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.