless generations before us to pass on to countless generations after us. It is an immensely valuable scientific resource to some, a cherished cultural heritage to others. The generations that will follow us have the right to judge our performance in how we deal with the responsibility of managing this collective property of all of humanity’s generations — past, present and future.
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Bibliography of rock art conservation
The home-page of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) Inc.