Visiting a Rock Art Site? Here are Some Things to Consider Before you Arrive

Visiting archaeological sites can be a great way to connect with nature and involve kids in a fun, family-oriented adventure. Yet when visitors flock to these important locations, they might end up littering or even damaging the site itself. It is practices like that, among others, which have slowly eroded the beauty of these sites. When visiting rock art sites, we should appreciate the culture and art of older civilizations and also learn to preserve their majesty for future visitors to enjoy.

The Effects of Visitors at Archaeology Sites

People might not intend to disturb the art at archaeological sites, but large numbers of tourists are bound to cause some damage. Visitors who intentionally damage rock art sites are undoubtedly part of the problem. These practices can be anything from touching the walls the art rests on to littering throughout the archaeological site. Some visitors even go so far as to purposefully draw or write over the art.

However, far more people unintentionally damage these archaeological sites. This leads to the eventual erosion of the art from the walls, alteration of the archaeological site and permanent loss of important cultural history. Loss of these sites means we will lose a link to a piece of history – one we may never recover again. That’s why learning how to preserve our history is important.

How to Visit a Rock Art Site

Quite a few independent conservation organizations provide information on proper etiquette for visiting archaeological sites. One such organization called Friends of Cedar Mesa has tips on how to protect ancient sites:

  • Teach Children: Children may not understand the gravity of the sites they are visiting and may be inclined to touch artifacts or excavations. It’s important to educate them on the importance of preservation and conservancy from a young age.
  • Don’t Touch Artifacts: Even though these artifacts have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years, human contact can leave behind damaging oils that do a significant amount of harm.
  • Be Mindful of Walls: The walls may seem sturdy, but they are part of an excavation and can become unstable as other sections undergo their own excavations. Stay away from walls, and try not to lean against them.
  • No Pets: Some people may want to take their dog or other pet on hikes into ancient excavation sites; however, it’s best to leave pets at home on these trips. Pets can cause damage by either digging or stepping on something they shouldn’t.
  • Obey Signs: Most areas will have signs directing you onto certain paths. Be sure to look out for these signs to make sure you follow the right route.

These are just a few of the tips you can follow to help make a difference in protecting our national heritage sites.

Public Intervention Campaigns

A lot of organizations are dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage sites and ancient archaeological sites. In addition to Friends of Cedar Mesa, there are others like Tread Lightly and The Archaeological Conservancy. Of course, federal, state and local governments also enforce preservation laws and monitor for vandalism, but they can only do so much.

With millions of Americans visiting archaeological sites every year, it’s unrealistic to monitor everybody. You are the best steward for protecting the sites and ancient cultural histories we admire. By following a few key steps and being aware of the potential harm human activities can do, you can preserve ancient history for many generations to come.


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

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 of deliberate vandalism are instant, and in many cases unavoidable.

Unintentional vandalism occurs due to misinformation or ignorance, with adverse effects accumulating over time.

There are several factors which impact theories of rock art conservation. Deacon (2006) points out that although many groups consider conservation to be a “good” reaction to detriments or vandals, there are several other points of view that must be taken into account. She asserts that theories regarding rock art conservation delicately balance between environmental, social, and economic factors (Deacon 2006).

Environmental factors are Necessary to consider, due to their presence at every site. Environmental considerations for the conservation and preservation of rock art sites include: the material of the host rock surface, surrounding climate, and types of paints, pigments, or engravings used in the rock art. It is also important to consider any physical alterations from people, plants or animals, or artifacts that may be associated with the site (Deacon 2006). Because the environment is ever present and constant at art sites even without the human element, their effects must be considered.

The social factors which should be considered for conservation include the rights of descendant communities, property owners and researchers, management policies and legislation, and public expectations and attitudes (Deacon 2006). Many legislation decisions and management policies are dependent on who the property owner is.

Accountability may be one of the most important considerations for the protection of rock art sites. When individuals feel connected to a site, they feel a responsibility to protect it. Grant says those with private ownership of a site may be inclined to protect it more, rather than a Federal entity with no personal connection to the land (Van Tilburg 1980). This is where public expectations and attitudes become exceedingly important. These are the local individuals, rather than tourists, who may have information, time, or resources that they are willing to contribute. For example, there are site steward programs which train volunteers to periodically report on the conditions of a site (Whitley 2005).

Because it inevitably takes money to enact many conservation procedures, economic considerations include the location of the site in relation to roads, type of ownership of the site and tourism facility, tourism marketing strategies, level of income generated by tourism, and the extent to which local people lose or derive income from rock art tourism (Deacon 2006). Tourism can be very beneficial in that it generates the income needed to protect and maintain a site; however there is an increase in concern when visitor numbers increase. Concerns which may have little adverse effect in small numbers may significantly affect rock art integrity or dating potential. An example would be a significant increase in carbon deposits from campfire smoke.

Visitors interpret the context of a site in much the same way archaeological researchers do, therefor the manner of presentation of a site to visitors is essential to discouraging vandalism, whether intentional or unintentional. A site which is free of graffiti and visitor garbage presents the image that there is a person nearby who is involved and concerned for the site. If funding permits, the ideal tourism tactic involves guided tours and educational outreach. Infrastructure such as low fences, informative signs, and visitor sign-in boxes are beneficial when funding may not provide for a guide. These still provide a perceived official presence which may detour vandals.

A really great idea I stumbled upon recently on this Leave No Trace blog, allows visitors to leave their mark in a designated area, deterring unintentional vandalism. It is a simple idea, with a message informing visitors to help preserve as well as leaving behind a personal connection. Check it out!


Deacon, Janette

2006    Rock Art Conservation and Tourism. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 13, No. 4, Advances in the Study of Pleistocene Imagery and Symbol Use [Part I]

Van, Tilburg JoAnne, and Clement W. Meighan

1981    Prehistoric Indian Rock Art: Issues & Concerns: Report of the 1980 Conference Proceedings, Institute of Archaeology, the Rock Art Archive, University of California, Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles.

Whitley, David S.

2005    Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.