Review of ‘Rock Art and Posterity: Conserving, Managing and Recording Rock Art’ edited by C. Pearson and B.K. Scwartz and ‘Conserving Australian Rock Art: A Manual for Site Managers’ by D. Lampert

26th May 2014

‘Rock Art and Posterity: Conserving, Managing and Recording Rock Art’ edited by C. Pearson and B.K. Scwartz, 1991, Melbourne: Australian Rock Art Research Association, vi + 153 pp. ISBN 0-646-03751-X (pbk).
‘Conserving Australian Rock Art: A Manual for Site Managers’ by D. Lampert, 1989, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 102 pp. ISBN 0-85575-210-6 (pbk)

Review by Christopher Chippendale

Most archaeological deposits are safely stratified underground, where they remain under stable conditions unless the water table moves or other environmental changes affect them. Most excavated objects, if they survive the shock of leaving the ground, should be amenable to museum storage under controlled conditions. Rock art offers a uniquely difficult combination: the decorated surfaces are exposed aboveground, which makes them vulnerable to natural and human impact, yet they cannot be removed to the controlled conditions of a museum.

The first and larger part of Rock Art and Posterity, a selection of papers from the 1988 Darwin rock art congress addresses aspects of the conservation and management of rock art sites. Ten good papers discuss case studies from Australian sites: Sullivan on conflicting interests that must be reconciled in presenting Kakadu sites to the public (NT); Caldicott on saving small painted sites in the Mount Lofty Ranges near Adelaide (SA); Walsh on protection and preservation in the Flinders Group islands (Old); Blanks and Brown on preserving the sand cover that protects the Mount Cameron engravings (Tas); Randolph and Wallam on planning for tourism at Padjari Manu, North West Cape (WA); Bednarik on regulating access to preserve engravings in Paroong Cave (SA); Thorn on removing new overpainting from art at Bunjils Cave (Vic); Clarke and North on pigment composition of recent Kakadu art, and on the chemistry of its deterioration; and Clarke et al on preservation of the ‘Lightning Brothers’ depictions at Yiwalalay (NT). As a varied group, with varied concerns, they together make up a fair mosaic of the technical and non-technical issues involved. Walsh and Bednarik illustrate what can be done – in difficult field conditions. Clarke’s papers, with the chemistry plainly stated for the lay reader, indicate just what conservation has to cope with. The Kakadu sites offer a great range of natural minerals, mineral mixtures and modern industrial materials used as pigments, often overpainted or mixed together, and which may then be much transformed in their place on the rock surface. Carbonate pigments, for example, are transformed by sulphur in the atmosphere (deriving from the Kakadu wetlands, rather than pollution) into sulphates, which water would wash off the rock. The scale of the conservation problem and its consequences are again illustrated by a further pair of papers (in French) by Vidal, Vouve and Brunet on the engraved caves of Combarelles (Les Eyzies, France). Conserving its art requires management of the surface use of the entire hill which holds the cave, and restricts the number of visitors to the cave to just 133 people per day.

Scattered amongst this group of instructive and coherent papers are shorter contributions on several subjects, from the record of recent paintings destroyed in Malaysia to the programme for a Getty Conservation Institute rock art course. Haskovec here offers a useful reminder that issues in rock art conservation are not confined to the technical questions.

The second part of the book, on recording and ‘standardisation’, is shorter, thinner and diverse; the weak interest in the topic at Darwin had been a surprise. Moore on the variation in the records that were made of the same site with the same and with different field methods I found particularly telling. There is no single theme, but questions do recur: what is the aim of rock art recording, and who is it for? Here, the Australian Rock Art Research Association’s view is visible that rock art studies belong in a domain of their own. I disagree. A history of estrangement between rock art studies and archaeology demands marriage, not divorce. Some common agreed terminology is useful for the common concepts. Otherwise, the first cousin to rock art studies in a given region and period will as often be the corresponding archaeological material as the pictures in some other, distant place. The vocabulary, and frames of research reference, need to follow local needs.

Together, the papers make a useful book, which would have been narrower and stronger if it had not spread out beyond the coherent core of conservation case studies.

Conserving Australian Rock Art is a practical manual for site managers in the AIATSIS report series. It is intended to enable managers to undertake for themselves straightforward conservation work, and – equally – to recognise more complex undertakings for which professional guidance would be required. Most of what it covers seems to fall in the second category. The aspects addressed are the destructive impacts of surface water, salts, soil and vegetation, microflora (lichens, algae and so on) , animals (from insects to cattle) , visitors (with and without good intentions), and vandalism in the form of graffiti. The nature of each impact is sketched, and practical responses set out, illustrated by examples from across Australia and reference to the few publications that make up the standard sources (eg Rosenfeld 1985; Sullivan 1984). Often, experience in this new field is rather limited, so no tested method is known; and the advice is sensibly cautious. The book is admirably clear, plainly written and straightforward; its large type means it has rather few words for a book of its length; the production and colour pictures are excellent.


Rosenfeld, A. 1985 Rock Art Conservation in Australia. Australian Heritage Publication: Canberra.

Sullivan, H. (ed.) 1984 Visitors to Aboriginal Sites: Access, Control and Management, Proceedings of the 1983 Kakadu Workshop. Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service: Canberra.

Chippendale, C.
Review of ‘Rock Art and Posterity: Conserving, Managing and Recording Rock Art’ edited by C. Pearson and B.K. Scwartz and ‘Conserving Australian Rock Art: A Manual for Site Managers’ by D. Lampert
June 1992
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