Rock Art, images painted and or engraved on to rock surfaces, can be found in caves and rock shelters, rocky outcrops and boulder fields throughout the world. Although these traditions range in dates from tens of thousands of years ago to more recent, contemporary pasts, in some Native and Aboriginal communities their sacred nature is as important today as it has ever been. In strikingly varied ways, employing different skills and techniques, different values and beliefs, these images demonstrate the geographic and temporal diversity of image making practice. They are a visual insight into all of humanity’s cognition and history. Most powerfully, rock art around the world challenges Eurocentric ideas of the history of art and philosophy.
Cathedral Cave is one of a selected number of rock art location accessible to the public in Carnavon National Park, central Queensland.
As a consequence of both human interaction and ongoing geological process, rock art truly is a fragile heritage. Perhaps that is a well worn cliché, but clichés are often clichés for very good reasons. And this certainly applies to the predicament of many if not all rock art sites today. Vandalism and development are still having an alarmingly negative impact on the conservation of rock art images and their sites on every continent.
It is an unfortunate reality, even if contemporary interaction was entirely positive, we are powerless to stop the geological processes that created the rock surfaces upon which these fascinating images are found. Even the slightest intervention by visitors to these sites at least adds to, but more often accelerates, the natural processes destroying the imagery. It is for this reason archaeologists and managers of cultural resources around the world limit access to rock art sites.
In the bottom left corner you can see the engraved surface of the rock is peeling away due to natural weathering. We may not be able to halt the geological processes that formed these rock surfaces, but we should not make it worse.
Not only has D.J.M decided it would be a good idea to add their initials to this panel, the presence of bullet marks (in a much lighter patina) shows someone (D.J.M?) has used the animal and human figures for target practice.
Despite these very real concerns for conservation both the image and the place, there are many rock art sites that are accessible to the general public. Increasingly these are sites where access is either strictly controlled and monitored or they have some degree of protection with a management plan.
It is true there are many more sites for which the location is never revealed or, as in the case of caves, they are made inaccessible and access permitted to archaeologists and specialists with skills in conservation. Understandably perhaps archaeologists and officials are often accused of ‘controlling the past’ – determining who gets to study it and who gets to talk about it. The celebrated cave of Altamira in the Cantabrian region of Spain provides an alternative perspective here.
By the 1970s, over 150,000 people were going into Altamira each year. As this was so obviously having a destructive effect on the paintings and engravings, in 1978 the Spanish government purchased and closed the cave. A few years later, in 1982 the cave was re-opened but with a limit of 8,500 visitors a year. Besides restricting numbers, various other measures were introduced in an attempt to stabilise the microclimate in the cave. As these measures did not seem to be helping the cave was once again closed to all in 2002. A team of specialists doubled down on efforts to bring the deterioration of the images under control. And with some degree of success.
In January of 2014 the ministry responsible for the cave announced people would be able to enter the cave of Altamira starting in February, but only 5 people a week and for a very short time, 37 minutes with only 8 minutes under the polychrome panel. This was announced as a trial that would last a year. At the end of the year it was decided this new regime could stay in effect.
Still today five lucky people a week get to visit one of the most well known rock art sites in the world.
With continued research into the conservation of rock art, as well as the management of the sites themselves, there can and surely will be more success stories like Altamira’s. Even if there is very restrictive access. And remember, that many sites are still accessible to general visitors is a testament to the ongoing work of professionals and their commitment to ensuring more people can see these extraordinary places.
Because of the fragile nature of rock art, only those sites where access is controlled and/or monitored and those that are well known are included in this guide. Along with the many museums that have permanent exhibitions, sometimes even including original pieces recovered for various reasons from their original sites.
Paintings and engravings were deeply important to the people who made them, and in many cases their sacred qualities are still recognised by Native and Aboriginal people today. Since the images and the rock surfaces they are on are often delicate, when visiting rock art sites we should be both respectful and careful.
Rock art sites, like all archaeological sites, are sensitive. Sensitive to both natural elements and human impact. The same principles that apply to visiting archaeological sites apply rock art sites. When accompanying a designated guide, they will almost certainly start their tours with conditions to be observed – these will usually be specific to the context of the site you are visiting. For instance, caves are different to open boulder fields. Be attentive to what they have to say – their rules apply.
The following guidelines apply more generally to rock art around the world. They are not intended to diminish your enjoyment of visiting a site, but rather to lessen the impact your visit has, ensuring their continued preservation.
If the site is on private land make sure you have permission to visit the site. Be mindful about sharing on social media the exact location of sites that are out of the way or on private land.
On arriving at the site or entering the cave or rock shelter, stick to the designated paths if they exist. Tread carefully and avoid stirring up dust from the ground. Remember, you are at an archaeological site, do not disturb the archaeological deposits. Also, dust settles on the images and can with time harden to form a crust covering and obliterating the images. Do not touch the rock surface or the image.
If there are no designated paths to stick to, tread carefully. Do not climb or sit on loose rocks or walls of any ruins that may be present at the site.
Depending on the time of day, the preservation of the images, the rock art may be difficult to see. Never apply water or any liquid to the images; this is one of the most destructive things you can do to rock paintings and engravings. By all means take photographs (unless you guide tells you not to). If you use a tripod, ensure its feet do not dig into the ground. Try using D-Stretch to enhance your photographs. In difficult lighting conditions, use a flash – contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that flash destroys rock art imagery. Use reflectors, or even a sheet of white paper, to shift the angle of light on the image. But, it can not be stressed too much, do not pour or spray water or any liquid on to paintings or engravings.
You might also think touching these images is harmless. Have you ever seen a fingerprint on glass? The same fingerprints detectives look for in crime scenes. Fingerprints are formed by fats and oils from your skin. Not only do these hasten the decay of the art, they will contaminate the pigment or the surface of the rock for any future dating or chemical analysis.
Do not write on the rock surface, and never outline the images to highlight them. Graffiti not only spoils the image for others, it is often impossible to remove. In many countries it is illegal to add graffiti to rocks with paintings or engravings. Also, do not attempt to make your own recording that directly impacts the image, such as using tracing films or making rubbings.
Never remove stone tools or other archaeological artefacts from rock art sites. Even if you do think there are many, or you want to take an example back to a museum. The best thing to do is report the presence of such artefacts. Artefacts contribute to the story of that site where they are. Once removed, a piece of the past is gone.
Do not smoke at the site, and do not light any fires. Do not place offerings, or light candles. These actions can all reduce the potential of getting accurate dates.
If you are with a dog, ensure they do not start digging in the ground or using the site as a toilet.
Do not camp in archaeological sites. And be sure to take everything with you when you leave.
If you see evidence of recent vandalism, or witness anyone being destructive report this to the owners, managers, or custodians of the land. If necessary report the incident to the police. In some cases local museums act as guardians for local sites. National heritage bodies can also advise and assist with report.
In the limestone caves of south western France are some of the most well known images created by Stone Age people. Those in the Vézère Valley of the Dordogne are almost certainly some of the most visited rock art sites in the world. But there are also caves open to the public in other areas, including the Lot and the Pyrénées. Less well known are the open air Bronze Age rock engravings in the Vallée des Merveilles.
Visit Rock Art Sites in France >>
Deep in the Sierra de San Francisco of Baja California is a concentration of some of the world's most extraordinary rock art sites. The so-called Great Mural paintings made by hunters and gatherers before the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the area. What makes the depictions here so extraordinary is their size. Around the country are some equally intriguing sites, such as the Las Labradas petroglyphs on the beach facing the Pacific Ocean.
Visit Rock Art Sites in Mexico >>
Given the complex history of indigenous populations across this vast country, it is not surprising that the rock art traditions are diverse. The following suggestions for seeing rock art in the USA are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: