In light of global trends in human population growth and urbanization, burgeoning cultural heritage tourism industries, and climate change, cultural heritage places in nearly every corner of the world are significantly threatened, and will remain so into the foreseeable future. Rock art sites are some of the most imperiled, with their exposed contexts posing unique challenges to conservation. Consequently, effective management of publically accessible rock art sites necessitates a sustainable approach that weighs visitation in regard to cultural significance and site stability. This essay integrates rock art stability and sustainability assessment methodologies at the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site in southwestern Arizona. The study specifically applies the Rock Art Stability Index (RASI) to evaluate the natural and anthropogenic weathering forces impacting the site, and the Heritage Asset Sensitivity Gauge (HASG) to assess site sustainability under existing management practices in relation to current and forecasted rates of visitation. A spatial analysis of aggregated RASI data shows that visitor foot traffic has had some of the most profound impacts to the petroglyphs. Unrestricted access to the site area is also highly correlated with the presence and location of vandalism and graffiti, and visitor-related trampling has adversely affected the site’s surface artifact assemblage. Application of the HASG projects that, while existing management practices are fairly sustainable, they become less so under forecasted increases in visitation. Further, the HASG appraises the site’s cultural significance as outweighing its market appeal, indicating management efforts should prioritize conservation over tourism-related development.
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This condition assessment of the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site originated through communication with descendant communities and consideration of their interests. During meetings with the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe’s Cultural Committee and Tribal Council regarding the proposed Great Bend of the Gila National Monument, participants voiced concern for how cultural heritage places would be managed, citing the impact of high levels of unrestricted visitation to Painted Rocks as a case in point (Wright and Hopkins 2016:112). Similar concern was voiced by advisors from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community during a presentation to the Four Southern Tribes Cultural Resource Working Group on August 18, 2017.
Penetrative vandalism can be cosmetically treated by camouflaging it with pigment matched to the host rock’s surface (Griswold 1999) or even through the creation of artificial desert varnish (Elvidge and Iverson 1983, pp. 238–240; Elvidge and Moore 1980). Even if treated in such ways, the vandalism has not actually been removed, and its physical imprint can often still be detected under close inspection. Land managers made two prior attempts to use color-matching pigment to “hide” penetrative vandalism at Painted Rocks, one being a cluster of recent peck marks and the other a group of names, initials, and dates from 1981 and 1982. Those attempts proved ineffective since the pigment has since changed color and faded, with the vandalism once again readily visible. It is possible to remove penetrative vandalism through abrasive techniques, such as controlled sand blasting, and then color-match. However, such methods remove more of the host rock and any protective rock coating, thus weakening the rock. The best methods to mitigate penetrative vandalism should be determined on a case-by-case basis with input from all stakeholders.
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This study was sponsored by the Conservation Lands Foundation and supported by charitable contributions from private donors to Archaeology Southwest. The field team consisted of the author, Jaye Smith, Kirk Astroth, Fran Maiuri, Carl Evertsbusch, and Lance Trask. Mr. Trask also kindly provided several of the photographs in this article, and Niccole Cerveny, from Mesa Community College, trained the field team in the Rock Art Stability Index. This project benefited from the cooperation of several institutions and their staff, most notably Cheryl Blanchard of the Bureau of Land Management’s Lower Sonoran Field Office in Phoenix. Kim Beckwith, Registrar with the National Park Service’s Western Archaeological Conservation Center, arranged access to the artifacts from Al Schroeder’s 1952 survey. Three anonymous reviewers and a proofreading by Katherine Cerino improved the quality and presentation of this manuscript. While grateful to all of these individuals and organizations for their support and encouragement, the author takes full responsibility for this article’s content and any shortcomings or errors therein.
This study was funded by the Conservation Lands Foundation and Archaeology Southwest.
Conflict of Interest
The author has received research grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society, and he has received a speaker honorarium from the Arizona Archaeological Society and the Southern Nevada Rock Art Research Association.
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Wright, A.M. Assessing the Stability and Sustainability of Rock Art Sites: Insight from Southwestern Arizona. J Archaeol Method Theory 25, 911–952 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9363-x
- Rock art
- Condition assessment