Indigenous rock art at risk

Published The Age, June 1, 2011


AUSTRALIA'S extraordinary collection of Aboriginal rock art is at risk from piecemeal recording practices and some sites are being degraded and lost before they have even been catalogued.

Federalism is part of the problem. Every Aboriginal language group is responsible for its own rock art sites, while state governments, universities and private archaeologists manage a variety of different databases of rock art. Yet there is no national register of the estimated 100,000 rock art sites in Australia.

The chair of rock art at Griffith University, Professor Paul Taçon, yesterday launched a campaign for a national register or rock art that would include 3D laser scans of important sites.

Taçon warns half the sites in Australia could disappear without recording in less than 50 years if nothing is done. ''Each year Australian rock art suffers from vandalism, industrial and urban development, climate change and inadequate protection measures,'' he says.

The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register contains more than 150 rock art sites in Victoria, some estimated to be more than 3000 years old.

While key sites are protected by cages, some sites are still prone to climate events and graffiti vandalism.

According to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, which manages the register, ''Post-fire surveys often identify previously unrecorded rock art sites'' so there are still sites in Victoria we don't know about.

Taçon, who has studied world and Australian rock art for 30 years, says Australia is well behind countries including South Africa, France, Spain, India and China in creating a national register.

''A key function of the register is to make a list of all available databases,'' he says.

Every Aboriginal language group is responsible for its own rock art sites while state governments, universities and private archaeologists manage a multitude of different databases of rock art.

The proposed archive would work with local Aboriginal communities who have to approve the public listing and protection of sites. This can lead to conflict as Aboriginal Affairs Victoria found in 2008, when it tried to restore some of the Mudgegonga rock art near Myrtleford without involving local Dhudhuroa people. Dhudhuroa spokesman Gary Murray said at the time it was ''akin to having a precious Picasso restored by trainees when Picasso is sitting next to you.''

The comparison with Picasso is not out of place. Taçon says the amount of money required to protect 5000 and 10,000-year-old rock art is not much compared to the price paid by national galleries for single paintings less than 100 years old.

A national archive needs funding and with the support of celebrities including John Williamson and Jack Thompson, Taçon is looking for philanthropists as well as federal funding.

There are precedents for such philanthropy. Allan and Maria Myers bought land surrounding the famous Bradshaw figures in the Kimberley to help protect them.

While many sites are on pastoral leases with benevolent landowners, others are on land wanted or owned by the mining sector.

The 2007 removal of rock art on Western Australia's Burrup peninsula to make way for a Woodside Petroleum gas processing plant was reported but there are fears more destruction goes unreported.

Every few years there is academic controversy over the exact dating of Aboriginal sites, partly because archaeologists draw media attention by claiming the oldest art ever found. In 2001, a defamation action between archaeologists involved accusations of racism over dating claims and caused the withdrawal and amendment of The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture.

Such frictions feed the cynicism of those who complain about the use of sacred sites for Aboriginal land claims. But it is hard to argue against carbon dated rock art, whether you see it as ancient graffiti or sacred art.

Some Victorian Koories believe the image of Bunjil in Bunjil's Shelter at Gariwerd (the Grampians) was painted by the creator god himself and therefore has a significance older than the Shroud of Turin and most other holy relics around the world.

Parks Victoria monitors around 120 rock art places registered on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register. Ninety-one are located within Gariwerd and Black Range State Park. Other sites are at Mount Pilot - Chiltern National Park, Langi Ghiran State Park, and the Mount Talbot, Mount Lawson and Mount Wombat-Garden Range, Flora and Fauna Reserves.

Tony English, Manager Aboriginal Joint Management for Parks Victoria, said depending on age, exposure and accessibility, most sites were in good condition and ''rangers report that graffiti and other forms of vandalism have decreased over the years as public appreciation and awareness has increased.'' The same may not be true in other parts of Australia.



© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.