Wednesday, June 10, 2009


5BN7, Hicklin Springs, Bent County,
It sometimes seems as if the greatest enemy to rock art consists of the people who are fascinated with it. Rubbings (and even tracings) can damage fragile surfaces, the latex peels so common up to perhaps the 1990s, can pull the surface right off the rock face, chalking or otherwise touching up the images for photography is now known to cause irreparable damage to the rock art, even just gently touching it by tourists or interested students can deposit skin oils and perspiration that change chemical compositions in negative ways. In many instances we are literally loving it to death (I will deal with vandalism of rock art with future posts).
Most experienced rock art students have gotten to the point by now of insisting that the rock art be left totally inviolate, that no one touch in, and that even recording methods must be non-contact.
A number of years ago during a search for some of the rock art on Albuquerque’s West Mesa I turned up a small box canyon and found myself surrounded by dumped trash, waste, old appliances, and bed springs. I did locate some great rock art behind the piles of garbage, but I came away from the experience with very negative feelings overall. After a period of reflection, however, I developed the germ of an idea, entertaining in its irreverence, but socially beneficial as it solves two problems at once – two birds with one stone.
With the need for protection of rock art sites in my subconscious, a mention of toxic waste in a news story led to a “eureka” moment for me. The answer to both came to me in a blinding flash. If we establish our toxic waste dumps at rock art sites we can kill two birds (or more – literally) with one stone. A toxic waste dump could be an effective deterrent to vandalism of rock art. And if toxic waste might protect it, would not radioactive waste be even more effective? And if the waste is radioactive enough we might not need flashlights to see the rock art at night!

Archaic panel, 5BN7, Hicklin Springs, Bent County, CO.

A few years later, while I was leading a rock art recording project for the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, we undertook to record the pictographs and petroglyphs at a huge site in southeastern Colorado – the Hicklin Springs site. What we found there put the whole question of protecting rock art into a new perspective. Hicklin Springs has been a popular destination for people of the area for over a century. People used to have excursions and picnics there, students go there to build fires and drink beer, and people have even dug for Spanish treasure at Hicklin Springs. As one might expect in such a popular site the most accessible rock art is pretty badly vandalized. A lot of the rock art at Hicklin Springs is, however, untouched and un-vandalized. Large areas are almost totally protected from access and vandalism – by poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron).

5BN7 Hicklin Springs, Bent County, CO.
Luxurious growths of wild plum and
poison ivy plants.

And this is not just the common poison ivy, the low-lying, bright green plant with three leaves that we learn to avoid in brushy and woody areas. With perennial water seeps (the Springs of Hicklin Springs) some of this stuff has grown to sizes varying from large bushes to small trees. Two of our enthusiastic recorders who swore they were completely immune to poison ivy began (against my horrified protests) to pull it out and clear it by hand, wearing shorts. It was too big, too strongly rooted, and too thick, but before they gave up they had streams of white sap running down their legs. A day or two later they were also both hospitalized from the reactions. Parts of Hicklin Springs still have to be the best protected rock art sites I know.
So there you have it, my contribution to the literature of how to protect rock art. All we have to do is plant poison ivy in front of every accessible panel. The answer is really so simple, as is the advice to visitors. “Don’t touch the poison ivy, or the rock art.”

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