The future of rock art and cultural heritage as a world phenomenon

The past decade of rock art research has brought to light hundreds of yet unknown rock art sites. The upcoming decade will (perhaps more realistically, until the end of the century) produce a major data base and archive combining the rock art corpus of all scholars working in the field. Beyond the technical challenges for such a project, we must first regulate our documentation methods. This process is going hand-in-hand with other innovations such as replacing the classic use of Munsell charts with an electromagnetic spectroscopymethod and more extensive use of RTI documentation in the field.  Recently microarchaeology, in collaboration with Yuval Goren and the Archaeo-materials and Conservation Sciences track at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has started new research in the rock art field. It will be a natural step for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to develop a specialized branch of research within the archaeology department for Rock Art.   A similar department or branch may open in one of the northern universities or colleges where there is a rich megalithic culture, some of which is directly related to rock art.    

In terms of my area of research, the rock art of the Negev may be divided into five general periods, the last of which is the ‘Bedouin Phase’. The Bedouin Phase of rock art may roughly be dated to the past two hundred years. The Bedouin existence has dramatically changed over the past 70 years, since the formation of the state of Israel. From semi-nomadic illiterate tribal groups, the Bedouin have become literate, town-based communities. The daily interaction with livestock, care and handling, are no longer part of the Bedouin’s way of life. Bedouin graves, migration cycles, law, poetry, herbal medicine, and beliefs have been studied. Other aspects, primarily the tradition of engraving onto rock, the use and development of tribal markings (known as ‘wasm’), and their understanding and attitude towards existing, ancient rock art, have been neglected and our understanding of them is less clear. Few Bedouin communities have continued this unique tradition (also greatly reduced by contemporary political boarders and restrictions), these communities should be studied and documented before their ancestral knowledge is lost forever.

Local rock art conferences, workshops and field investigations have been conducted over the past few years. The public, especially those local to the Negev, tour guides and other enthusiasts were active participants have all played a major role in trying to promote this unique archaeological resource. It is evident that in order to protect the rock art, a sacrificial site must be made accessible and open to the public. Colleague, Lior Schwimer and the National Parks Authority transformed Har Michia into an open-air rock art museum.  This centre of educational facility reflects the archaeology the movement and life in the desert over a 6,000 year period of history. The work, including clearing paths and erecting new walking trails was carried out in collaboration with neighboring Bedouin middle School pupils. An estimated 10-15,000 people visit the Rock Art of Har Michia each year. At present there is no entrance fee, no guard or monitor at Har Michia. Some damage and modern graffiti is apparent but no long-term conservation and management strategy has been initiated.

All rock art is protected under the Antiquities law but to constitutionally-protect the rock art park at Har Michia, land definitions must be changed and their archaeological extent better defined. Much of the Negev rock art is set within the Israel Defense Force’s firing zones. Other rock art sites are within or adjacent to unrecognized Bedouin settlements. Opening the discussionon land definitions is an extremelydelicate subject, highly flammable and political. Archaeological sites have been vandalized and destroyed in the past as part of the anger and frustration released by affected parties, be they social, political or economic.

To summarize, I see the future set with challenges; these range between limiting access to rock art sites to better managing the rock art site that is officially open to the public.  

Davida Eisenberg-Degen

Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen is an archaeologist with the Southern District of the Israel Antiquities Authority and part time lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Eisenberg-Degen specializes in Byzantine and Early Islamic period excavations in Southern Israel. Davida's research interests include rock art of the Central Negev, southern Israel. 

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