Saturday’s Guardian newspaper features a long article which reports on the threat to Australia’s extraordinary treasure house of indigenous rock art — much of which is still not recorded, let alone being properly conserved.
The Guardian’s Oliver Milman writes that experts warn that half the country’s rock paintings – some dating back 30,000 years – could disappear within 50 years. Oliver Milman met with the Indigenous rangers and researchers working to protect delicate sandstone from the triple threat of mining, graffiti and feral animals on Cape York and produced this report which can be found at:
On the Arnhem Plateau, within the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area indigenous rangers are working to locate, document and protect what has been described as a “painted landscape”, with thousands of sites and countless images.
A recent threat to the art is the arrival of feral buffalo, pigs and cattle on the plateau. Feral buffalo came up into the high country around the mid 20th century and feral pigs and cattle much later.
Where the sites are accessible the buffalo, pigs and cattle are known to rub up against paintings — with predictably disastrous results. Where they choose to make a camp in what are often old human habitations the soil is pounded into a fine tilth, mixed with powdered dung.
In the times of strong SE winds this dust is blown onto paintings and in times of high humidity becomes to a degree attached to the painted surfaces.
Some problems require a high level of technical conservation expertise — something often beyond the budgets of organisations like Warddeken.
However, rangers are doing what they can and in particularly important and vulnerable sites they are flying in prefabricated metal cattle yard panels which clip together in an attempt to fence the ferals away from paintings and out of the occupation sites. The buffaloes, cattle and pigs also damage the integrity of the archaeology of occupation sites, breaking fragile stone tools and sometimes fibre and wooden implements found there.
In the picture at the top Warddeken Rangers proudly show fencing they installed at a site called Yenamarraway where the many images include a horse painted by the venerable elder Wamud Namok in his youth.
The other picture is at a site in Djok clan country where the images include two almost-life-size horses, (one with a rider) as well as a buffalo shooter, guns and a goat. At this site feral cattle had been camping right inside the large shelter during the wet season.
The Guardian is right in asserting that the conservation of Australian rock art urgently needs help. Technical conservation expertise is needed to support indigenous initiatives and most importantly greatly increased Federal funds need to flow to save a heritage that is both indigenous heritage and the heritage of all humanity.

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