Preservation of Rock Art

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Protect rock art

I have been studying rock art in the American West for over 10 years, concentrating my research on public sites, and how they have been “developed” for public visitation. I have drawn a number of conclusion about site selection, and procedures for preparing a site for public visitation.

by Ronald D. Sanders

TRACCE PHP-Nuke version, 2002-2011

Preservation of Rock Art

(Much of the following material has been taken from my recent book manuscript,
Public Rock Art of the Southwest)

Protection of Rock Art

Any approach to the protection of Rock art should take into account a number of common sense issues. It must be conceded that it is probably not practical to assume that we can protect all rock art from all threats. To carry this idea to its logical conclusion, we can safely and logically assume that at least some sites will eventually be damaged or destroyed, despite our best efforts.

Next, considering that there are very limited funds for the purpose of rock art protection on public lands, a criterion for deciding which sites are suitable for protection must be devised. To decide this, we must determine the primary threat to the individual site, the need for protection, and the practicalities of providing the protective measures necessary to deal with the threats.

Finally, we must determine if the funds and/or manpower are available to implement the plan. In many cases, there are numerous volunteers available to help do the work under proper supervision. Unfortunately, some professional archaeologists do not Play Well With Others, and cannot or will not work with amateur volunteers.

Protection of Rock Art Sites

One of the first steps necessary in protecting rock art sites is to locate as many sites as possible and to document or record them. A mandate to do just his was issued by a former Secretary of the Interior, but congress has not seen fit to appropriate funds for the work.

In order to document a site, detailed data and information about the site must be collected. Information gathered should include; location, directions to site, elevation, personal observations, types and style of images, description of design motifs, and Misc. information about the overall site location. In addition, drawings and/or photographs of all images should be included. This information is then turned over to the appropriate authority in charge of the site location.

After all necessary data is collected, each individual site should be evaluated to determine if it is a reasonable candidate for protection, and what forms of protection are practical.

Improving Sites for Public Visitation as a means of Protection

Of the thousands of rock art sites found throughout the Southwest, a few have been or are in the process of being, improved and stabilized for public visitation. After an appropriate site has been thoroughly recorded and documented, a number of improvements (enhancements) are frequently added to the site.

Physical improvements (enhancements) such as paved parking lots, trash receptacles, rest rooms, pick nick tables, and ramadas are often constructed near the site. In addition, graveled paths, fences, registration boxes, and regulatory and interpretive signs are often added.

Sometimes graffiti is removed from the panels, but in other cases it is left in place as an example of the destruction it causes, often with a sign explaining the problem and a number to call to report vandals. This approach has proven effective in reducing the amount of vandalism and graffiti at many such sites. As an example, Buckhorn Wash in Utah was severely damaged by vandals over a period of many years. It was decided to restore the site and improve it for public visitation. Since the project was completed, a BLM official reported to me that the vandalism to the panels has been greatly reduced. One recent act of vandalism involved damage to an information kiosk and a restroom, but the rock art was not involved.

The Degree of Protection Necessary for Rock Art Sites

The location of rock art sites is a major factor in determining the types and amount of protection it needs or receives. Many sites have found partial protection simply by being within the boundaries of public Parks and Monuments.

Officials routinely patrol most parks, and there are usually numerous people around to spot and report any vandals or thieves. There is also a psychological deterrent associated with rock art found on official government property such as parks and monuments.

Specific laws protect all rock art on public land, but rock art found on private property is only protected by trespass laws, which are up to the property owner to enforce.

In the past, it has been the practice of archaeologists to keep the location of sites a dark secret from the general public so as to protect them from vandals and pothunters, a nice name for looters, thieves, and grave robbers.

However, as I once wrote in an article published in the Arizona Parks Arizona Watch monthly site steward newsletter:

As people become more mobile, and access becomes easier into remote areas, this approach is simply no longer effective. This idea may have best been summed up by the comments of (former) BLM archaeologist Keith Myhrer, of Las Vegas. —- because I recognize (that) the present population has greater access to previously inaccessible areas, it is unreasonable to assume that land management officials can effectively prevent public access to public lands.


Most methods used to protect rock art from vandals, and even unintentional damage by visitors should employ a combination of physical and psychological deterrents. Different approaches are effective on different people, so a combination and variety of deterrents and controls is suggested.

The ultimate goal in site protection is to protect it from degradation due to both intentional and unintentional human acts. Even the simple act of lightly touching rock art is harmful.

Fences and Paths

At many sites, land managers have successfully used fences and improved paths to help keep the impact of public visitation to a minimum. In some cases, entire sites have been enclosed in 8-foot high chain link fences, but this is not practical at most sites. In such cases, a 3 to 4-foot wood rail fence in front of the main panels or along the footpath is considered the best approach, especially if accompanied with signs to Please Stay on the Established Pathways.

To encourage visitors to remain on paths, some sites employ signs which warn of rattlesnakes in the vicinity. At one site poison ivy is encouraged to grow between the path and some of the rock art panels.

Fences should be obvious, but not present a challenge to visitors. Generally a stained, low, wood rail fence seems to be most effective in presenting a physical and psychological barrier to visitors. Chain link fences are often viewed as a challenge to some people, and do not contribute to the natural setting of the site.

Paths that are paved or graveled are effective at controlling access and egress from rock art sites, as well as keeping visitors respectful distances form the rock art itself.

Visitor Registration Boxes

Registration boxes at rock art access points have proven highly successful in several locations where they have been used. Visitor Registration Boxes act as an initial intervention device for rock art sites. If visitors register their names at the trailhead, they are not likely to vandalize the site. This also affords an official presence at the site when site monitors are not present. In addition to registering visitors, these boxes often are used to distribute brochures or other information about the site, and acquire data about site usage.

For additional information contact the Los Padres National Forest in California, or the Coconino National Forest in Arizona where visitor boxes have been in place for some time, and have proven quite successful.

Signing Rock Art Sites

Forward thinking archaeologists and land managers recognize that they cannot effectively prevent the public from visiting easily accessible rock art sites. An effective program has been successfully used by several agencies in the West is the use of informative, interpretive, and warning signs near or at rock art sites.

Forest Service Archeologists are conducting one of the best and most effective protection programs in the Los Padres National Forest of California. The Los Padres National Forest contains many accessible Chumash Culture rock art sites, which had suffered varying degrees of vandalism in the past. In an effort to stop the destruction, forest archaeologists initiated an aggressive signing and Site Steward program called Partners in Preservation. The results have been very satisfactory. While it can not be said that the problem has been totally solved, vandalism has been drastically reduced.

Another quote from my aforementioned Arizona Watch article states:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted an exhaustive study of the issue of signing archaeological sites in 1989. The results of this study have been published in a book titled ‘Protecting the Past,’ in the chapter ‘Archaeological Site Protection Programs,’ under the title ‘Signing as a Means of Protecting Archaeological Sites’.

According to the study, in order for a signing program to be most effective, the following factors must be considered.

  1. Site Selection: Sites which are easily accessible, highly visible, or have a history of looting or vandalism should be strongly considered.
  2. Sign Message: Signs should incorporate a warning message and an interpretive or information message.
  3. Location of Signs: On-site signing is usually preferred for highly visible and easily accessible sites. Access roads or trails could be signed for remote areas. Signs should be placed in nearby camping areas.
  4. Misc. Considerations: To maximize effectiveness, all sign programs should be used in conjunction with other protective measures: law enforcement, site monitoring, public education, visitor registration boxes, etc.
  5. In addition, cooperation between all Federal and state agencies is paramount in order to maximize a site protection program.

Other forms of signing are informative and educational signs placed at rock art sites. These signs give the site an official presence, and impart a feeling of importance to the rock art.

Site Stewards

Another very effective protection program is to institute a Site Steward program supervised by trained officials, and used in conjunction with strict law enforcement.

The Arizona Parks Division administered by the State Historic Preservation Office conducts one of the best Site Steward programs. This statewide program trains volunteers to monitor and record sites, and keeps close account of any site destruction. Rangers investigate all reports of vandalism or looting.

Other states have site steward programs, but most are locally administered, and often apply to very limited areas.


One method used to protect some sites, which seems very effective, is by creating a Graffiti Rock. At El Morro National Monument, NM, a large boulder of soft volcanic tuff has been placed near the entrance to the visitor center with a sign inviting visitors to scratch their names in the soft stone. This rock is covered with names, dates and place names, but the nearby rock art remains undamaged.

Another way to divert people from fragile or endangered sites is to develop other rock art sites nearby, thus satisfying their natural curiosity.

It is common to find petroglyphs that have been damaged by bullet holes. An unintended form of diversion has occurred at several such sites found in places frequented by hunters. Recently, hunters have shot holes in signs placed at sites and left the rock art unharmed.

Other methods

A row of large boulders placed across the main access point to some rock art sites have been used to eliminate vehicle access to the area. This tactic has successfully protected many sites that were previously damaged by participants in teen-aged beer parties, and people dumping trash

A row of white-painted rocks is an inexpensive and effective alternative to a fence or other barrier at some rock art sites.

Free literature, on site supervision, and peer pressure are all methods used to help protect rock art sites. Improving a site with a gravel parking area, good trails, and trashcans makes it appear more official and important to visitors, eliciting more respect.

At one site in Marin County, California, poison ivy was planted at the base of a petroglyph panel. This sounds like a great way to force people to keep their distance, especially if a warning sign was also erected. It would not be good however, if the ivy were to grow up onto the panel.

In some areas that have had much foot traffic without any supervision, the natural vegetation has been trampled and destroyed. In some instances in California, the BLM has called on the local Audubon Society to help replant indigenous species to restore the site. Of course, if well-marked paths are not also constructed, this will do little good.

Law Enforcement

There is at least one other criteria that must be included in any site protection plan, and that is to investigate criminal acts of vandalism and looting, and to apprehend and prosecute the offenders.

There are numerous Federal and State laws that are designed to protect cultural resources, including rock art, but in order for laws to be effective, there must be a way to enforce them. Crooks do not voluntarily comply with the law.

All acts of vandalism or looting must be immediately reported to the appropriate authorities.

The Laws

Federal laws;

  1. Antiquities Act of 1906. (Public Law 59-209)
    Requires a permit for any archeological excavation, and provides for penalties of violators.
  2. Historic Sites Act of 1935. (Public Law 74-942)
    Declares a national policy to preserve for the public, historic sites and objects of national significance.
  3. National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (as amended).
    Provides funds and guidelines for the preservation of archaeological sites on public land.
  4. The Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979.
    Establishes a permit requirement for the excavation or removal of archaeological sites and artifacts from public or Indian lands. Prohibits the excavation, removal, alteration, and defacement of any archaeological resource located on public or Indian lands without a proper permit. Prohibits the sale, purchase, or transport of illegally obtained artifacts.Establishes fines of up to $250,000 and up to 2 years imprisonment for violations of this law.
  5. Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act of 1990.
    This law establishes provisions for the intentional removal and inadvertent discovery of human remains from Federal and tribal lands.

State Laws

Most states have also passed laws protecting archaeological sites on state lands.

What Can You do?

  • Volunteers:
    There are numerous successful volunteer Site Steward programs involved in rock art site monitoring and protection throughout the Southwest. Among other things, Site Stewards keep sites free of trash and debris, document and photograph sites, provide information in the form of narration or brochures, help add improvements to public sites, and periodically check remote sites for damage or vandalism.
    If you might like to get involved contact your nearest BLM or State Historical office for more information.
  • Rock Art Organizations:
    There are a number of rock art organizations throughout the Southwest, which work to protect rock art. These volunteer organizations often conduct trash removal projects at sites, monitor endangered sites on the weekends and at other times as well, and perform other conservation duties. Often the yare advised, or work under the direction of a government official.

Recently The American Rock Art Research Association has been reviewing suggested ways to protect rock art.

The ARARA’s Guidelines for Managers of rock art Sites on Public Lands, (To which I made several contributions, and am proud to be on the list of contributors.) is being prepared by M. Leigh Marymor at the time of this writing, and will offer some basic suggestions on what should be considered for developing rock art sites for public access.

Site Visitation

There are a number of things the individual can do to help protect rock art sites. A good general rule of thumb to follow when visiting rock art sites is to Leave No Trace. To be more specific, carry out all of your litter, don’t step on plants, don’t dig, touch, or otherwise disturb the site. Leave only your footprints behind, nothing else.

A specific site visiting protocol has been suggested and I recommend its use.

Site Etiquette

  1. DO NOT CLIMB ON ROCKS AT ROCK ART SITES. If you need to get a better look, use binoculars or a telephoto lens.
  2. NEVER REMOVE ANYTHING BUT LITTER FROM A SITE. Artifacts that may be lying on the ground in the vicinity of a rock art site, such as potshards or projectile points, could provide valuable archeological information. Removing artifacts is also illegal.
  3. DO NOT DISCLOSE SITE LOCATIONS TO PEOPLE YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE HONEST, LAW ABIDING CITIZENS. The only possible exception would be when referring to Public or other well known and highly visited sites.
  4. TREAD LIGHTLY. These sites are sacred places to many Indian People. Just as you would not create a disturbance in a Cathedral, comport yourself appropriately at all rock art sites.
  5. DON’T LITTER. Litter can contaminate the soil at a site and alter scientific soil tests. Leave the site in better condition than you found it. If there is any litter present, be a good citizen and pack it out.
  6. DO NOT MAKE TRACINGS, RUBBINGS OR PUT CHALK ON ROCK ART. Such practices damage rock art, do not touch it with anything, not even your hands.
  7. DO NOT BUILD FIRES, OR SMOKE NEAR SITES. Smoke contains carbon that can adhere to the rock art and make it impossible to date.
  8. DO NOT TOUCH ROCK ART. Even oils from your skin can contaminate the surface of rock art, and also contribute to its deterioration.
  9. DO NOT BRING DOGS TO ROCK ART SITES. Dogs damage or contaminate rock art sites by digging, defecating, and urinating in them.
  10. STAY ON ESTABLISHED TRAILS WHEN PROVIDED. Help protect site ecosystems.
  11. DON’T DISTURB PLANTS OR ANIMALS AROUND THE SITE. The surrounding environment is an important part of the site.

By following these simple rules you can help protect and preserve rock art sites.

Children pose a greater threat to rock art than their parents do. Children have a tendency to climb on rocks, and create dust by running around. When taking children to rock art sites, keep them under control, and see that they treat these sacred sites with due respect.

A good rule of thumb to follow when visiting rock art sites is to Respect rock art sites as sacred places. Use the same decorum as when visiting any sacred place such as a Cathedral or Holy shrine.

Additional things you can do

As mentioned earlier, just your physical presence at a site can be potentially damaging. In addition, some sites are high up in the rocks, and it can be dangerous trying to get close to them. To avoid these problems, view sites from a distance.

Many sites are easily seen from the road, and if you have a pair of binoculars or even better, a spotting scope and a tripod, you can see great detail. I routinely carry 8 power binoculars, a 10-35 power spotting scope, and a 200-mm telephoto lens. This allows me to spot, study, and photograph many sites without leaving the pavement!

Report Vandals

If you see anyone damaging a site DO NOT APPROACH THEM! Instead, discreetly observed them from a distance and write down their description, their vehicle description and license plate number if possible.

Report this information to an appropriate authority as soon as possible.

Numbers to Call

BLM Law Enforcement (Nationwide): (800) 722-3998


Protection of rock art and other archaeological sites on public land is mandated by law. A recent federal law mandates that all federal land be inventoried for all resources, including antiquities, which would naturally include rock art. Unfortunately, little or no funds are allocated for the implementation of this requirement.

In reality, it appears that the actual protection of rock art is not a serious priority for our government, otherwise it would provide funds for this purpose. Often, what little funds are available are primarily used for pacification purposes.

The public should be allowed to enjoy rock art before it is all gone, but until serious measures are taken the destruction will continue

For laws to effectively protect rock art, there are several factors which must be considered.

People must be made aware of the laws. Unfortunately Ignorance of the Law may be no defense against prosecution, but the concept does nothing to protect rock art from the ignorant. People must be educated, and be made to understand that destroying, damaging or vandalizing Rock is illegal, and that they could be fined and sent to jail if caught doing it.

People must be willing to comply with the law, either out of respect, or from fear of prosecution. In order for a law to be effective, it must be enforceable. There must be sufficient law enforcement agents available to act as a deterrent force. How many Federal Rangers have you seen in the desert? I spend a great deal of time there, and I have only seen one, once.

As we all know, respect for the law in recent times has reached an all-time low, and we all suspect which segment of the population is the least respectful of all, don’t we?

The bottom line is; Laws cannot effectively protect rock art from vandals, period. We must employ better, more efficient methods.

Currently the alternatives include:

  1. Physical Protection: Blocking off access routes, fences and other physical barriers,
  2. Increased Visibility/Fear of detection: Ranger patrols, site monitoring, and increased public presence.
  3. Education: Signs, public relations/publicity, literature, and on-site interpreters (site stewards)

Unfortunately, many sites are simply being ignored by the people responsible for them, and the result of this neglect is predictable; such sites are destined to be damaged or destroyed.

And finally, if you visit a site which you feel is being mismanaged, or needs additional protection, please express your opinion to the responsible agency which has authority over the site.

We must all do our part in helping to protect this valuable resource.

Ronald D. Sanders

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