Unintentional Vandalism of Rock Art Sites

With resilience to the elements and time, rock surfaces resulted to be the ideal canvas for lasting expressions of past cultures. Unfortunately, they are also accommodating for lasting vandalism, the effects of which survive indefinitely alongside original rock art. Unintentional damage often occurs from visitor use.

Spirit Bird Cave Petroglyph Panel (San Juan County, UT)
Spirit Bird Cave Petroglyph Panel (San Juan County, UT)

There are multiple factors which must be considered including environmental, social, and economic factors (Deacon 2006), as well as concerns of vandalism.There are two general types of vandalism that affect rock art sites: deliberate and unintentional.

Deliberate vandalism involves a conscious decision to alter the rock art with various methods; including graffiti, initial carving (Individuals feel the need to mark that the have been at the site as well, and carve their name or initials), looting, and target practice. Preventing deliberate vandalism is not my primary focus for this research, as the effects of deliberate vandalism are instant, and in many cases unavoidable.

Unintentional vandalism occurs due to misinformation or ignorance, with adverse effects accumulating over time.

There are several factors which impact theories of rock art conservation. Deacon (2006) points out that although many groups consider conservation to be a “good” reaction to detriments or vandals, there are several other points of view that must be taken into account. She asserts that theories regarding rock art conservation delicately balance between environmental, social, and economic factors (Deacon 2006).

Environmental factors are Necessary to consider, due to their presence at every site. Environmental considerations for the conservation and preservation of rock art sites include: the material of the host rock surface, surrounding climate, and types of paints, pigments, or engravings used in the rock art. It is also important to consider any physical alterations from people, plants or animals, or artifacts that may be associated with the site (Deacon 2006). Because the environment is ever present and constant at art sites even without the human element, their effects must be considered.

The social factors which should be considered for conservation include the rights of descendant communities, property owners and researchers, management policies and legislation, and public expectations and attitudes (Deacon 2006). Many legislation decisions and management policies are dependent on who the property owner is.

Accountability may be one of the most important considerations for the protection of rock art sites. When individuals feel connected to a site, they feel a responsibility to protect it. Grant says those with private ownership of a site may be inclined to protect it more, rather than a Federal entity with no personal connection to the land (Van Tilburg 1980). This is where public expectations and attitudes become exceedingly important. These are the local individuals, rather than tourists, who may have information, time, or resources that they are willing to contribute. For example, there are site steward programs which train volunteers to periodically report on the conditions of a site (Whitley 2005).

Because it inevitably takes money to enact many conservation procedures, economic considerations include the location of the site in relation to roads, type of ownership of the site and tourism facility, tourism marketing strategies, level of income generated by tourism, and the extent to which local people lose or derive income from rock art tourism (Deacon 2006). Tourism can be very beneficial in that it generates the income needed to protect and maintain a site; however there is an increase in concern when visitor numbers increase. Concerns which may have little adverse effect in small numbers may significantly affect rock art integrity or dating potential. An example would be a significant increase in carbon deposits from campfire smoke.

Visitors interpret the context of a site in much the same way archaeological researchers do, therefor the manner of presentation of a site to visitors is essential to discouraging vandalism, whether intentional or unintentional. A site which is free of graffiti and visitor garbage presents the image that there is a person nearby who is involved and concerned for the site. If funding permits, the ideal tourism tactic involves guided tours and educational outreach. Infrastructure such as low fences, informative signs, and visitor sign-in boxes are beneficial when funding may not provide for a guide. These still provide a perceived official presence which may detour vandals.

A really great idea I stumbled upon recently on this Leave No Trace blog, allows visitors to leave their mark in a designated area, deterring unintentional vandalism. It is a simple idea, with a message informing visitors to help preserve as well as leaving behind a personal connection. Check it out!


Deacon, Janette

2006    Rock Art Conservation and Tourism. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 13, No. 4, Advances in the Study of Pleistocene Imagery and Symbol Use [Part I]

Van, Tilburg JoAnne, and Clement W. Meighan

1981    Prehistoric Indian Rock Art: Issues & Concerns: Report of the 1980 Conference Proceedings, Institute of Archaeology, the Rock Art Archive, University of California, Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles.

Whitley, David S.

2005    Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.


Recreating Place in Archaeology

Many archaeological interpretations are based on inference and metaphor, especially when dealing with intangible data sources. This biggest issue of interpretation is that the landscape and climate may have change considerably through thousands of years, and may have sounded considerably different. Another issue is the modeling of a dynamic experience into static statistical figures. These figures are not a full representation of the sound and space experience. Archaeologists can attempt to overcome such issues by utilizing additional data sources to reconstruct space, for instance environmental reconstruction methods such as pollen analysis, dendrochronology, and ethnobotany. Archaeological pollen analysis can give an idea of surrounding vegetation, climate, and geographic landform. Because there is variation across cultures and regions, each area should be reconstructed in its own site context regardless of presumed regional affiliations. When using Static figures and diagrams, researchers should keep in mind the goal of modeling experience over data, and use these in conjunction with other forms of qualitative analysis.

Archaeologists have long recognized the dating potential of desert varnish for dating sites through rock art. This desert varnish is a result of accumulations of clay minerals, manganese and iron oxide. The surface contrast created by removal of these accumulation layers provides a relative comparison, based on the degree of difference in coloration between imagery and the host rock surface. The introduction of mass spectrometer analysis allowed for a preliminary study into more absolute chronometric methods, however it is not common to be able to transport a panel feature into a lab. Typically, analysis has been completed only on samples which have become fragmented due to natural weathering or vandalism (Chaffee, et al., 1994). The introduction of portable X-Ray Fluorescent technology (XRF) allows the researcher to engage in a non-destructive analysis in the field. XRF technology is being applied to the American Southwest to create a comparable database including data from rock art sites, as well as dated geomorphic depositional surfaces for reference. The amount of accuracy is approximately ± 30%, and is expected to improve as the database expands. Thus far, there has been a positive response as to the accuracy of this method (Lytle, et al. 2008).

Archaeoacoustic Researchers use a wide array of sound types and recording equipment to document the acoustic properties of archaeological space. Recordings focus on measurable qualities such as Echo and Amplification, and Ambient Sound is not filtered, as this could be integral to experience (Scarre, et al. 2006).

Although environmental conditions may not necessarily reflect the ancient experience, modern researchers sometimes use personal experiences to influence methods and interpretation. For example, Daniel Cutrone’s experience in Spirit Bird Cave in southeastern Utah influenced the theoretical direction on its interpretation as a sacred place. Cutrone had been researching the cave for its rock art panel, one with elements common to shamanic interpretations. One day, Cutrone had taken refuge in the cave during a storm, and while inside experienced the sounds of wind howling through the built windows and crevices of the cave. Due to the trance inducing quality of the wind, Cutrone began to propose that the wind may have been deliberately channeled through the cave by architectural modifications (Cutrone, 2002). Such personal experiences are difficult to quantify or verify, but may be integral to understanding the meaning of a place.

Chaffee, S. D.; Hyman, M.; and Rowe, M. W.
1994    Vandalism of Rock Art for Enhanced Photography. Studies in Conservation, 39:3, 161-168.
Cutrone, Daniel
2002    Personal Field Notes on Spirit Bird Cave.
Lytle, Farrel, and Manetta Lytle, Alexander Rogers, Alan Garfinkel, Caroline Maddock, William Wight, Clint Cole
2008    An Experimental Technique for Measuring Age of Petroglyph Production: Results on Coso Petroglyphs. Paper Presented at the Great Basin Anthropological Conference, October 2008.
Scarre, Chris and Graeme Lawson
2006    Archaeoacoustics (ed). McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University. Oxbow Books, Cambridge

Places and Spaces: Theories of Placemaking for Anthropology

Researchers often refer to space as a physical location, while place refers to a more specifically designated portion of space. The Project for Public Spaces describes placemaking as the interplay of how humans intentionally and collectively manipulate their environment, and how the environment shapes community. Placemaking is how humans define their space.

In defining space, political geographer John A. Agnew asserts that the three criteria necessary in designating a place include:

(1) The physical location of a specific place

(2) The locale, or shape of a place as defined by physical or cultural barriers, and

(3) the sense of place, or meaning to the people who use it (Agnew, 1987).

Sociologist Émile Durkheim studied the intangible designations of space through notions of the sacred and profane. To Durkheim, cultures specifically designate sacred places and objects which hold specifically separate meaning. Those places and objects which are not sacred he designates as profane, not in a forbidden sense, but as the commonplace necessary to create a separation for sacredness (Durkheim, 1912).

Doreen Massey, a human geographer suggests both space and time that come together in place, thus refuting the notion that places can be statically defined (Massey, 1991). It is apparent, that in defining a space, a holistic approach to examining the physical space of a community along with all economic, cultural, historic and political influences.