Actively Managing Rock Art Sites
Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
There is no universal method for managing or protecting rock art sites located on state or federal lands. Each site has its unique human, geological and environmental problems that change over time. General concepts of visitor management and site protection may be adapted from many sources and combined to form a plan for managing a particular site. The single most important guiding principal in managing rock art sites is to become proactive instead of reactive to anticipated threats.
Several site-specific management and conservation problems and solutions are discussed in this paper. They focus on a particular site known as Rock House Cave (3CN20), located in Petit Jean State Park near Morrilton, Arkansas. Rock House Cave is located along a popular hiking trail and receives thousands of visitors per year. It is the only rock art site in the park that is advertised for public access and consequently it is the only site with significant management problems. Prior to a major conservation effort in September 2000, the site was covered with four decades accumulation of graffiti. Management examples from this site are used throughout this paper. A timeline highlighting major steps in the management of Rock House Cave is included in the appendix.
I. Basic Components of Rock Art Site Management
When does a site need to be managed?
Rock art sites on state and federal lands that receive a significant number of visitors must be managed for the type visitation they receive and the type of damage that results, if our goal is to preserve the irreplaceable cultural resources found at these sites. Management programs are mandatory whenever visitors know the locations of rock art sites or if sites can easily be found. The nature of the program and associated management activities depends on specific site properties and on how well the sites are known and how easily they can be reached. At Petit Jean State Park, we found that the most effective method for managing most sites is not to reveal their locations to the public. This may seem odd to some cultural resources managers but it has become standard practice in many parks, especially where large numbers of sites are at risk. Sites to be protected by anonymity cannot be identified in literature, maps or otherwise be visibly marked. Side trails leading directly to those sites must be masked or diverted to other locations.
Sites that are not endangered by humans may be at risk from natural processes that can also damage or destroy rock art. Detailed documentation and periodic monitoring of these sites by trained personnel or volunteers can assist in determining their state of preservation and identifying situations where professional consultation with a conservator is needed.
Graffiti and Site Vandalism
Graffiti and other types of vandalism may be the single most pressing problem facing rock art site managers. The obvious solution is to remove or mask the graffiti, but restoration alone will not stop this type of vandalism.
Most graffiti is the result of visitors seeing previous examples and leaving impromptu graffiti of their own. Sites that require a hike of more than a few tenths of a mile usually remain untouched by vandals. Most graffiti is produced with rocks or bits of charcoal used to make an inscription. Other graffiti is produced with felt tip markers, crayons, lipstick, nail polish and similar materials that visitors are likely to have on hand. More serious and problematical incidents are the result of pre-meditated vandalism where the culprit has decided to bring spray paint or other materials to the site with the intent to vandalize. Chiseling and deep incising of the rock surfaces create more serious challenges to conservators and managers.
Defining Graffiti versus Historic Engravings
There may be historic inscriptions as well as modern graffiti at some rock art sites. Managers need to define criteria for distinguishing these two forms of inscriptions. A conservator will need to know what these criteria are in order to remove unwanted graffiti and conserve historic inscriptions. Detailed site documentation will assist these determinations and provide a basis for identifying the historical value of particular inscriptions.
At Petit Jean State Park we decided to remove or at least reduce the visual impact of inscriptions created after the park's 1923 formation date. Graffiti predating establishment of the park is considered to possess historical value, and no regulations or laws were violated when it was made. Small signs placed low on rock walls identify these markings as historic inscriptions in an attempt to plant the idea in the minds of visitors that there is a difference between historic writing and modern graffiti. Greater emphasis on interpreting these inscriptions may be necessary if new graffiti continues to accumulate.
Why do people vandalize?
It is difficult to say why people vandalize rock art sites. Most of the information relating to graffiti psychology is written by law enforcement authorities and concerns urban manifestations of the problem. Urban graffiti usually reflects expressions of anger, individuality, gang membership, or cultural affiliation.
The remote locations of most rock art sites creates a need to look for alternative causes of vandalism, although we suspect that anger, retribution, peer pressure, the thrill of a challenge, cultural identification and ignorance all may play a role from time to time. Most vandalism, graffiti in particular, seems to be the result of a simple need to proclaim that "I was here." During our conservation project at Rock House Cave, we found that the vast majority of graffiti represented names, initials, declarations of love, and even identifications of whole families. Profanity, expressions of anger, and gang symbols were virtually absent. Several names at Rock House Cave were found at other locations in the park, and we identified many examples where people left graffiti during successive visits to the park.
Sites located in or near major metropolitan areas do attract gang-related graffiti. A prevalent form of this type graffiti is the result of "tagging." Tagging is an activity in which an individual shows gang loyalty or "bravery" by leaving a distinctive mark in a publicly accessible place.
Petit Jean State Park visitors who are caught making graffiti often claim that they did not know it is wrong to mark an area because other graffiti was seen. This fact should be at the forefront of site management programs.
Below are some circumstances we have identified that seem to prompt visitors to leave graffiti or otherwise vandalize sites, even if they come to the park with no such intention:
- Graffiti is already present.
- Little or no evidence of facilities or other improvements exist.
- Little or no interpretive or educational information is available.
- The site is located close to parking or is directly access by vehicle.
- The site is located in an isolated area where there is no sign of the presence of park (or site) staff or other authority.
- Facilities, structures or site components are in disrepair.
- Trash or litter is present.
Some vandalism is motivated by profit. Individuals are known to saw and pry off rock art to keep in private collections or to sell. These people generally are not persuaded by educational efforts. Arrest and punishment are often required to curtail their activities.
Restoration Treatment and Conservation Recommendations
Professional conservators should be consulted whenever graffiti is present on or near rock art or a historic structure. Conservators are trained to recognize the long-term impacts of methods that can be used to remove or reduce the visual impact of graffiti. For example, what works well to remove graffiti on basaltic rock may produce terrible results on sandstone, with adverse consequences sometimes becoming apparent only many years later. Some of the most destructive (but preventable) disasters at rock art sites have been inflicted by well meaning custodians. Experienced conservators can offer short-term solutions to problems and long-term site management advice and based on solid science and proven techniques.
Before hiring a conservator for restoration projects, it is necessary to have a treatment proposal prepared as a result of an on-site visit. This will typically involve a one to two day examination (depending on the extent of the problems and number of sites affected) where the conservator assesses the situation, performs any tests that may be required, and collects other information needed to develop a proposal. It is important to request that the proposal deal with relevant issues beyond specific restoration treatments. Remedial actions must be prescribed in relation to all identifiable factors that affect the rock art and the condition of the site as a whole. Be sure to ask that the conservator to address short-term and long-term actions that site managers and administrators may need to take. Beware of anyone claiming to have conservation expertise that is unwilling to suggest actions beyond those that they will personally take.
Conservation recommendations are an important part of the information a conservator should be able to supply. Most conservators have a museum-related background of some sort. It is typical in museum collection assessments for a conservator to address the actions a staff and administration must take to meet the responsibilities for upholding collection care standards. Rock art site management has similar concerns and the support of administrators, managers and other staff/volunteers are crucial to the long-term success of any management program. The recommendations from a conservator's report are often the catalyst for change because they directly address the action that administrators must take to support the efforts of the field staff. Recommendation reports also help justify and support funding and grant requests.
Once actual treatment begins, the goal is to reverse damage where possible and reduce the visual impact of irreversible damage. Conservators have made excellent progress in identifying materials that can be used to remove modern graffiti and to fill in deep incising. Shallow incising often requires over-painting (painting to match the natural rock) because fill materials require fairly deep channels to achieve a proper hold. All graffiti treatment needs to be performed by or under specific guidance of a conservator. It may be necessary to assemble of group of helpers to assist the conservator's efforts. In the end, rock art is typically much easier to view once the conservation is completed.
Native American Consultation
Consultation with Native Americans is another important component of rock art site management. Native Americans should be asked to comment on the entire plan for managing any given rock art site.
Though managing rock art sites may fall outside of the envelope of NAGPRA, many Native Americans have strong feelings about rock art sites, often considering these sites as sacred places. On Federal lands, consultation may be required.
II. Creating a Managed Presence
Parking areas form the visitor's first impression of whether an area is neglected or well managed. The impression managers need to make on the visitor is that the site is well maintained and is regularly checked by agency staff. Whether or not staff members are regularly able to check the site is not as important as creating that impression.
Outward signs that assist in forming this impression include a well defined paved or gravel surface, garbage receptacles, interpretive panels, a well-marked footpath and other improvements. Weeds growing in the parking area, overflowing trash barrels, or similar signs of neglect signify that the area is not actively managed and there is an unlikely chance that visitors will encounter agency personnel. This is all the permission a vandal needs to desecrate a site.
Warning signs informing visitors of penalties for vandalism should be located at or near the parking area. Posting these signs at rock art sites may offer an irresistible challenge to some people and lead to more damage than would otherwise occur. Marking sites with signs that proclaim: "This site is being monitored" can go a long way toward protecting a site and reminding people that monitoring is taking place. Signs posted at parking areas should not only mention warnings and penalties but should incorporate site visiting etiquette and brief descriptions of the significance of nearby sites. Additional interpretive information can be posted at the sites.
Below are etiquette suggestions that can be included on interpretive panels or in brochures that can be made available to visitors.
- Be our eyes and ears. If you observe behavior that may damage the rock art, please report it to the nearest park employee immediately. (Be sure to include a phone number or other contact information).
- Touching damages images. Point, but please do not touch. The oils in your skin will cause noticeable damage to rock art.
- Tracing images with sticks, stones, chalk or other objects will damage the rock art.
- Fires are not allowed at this site. Report any fire or charcoal so that we may clean it up.
- Stay on the trail and avoid kicking excessive dust into the air. Dust will damage the rock art and make it harder for everyone to see.
- Throwing stones, dirt or other debris may damage the rock art and disturb archeological deposits.
- This site is considered a Native American sacred place; please act accordingly and show respect for this resource.
Interpretive panels serve several functions. They can provide visitors with an overall impression of the significance and heritage of a site and introduce the concept of protecting cultural resources. They can also remind visitors that many Native Americans identify rock art sites as sacred places. These messages need to convey the idea that the site is a special part of the heritage of all Americans.
Interpretive panels may also provide information on visitor etiquette, points of interest, flora/fauna, geology, and trail statistics such as length, time needed and hiker information.
During our conservation project at Rock House Cave, the conservator recommended against using interpretive signs to identify the specific locations of the site's numerous pictographs. It was thought that pointing out particular rock art images might invite vandalism. The solution was to create a panel that told visitors what to look for and in what general area to look. This approach encouraged visitors to make their own discoveries, with the likely result that they would probably see more than they might otherwise. Rock House Cave may be somewhat unique in that the majority of images are overhead in an area with poor light. Sites where rock art is more accessible may require a different approach.
The Rock House Cave conservation project team spent a lot of time in the shelter and quickly learned how interpretive panels can assist visitors. Most visitors who stopped by the site during the project were unaware of the rock art and they gained a new appreciation for the site when images were pointed out. Most of these visitors knew only that the trail they were hiking led to a "cave" and a nearby waterfall. Most of these hikers did not have park literature with them and some had no idea what there was to see in the area or where they were really going. Interpretive panels thus can play an important role in assisting visitors to obtain a richer experience during their time in the park.
If it is possible to route visitors through a central orientation area (such as a visitor center), literature and other necessary information can be more easily distributed.
A well maintained, clearly marked trail is important for preserving the natural environment and establishing a managed presence along routes leading to rock art sites. It is always a good idea to include a visitor register at the trailhead. Registers give a little formality to the entrance and are a visual focal point to mark the beginning of a trail. Visitor registers are useful to enforcement officers and can also include visitor feedback information.
One California manager used registers directly at the entrance to non-public sites. The registers (in brown boxes) were placed low and could only be seen by people actually entering the site. The rationale was that it would add a managed presence to the site even though it was off the beaten path.
Trailheads are a good location for any supplementary literature, provided that stocks are monitored and maintained. An empty literature box is a sure sign that the visitor is unlikely to meet up with agency staff.
The basic goals are to keep visitors on designated paths, preserve surrounding areas from erosion or other impacts, and funnel access to sites along specified, maintained trails. Trail marking methods vary depending on the setting.
Occasionally the placement of a formal object such as an interpretive sign or bench can solve visitor-related problems. At the Comanche National Grasslands in Colorado, local people were fond of shooting rifles from a particular location on a bluff. The problem was that they were often shooting at nearby rock art. The park installed a bench and interpretive panel at the shooting location, made trail improvements, parking area improvements, and added interpretive information with a visitor register. These actions brought a halt to the shooting and to most of the site's other vandalism problems.
Reducing Dust Problems
Excessive dust and erosion is a major problem at many rock art sites. The floor sediments at some sites are extremely dry, especially in bluff shelters. At Rock House Cave, group tours often produce a thick dust cloud that settings on boulder and exposed wall surfaces. These dust deposits may become sealed over rock art panels through mineral deposition. Erosion resulting form excessive foot traffic may also damage associated archeological deposits if it continues unabated
To solve dust and erosion problems and create a recognizable trail, a suitable walking surface should be considered for sites with heavy traffic. Matting has been successfully used at sites in other states. The goal is to keep as many visitors as possible on a designated path through the shelter. Though this is a psychological barrier only, it has been proven effective in reducing physical contact with the rock art. The formality of the walkway is another manifestation of a managed presence that may help reduce vandalism while protecting the rock art and associated archeological deposits.
Fences and Barriers
An extreme management method that sometimes may be necessary is fencing off an area or using a barrier such as Plexiglas. Iron bars or fences usually make photography impossible, limiting visibility and casting shadows on the rock art. Fences can be scaled and offer a challenge to vandals. Plexiglas can create conservation problems and often quickly becomes scratched. A look at the results of these measures usually reveals failure. Before using a physical barrier, be sure to consult with someone else who has tried the same method in order to identify pitfalls beforehand. If the goal is absolutely to keep people out, be prepared to build Fort Knox because it makes no sense to limit access only to those who are willing to break into a partially protective enclosure.
Removing Vegetation and Biological Growths
There is considerable debate about removing vegetation and other types of biological growth from rock art sites. Professional conservators should address problems with lichens, algae and moss because a portion of the growth may actually penetrate the rock matrix and scraping only removes a part of the plant. The rock surface may be weakened by the lichen and erode rapidly after it is removed. A conservator will be able to determine if removal is necessary. Non-professionals should never attempt to remove lichens or moss.
Removal or pruning of vegetation in contact with rock art is usually advisable because the action of wind may cause scraping against the rock surface. A conservator should address all but the most minor removal of vegetation.
Responding to Depreciative Activities at Rock Art Sites
There are some types of behavior at rock art sites that may not be outright vandalism but nonetheless will have a negative impact.
Because rock art images often are found on large rock outcrops or bluff lines, managers need to be aware of the harmful effects of rock climbing. The chalk used by climbers can affect some rock art dating techniques. Climbing can cause abrasion of images and exacerbate natural weathering. Hueco Tanks State Park in Texas had to change its entire management approach to prevent damage from rock climbing and associated activities.
Rock climbing and rappelling is forbidden in Petit Jean State Park, yet during the September 2000 conservation project the conservator found a string of chalk smears in an area that placed the feet of the climbers directly on a pictograph panel in Rock House Cave. Even though the project team had been over this same area many times, the telltale signs of rock climbing went unnoticed to their untrained eyes because the chalk smears looked very similar to natural mineral deposits.
Building campfires in bluff shelters or in proximity to rock art is an activity that creates direct and indirect problems. The heat and smoke from fires are obviously harmful, but the charcoal left behind is dangerous as well and needs to be removed. Charcoal has been a writing instrument for thousands of years, and many people today cannot resist the temptation to leave their own graffiti when an available piece of charcoal provides them with a means. At one time charcoal was the main graffiti medium at Rock House Cave. When park interpreters began a policy of removing all traces of fire and fire rings as soon as they were found, graffiti made from charcoal practically disappeared.
Rock Art Documentation
No rock art site will last forever or remain always in a state of exceptional preservation. It is important to create a lasting archival record of known rock art sites. Even sites that have been properly documented require periodic monitoring and updating of records. If several sites are in need of documentation, it may be advisable to concentrate on sites that are most affected by depreciative visitor behavior or other sources of natural degradation. Detailed documentation is required before conservation measures can be implemented to provide a basis for before-and-after comparisons and so that conservators can locate the rock art that needs to be repaired.
Documentation methods should be as non-destructive as possible and produce an absolute minimum of disturbance to any given site. Acceptable methods of documentation have changed significantly in recent years. Methods now considered destructive include making castings and rubbings, using chalk to highlight images, and using any other methods that erode rock surfaces or leave residues that can affect dating techniques.
As one example of what proper documentation involves, Petit Jean State Park held a five-day rock art documentation workshop in May 2000, in preparation for the conservation project at Rock House Cave. Ten people participated. The idea was to train a core group of volunteers to begin the process of documenting the park's most endangered rock art sites. The workshop concentrated on documenting Rock House Cave, where the single largest assemblage of rock art exists, in preparation for conservation work to remove an extensive buildup of graffiti. The workshop also documented a smaller, nearby site that could be completed within the available timeframe.
Throughout the summer after the May workshop, the team proceeded to systematically record the graffiti, pictographs and petroglyphs of Rock House Cave. The team concentrated on recording the wall areas where the majority of graffiti was located. The first step was to establish a site datum as an overall reference point in the shelter. The shelter walls were divided into "panels," with each panel having its own datum. Each panel was divided into individual graffito and rock art elements. Typical information recorded from each panel included measurements, panel inclination, photographs, field sketches, color (using a Munsel soil color chart), and characteristics of the underlying rock. When the recording was complete, the conservators were able refer to the records when there was any doubt what was graffiti and what was rock art or historic inscriptions.
The documentation of Rock House Cave provided information that proved invaluable to the conservation program. Considerable effort was made to record extremely faded images that were nearly obliterated by modern graffiti. Without this advance recording it might have been impossible to save the faded images. Since the workshop concentrated on areas within Rock House Cave where restoration was planned, documentation of all the rock art was not finished and many additional hours will need to be logged to complete this task. For this reason, documentation materials are stored in a stable environment at the park where they are accessible to researchers and site managers.
All of the materials used to document Rock House Cave meet archival specifications (e.g., acid-free papers, non-fading writing instruments, protective storage containers, etc.). Tracings on archival paper were made of all field sketches and are handled only by trained personnel wearing gloves. This is important because carefully maintained archival records of a site may, in some cases, outlast the actual rock art.
Monitoring and Reference Photograph Programs
Following detailed documentation, regular monitoring is an important aspect of managing a site's condition, especially after conservation treatments have been completed. A conservator can train staff or volunteers on the details of monitoring duties. This will include some obvious tasks such as inspecting the general site condition, and reporting problems and other circumstances that affect the condition of the site. Standard record forms should be used to document the findings of individual monitoring visits. All graffiti and other vandalism incidents should be recorded and photographed as these incidents occur.
Some rock art sites have been photographed throughout modern history. A concerted effort needs to be made to find old photographs for study. This will assist in identifying changes to rock art images (and to the sites in which they occur) that might otherwise go unnoticed. A good illustration of the need for such photos is provided by an example from Arkansas. There is a general belief among archeologists and managers that acid rain or fog from paper mills and other nearby pollution sources is causing many rock art images to rapidly fade. Older photographs taken before the advent of paper mills or other sources of widespread air pollution will likely reveal whether or not these ancient images have faded significantly in recent decades.
Managed rock art sites need to be photographed at least twice every year for future comparison. The photographs taken today will be the valued old photographs of tomorrow.
Graffiti Response Plans
It is important to develop a rapid response plan to graffiti and vandalism. A standard method of reporting and documenting vandalism and graffiti should be implemented as the minimum response.
A conservator might be willing to train specific people to respond to certain types of vandalism where rock art images are not directly affected. The personnel trained to perform these duties will have to learn the basic principles of conservation and learn to perform specific procedures under a designated range of conditions. Trained personnel also need to recognize when a problem is too complex for a non-conservator or is outside the scope of their training. Training should be site-specific and never be transferred to other sites or areas. The danger of this type training is that personnel might be tempted to take action beyond the scope of their training. It is extremely difficult to hire a conservator to work at any location where they suspect non-professionals might be performing conservation procedures without appropriate guidance.
Grants & Funding Sources
Many site managers reading this paper will feel that the greatest challenge facing them will be getting the funding needed to implement site management programs or to hire professional conservators. Rock art preservation may fall within the scope of many granting agencies that support the arts, museum collection projects, historic site restoration and interpretive programs, heritage preservation activities, tourism development, and cultural enhancements of travel corridors. When looking for funding sources, don't limit yourself to grants that only target archeological projects.
For example, the first grant awarded to Petit Jean State Park that provided funds for rock art research was a Conservation Assessment Program grant received from Heritage Preservation. Three rock art sites were identified as part of the park's museum "collection" of artifacts requiring conservation, which also included furniture made by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This project became the catalyst for additional rock art management plans and subsequent grants that provided funds to preserve rock art at other sites within the park.
Vandalism of rock art sites is a growing national problem. Whatever methods you may be considering in response to this problem likely have been tried elsewhere. It is well worth the effort to seek advice and assistance from experienced individuals and organizations; such advice will probably save you considerable time and expense.
Loendorf, Olson, Conner, Dean 1988
"A manual for Rock House Cave Art Documentation" A manual originally prepared for research at Pinion Canyon Maneuver Site and later adapted for the National Park Service as a workshop manual.
Dean, J. Claire 1997
"Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas: Report on the Condition Assessment of the Park's Collections," January 1997. Report provided to the Park in compliance with the requirements of a Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) survey.
Dean, J. Claire 1998
"Condition Assessment of Site 3CN185 (Rock House Cave), Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas: With Special Reference and Recommendations Regarding the Treatment of Graffiti," April 1998. Report, recommendations and treatment proposal for Rock House Cave, Petit Jean State Park, funded by a Preservation Education grant from the Arkansas Historic Education Program of the Arkansas Department of Natural Heritage.
Sabo, George 1987
"Gimme Shelter: Test Excavations at Rock House Cave (3CN20) in Petit Jean State Park," Report on test excavations carried out jointly by the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Archeological Society. Number 214, January/February 1987. "Field Notes" , newsletter of the Arkansas Archeological Society.
There are many organizations and conservation specialists that can assist you with advice. Below are listed three organizations where you can obtain much valuable information on rock art conservation:
American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA)
Arizona State Museum
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721-0026
Appendix: Management and Conservation Activity Timeline for Rock House Cave, Petit Jean State Park
November 1996: Conservation Assessment Program Grant from Heritage Preservation (Washington D.C.).
A conservator (as part of a larger museum type assessment) gave general recommendations for site management, care and conservation of three rock art sites including Rock House Cave. These recommendations formed the basis for subsequent work and planning.
April 1998: Arkansas Department of Heritage Preservation/Education Grant.
The conservator returned to perform a condition assessment on Rock House Cave. This assessment included site-specific recommendations that outlined the management plan for the Rock House Cave.
May 2000: Documentation Workshop.
A week-long workshop where 10 volunteers (including park employees) were trained in rock art site documentation under the agreement that they would assist in documenting Rock House Cave.
June 2000 to September 2000 (and continuing):
Volunteers documented the lower portions of Rock House Cave where graffiti was present in preparation for conservation work and graffiti reduction. Additional documentation of the pictographs will continue in the spring of 2001.
September 11-30 2000: Arkansas Natural & Cultural Resources Grant.
Dean & Associates Conservation Services performed conservation of Rock House Cave and graffiti reduction.
At intervals too numerous to list between the above dates, the author and Arkansas State Parks staff met and formed the basic management goals that included planning interpretive panels, trail improvements and the grant applications that led to the funding of the major projects.