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Deterioration of rock art

Rock paintings are remarkably fragile and can be damaged in many ways. Wind, sun, rain, fire and dust all take their toll. Animals such as buffalo, pigs, cattle and horses cause paints to flake and crumble when they rub against the surfaces. Paintings are also damaged by the activity of birds and certain insects such as termites and mud wasps that build nests on rock walls. Plants, too, can have an effect. Moulds, fungi, algae and lichen grow over many painting sites, and tree roots can cause whole rock surfaces to crack or fall away.

Ochre paints are easily washed away, or simply fade through natural weathering. On the other hand, water rich in silica can protect painted surfaces by sealing the paintings and protecting them from physical, chemical and botanical damage.

Perhaps most damaging of all are the activities of people. Visitors disturb dust which coats painted surfaces and may physically abrade or chemically react with the paints. Motorists, tourists and vandals are, intentionally or unintentionally, accelerating the deterioration of many paintings.


Various protective measures are being taken. The simplest involve putting up fences to keep out wild, feral and domestic animals and building barriers to keep cars and campfires at a distance. Other measures include silicone driplines to divertwater away from decorated surfaces, removal of lichen, and managing vegetation to prevent damage from bushfires.

Another way to protect sites is to provide visitor facilities that encourage appreciation of the paintings and engravings at a distance. This may involve providing boardwalks and low barriers to keep visitors to a path or to elevate them so they have a better view. Informative signs and take-away brochures alert visitors to the fragility and cultural significance of the paintings and engravings. Guided tours, especially those given by Aboriginal custodians, are another important means of education.

In preserving Aboriginal paintings and engravings, it is important to consider the knowledge and wishes of the Aboriginal custodians. Until the coming of Europeans, Aborigines did not need to concern themselves with how well or how long the pigments they painted with would survive. Their traditional responsibilities ensured that important paintings were renewed.

Today, however, the descendants of many custodial groups do not have the knowledge and access necessary to maintain sites that contain significant imagery. For some Aboriginal custodians, so much knowledge has been lost that their primary concern now is to preserve what already exists and prevent further damage and deterioration.

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