Ancient rock art at risk from climate change

Some of the world's ancient art is at risk of disappearing, Newcastle University experts have warned. Researchers from the  International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies (ICCHS)  and School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEG) studied the physical underpinnings and condition of Neolithic and Bronze Age rock art panels in Northumberland. They conclude climate change could cause the art to vanish because new evidence suggests stones may deteriorate more rapidly in the future.

Ancient rock art at risk from climate change
Carvings at Weetwood Moor, near Wooler are thought to be about 4,000 years old [Credit: Newcastle University]
Writing in the Journal of Cultural and Heritage Studies, they say urgent action is needed so the art can be preserved for future generations, but they also urge that a deeper understanding is needed of what causes rock art to deteriorate.

David Graham, Professor of Ecosystems Engineering (CEG) said: “We wanted to understand the scientific reasons why these stones may deteriorate. Our findings show that predicted changes to our broader environment  – such as more wind and warmer, wetter weather -  could have a devastating effect on these artworks. If we want to keep them, we need to start looking at how we can preserve them now.”

Dr Aron Mazel , Director of ICCHS at Newcastle University, said: “People think rocks are permanent and that because rock art seems to have been there for a very long time , it will last forever.  Sadly, this is not the case and some of the world’s most interesting art could be at risk. We need to act now if we want this art, which was created by humans thousands and thousands of years ago, to be there in the future.”

Ancient rock art at risk from climate change
The team also examined rock art at Lordenshaw, near Rothbury [Credit: Newcastle University]
Rock art is one of the earliest forms of artistic expression and emerged in different parts of the world over 50,000 years ago. In Northumberland in Northern England, the rock art, which is between 6000 and 4000 years old, is mostly found on sandstone and the decoration is usually defined by cup-like features or complex patterns of cups, rings and grooves.

The team, working with Dr Patricia Warke at Queen’s University, Belfast, studied 18 panels at locations across Northumberland. They first assessed the actual condition of the rock art panels and then compared it with 27 geochemical and physical factors such as soil moisture, salinity, pH levels and height.

They found two factors were closely related to greater stone deterioration, the height of a panel and the level of exchangeable cations (ions) in the local soils.
The team is now developing a toolkit for landowners and managers to provide guidance on identifying and protecting rock art which is most at risk.


Ancient rock art at risk from climate change
Some of the most striking examples are on sandstone rocks near Chatton [Credit: Newcastle University]
Lead author Dr Myra Giesen from the ICCHS said: “Urgent attention is needed to identify those most at risk so the rock art can be saved and preventative steps can be taken, such as improving drainage around the panels. We are developing a toolkit so landowners can do this themselves. This is really important as they are the first line of defence.”

Giesen also indicated: “We are also carrying out further research in other locations in the UK and the Republic of Ireland to understand how rock art created on other stones may be affected.”

Source: Newcastle University [March 14, 2013]

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2 comments for Ancient rock art at risk from climate change

  1. Rocks… that have endured tens of thousands of years… will now perish… because of ‘climate change’.

    "Dr Myra Giesen from the ICCHS said: “Urgent attention is needed to identify those most at risk so the rock art can be saved "

    Translation: We need money to pay for out phony baloney jobs and projects.

  2. Okay, I agreed the quote is a bit over the top, but these panels are at risk. This work is not seeking more jobs, but is using science to support our claims. Our effort is too create user-friendly tools to identify panels at risk, which is ground in science. Our starting point is with the land managers and owners, as often some minor changes in management decisions can help protect the panels. It is not about jobs, but resource management and protection.

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