The vulnerability of rock art to destruction was driven home to me early on in my archaeological career. In 1980, I recorded Good Hope Shelter 1 in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. One of the painted scenes in the site had been photographed in 1907 and redrawn by Patricia Vinnicombe in 1958 and then again 1968. Although there had been deterioration over the years it was particularly evident between 1958 and 1968. When I visited the site in 1980, the photographed and redrawn scene had completely disappeared. It no longer existed. Had it not been for the photograph and redrawings there would have been no documentation of its existence in the archaeological record. My investigations into the rapid deterioration between 1958 and 1968 revealed that a local hotel had added the site to its list of walks in the early 1960s. I concluded that the additional people visiting the site and touching and wetting the paintings and also kicking up dust led to the premature demise of this scene. We know that the paintings will naturally gradually disappear as the erosional forces that created the shelters in the first instance are ongoing, however, the uncontrolled and in many instances unsupervised engagement of humans with the paintings, and of course, engravings and carvings, accelerates the disappearance of this precious human resources that in some instances are thousands of years old.

I suspect that my Good Hope Shelter experience will resonate with that of other rock art specialists globally, and that many people will have their own stories about the destruction of rock art. It is happening universally. Given this, it is incumbent on rock art and cultural heritage specialists and managers worldwide to intensify their efforts to safeguard this precious resource. While rock art is a truly global phenomenon that extends back tens of thousands of years, for the most part its protection occurs at the local and regional levels. We need to ensure that:

  • rock art places are comprehensively recorded and that these records are properly stored and updated;

  • management plans are developed for rock art sites and places and importantly they are implemented on an ongoing basis;

  • public interpretation of rock art occurs to a high standard so that it is accessible and meaningful for the public and tourists;

We need to convince people of the significance of rock art and the need for them to protect it. Achieving this will represent a major breakthrough in the safeguarding of rock art and considerably reduce management requirements in the field. Ultimately, it is not stricter laws that are required but the understanding and support of the general public who will encourage policy makers, politicians, managers etc. to exercise their responsibilities to the management of this internationally striking phenomenon to ensure that it survives for many generations to come.

Aron Mazel

Reader in Heritage Studies at Newcastle University (UK). Co-organizer of the British Rock Group (BRAG).

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