The deterioration of rock art caused by one large mammal has to be
considered in more detail than that by all other animals: the damage
occasioned by just one single primate, man. It exceeds the damage of
all other rock art deterioration factors combined, particularly when
one includes indirect damage by human agency (e.g. through acid rain,
domestic animals). A disturbing aspect of anthropogenic damage of rock
art is that the most severe threat to the research potential comes not
from tourists, but from researchers themselves. This factor had not
been examined in any detail until I began addressing it in a series of
papers (Bednarik 1987b, 1990a, 1990c, 1990d, 1991a, 1992b). Whereas the
tourist or casual visitor of a site may occasion rather obvious and
usually localised damage, the damage caused by the scholar can be much
more extensive, fundamental and systematic, compromising the site’s
research potential rather than its superficial appearance. Graffiti may
deface a petroglyph, but covering it entirely with an organic substance
or chalk for the sake of photography destroys its potential to be dated
by many of the currently used methods of scientific ‘dating’. Undated
rock art, clearly, is of limited scientific significance, and
non-datable rock art will always remain scientifically obscure.
Recording work conducted by means that compromise the research
potential of the art is therefore vandalistic.
Archaeologists have viewed rock art as an archaeological resource since the early 19th century, existing primarily to help them ‘interpret the human past’. But there are several interest groups with claims relating to rock art, and some of them clearly have precedence (most especially indigenous people in those parts of the world where they own the art). Until it is properly dated, rock art is not even an archaeologically relevant resource. There exists no properly dated rock art in the world at the present time. Rock art scientists have provided age estimates or dating information of various levels of reliability and precision from a limited number of motifs located at sites in all continents (see Rock Art Dating). None of this dating evidence, however reliable some of it no doubt is, amounts to an actual ‘dating’ of the motif in question. Often one even reads the comment that a whole site has been ‘dated’. The age of no whole pre-Historic rock art site assemblage has been even approximately determined, anywhere in the world. It is fair to say that dating information provided by rock art scientists has been systematically misinterpreted by archaeologists on most occasions when they commented on such data (Bednarik 1996; Watchman 1999).
One would hope that at least the recordings archaeologists have gathered by applying often inappropriate recording methods are useful. Unfortunately this is generally not the case, as explained in the previous Chapter. Many rock art recordings are subjective, the recorder superimposing his or her interpretation over what is actually on the rock surface. Many recorders seem preoccupied with idiosyncratic issues: to demonstrate the validity of their favourite interpretational hypothesis, to understand the meaning of the art, or to categorise the motifs in accordance with the arbitrarily imposed taxonomies of alien ‘researchers’. The credibility of practically all statistical work on rock art can be questioned by simple taphonomic reasoning, so the often elaborate interpretations of such records all lack credibility. Finally, photographic records obtained by physical enhancement generally lack colour coding by a device profile suitable for standardised electronic manipulation, so they are worthless in the long term. They are doomed to eventual loss (Bednarik 1994b), but they may have been acquired at a cost to the rock art.
Since the beginning of archaeology as a discipline, rock art vandalism has been widely practised by archaeologists, sometimes even in the most remote regions of the world (Bednarik and Devlet 1993). No distance was too great, no access too difficult, to apply latex, plaster of Paris, black films and a great variety of emphasising substances. In India and in the Sahara, the application of water to paintings was often standard archaeological procedure, while in Scandinavian countries, the practice of painting petroglyphs in gaudy colours continues to this day and is still being defended by some ‘conservators’. Indeed, research is being conducted into the longevity of different paints for this very purpose (Löfvendahl and Magnusson 2000). In several other countries of Europe, thousands of petroglyph panels have been daubed by archaeologists with black and white organic paints for ‘recording’. Whole rock art panels have been sawn off, at sites from Karelia (Peri Nos) to Australia (Panaramitee North), and transported to museums. Many archaeological excavations conducted at rock art sites have been sub-standard, for instance those in Lascaux (Bahn 1994) or the recent excavations in the Côa valley of Portugal (Swartz 1997a). At most archaeological excavations of rock art sites no protection of the art panels was installed, of the type introduced by Morwood (1994). This has led to the deposition of dust on the rock art in the course of ‘scientific’ work. At some public sites in India, the site rangers had been instructed by archaeologists to daily sweep the dusty floor of the cave, resulting in extensive dust deposits on the cave walls. Another form of archaeological site vandalism is the excavation of sediments near petroglyph panels if the excavator lacks the knowledge support for identifying mur-e (petroglyph-making stone tools), leading to this key-evidence being discarded.
A campaign has resulted in an extensive reassessment, and has largely eradicated a number of undesirable methodologies in many countries. However, there is still a reluctance in some quarters to accept the validity of some of the points raised here. Nevertheless, rigorous self-criticism and criticism now form a cornerstone policy of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) and this is hoped to facilitate the establishment of a new awareness of human threats to rock art, including inadvertent threats by researchers.
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