Rock Art Timelines: Incidents of Intentional Human Damages to Rock Art Sites in Utah

While there are many ways contemporary humans can alter rock-art sites, the intentional ways are the most preventable. These intentional deliberate vandalisms reveal a conscious decision to alter the rock art with various methods; including graffiti and initial carving. Through the evidence at rock art sites, we can see that individuals feel the need to mark that the have been at the site, but what we cannot see is precisely what drives that desire to permanently connect with a site.

All American Man in Utah (From Chaffee, Hyman, and Rowe, 1994)

All American Man in Utah-outlined in chalk (From Chaffee, Hyman, and Rowe, 1994)

May 2014 JMN Initials are carved in Nine Mile Canton, Utah  (Family has apologized and agreed to pay damages)

June 2014 West Side of Utah Lake Painted with Targets

September 2015 University Students Deface Rock Art in Utah

October 2015 Arches National Park releases open letter regarding name carving on park property



Questions for Stewardship: Who Owns Rock Art?

There is a wide variety of opinions when it comes to rock art vandalism; some are complementary and some contradict. The discussion on rock art spans across the physical space and location, and into the realm of intangible cultural heritage.

Who owns rock art? 


“Defacedelk” in Nine Mile Canyon by Tricia Simpson – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons

Individual Ownership Individual ownership of archaeological sites typically occurs through private land ownership.

Cultural Ownership A specific culture may have an ownership claim to a site, and many rock art sites are directly linked to modern Native American Tribes.

State/National Ownership Many sites are located on State and Federal lands, who orient their care and protection around regulation, recreation, and education.

Rock Art-Sites of Value and Meaning

Along with the debate over who has the rights to physical access or possession, there are also diverse perspectives on the value of rock art. Scientific value, spiritual value, even monetary value. Many perspectives on how to treat and interact with rock art, regardless of ownership.

Moralist Orientation

“Closeting of cultural treasures and associated information by collectors, scientists, laboratories, or museums is a moralistic heresy” (Hutt, 2004).

This perspective urges we do the right thing and consider the perspective of the rightful owner. Considering that the art may belong to all, it would be unethical to keep fro mothers enjoyment and only allow a few.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works speaks of altering art as a sign of disrespect to the artist.. would you write your name on the Mona Lisa? How about a kid’s drawing? Does the status or era of the artist matter?

Paternal Perspectives

Are some people better suited to care for these treasures than others? Cultures should be happy their sites will be regulated for protection because they would not be able to protect it themselves.

Property Rights

Property rights relate to the exclusive use of an area, as well as the right to control and regulate others. The important consideration for this perspective is whether the current property owner should have rights over the ancient artist. Does not have rights to destroy. A land-owner can regulate access or commodify a site, but the rights to alter or destroy die with the artist.

Scientific Research 

Rock art has the potential to tell us things about specific cultures but also all of humankind. Rock art is important to researchers, and carving or accelerating natural deterioration is of ever-increasing concern.

Evolution of the Place

This perspective looks to humans a part of the environment. Ancient carvings and Modern Carvings are given equal consideration as to their value and potential meanings.

Site Access

Restricting Access

Human presence accelerates the natural degradation of rock art. One solution is creating barriers between the panel and ideal visitor area to influence a hands-off approach. Another tactic is keeping location information as exclusive as possible. The benefit is preservation, but who gets to experience it?

Open Access

Sharing information allows more people to experience ad enjoy, but is an issue for conservation, especially in tight places like caves.

Social Media and Rock Art Preservation

A new issue for rock art preservation is social media. There are arguments that Social Media Increases Site Damage, by opening sharing location information. There is also the possibility for widespread information sharing.

Will an increase in visitors be harmful if those visitors are well versed in preservation?


Carman, John.

2005       “Archaeology as Property,” in Against Cultural Property. London: Duckworth.

Hutt, Sherry

2004       “Cultural Property Law Theory,” in Legal Perspectives on Cultural Resources. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Unintentional Vandalism of Rock Art Sites

A piece I posted on Liminal Anthropology a while back.. Is is unfortunate that so many incidents come from misguided and outdated practices. One of the more sustainable ways to enjoy a site is simply to look around, take it all in, and don’t touch!

Heritage UX

With resilience to the elements and time, rock surfaces resulted to be the ideal canvas for lasting expressions of past cultures. Unfortunately, they are also accommodating for lasting vandalism, the effects of which survive indefinitely alongside original rock art. Unintentional damage often occurs from visitor use.

Spirit Bird Cave Petroglyph Panel (San Juan County, UT) Spirit Bird Cave Petroglyph Panel (San Juan County, UT)

There are multiple factors which must be considered including environmental, social, and economic factors (Deacon 2006), as well as concerns of vandalism.There are two general types of vandalism that affect rock art sites: deliberate and unintentional.

Deliberate vandalism involves a conscious decision to alter the rock art with various methods; including graffiti, initial carving (Individuals feel the need to mark that the have been at the site as well, and carve their name or initials), looting, and target practice. Preventing deliberate vandalism is not my primary focus for this research, as the effects…

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