Sunday, April 17, 2016

Thoughts: Historic Inscriptions

Regarding historic inscriptions at or often covering rock art panels;

It is unfortunate that some people today get so upset that somebody else long ago when The West was still very wild happened to scrawl their name and date on to a prehistoric rock art panel, so upset even to the point of hating that it was done and hating the person who did it though they be long dead and buried by now, even to suggest such historic inscriptions should all be removed.   It is interesting to point out that this happened often in prehistoric times as well where many panels display older rock art overwritten by newer rock art.  Why is this attitude toward historic engravings unfortunate?  Several reasons; this is a failure to learn from the past, it is also a failure to disassociate oneself from the past, and consider the difference from then and now, to recognize those differences and to not take offense and not take it personal. It is also primarily a failure to recognize the most up to date site etiquette rock art enthusiasts should be well aware of, and a missed opportunity to teach the up to date site etiquette rather than bemoan the circumstances set in place long ago.

Yes it was a regrettable decision on the part of the historic party yet it happened in 1894 or 1921, what are you going to do about it now, raise the dead and give them a lecture on today's etiquette? It does no good to worry about what was outside of the learning enlightenment and understanding of those who came so long before you.

Along those same lines I was disappointed at first to learn a particular rock art panel* actually had it's historic inscriptions removed when it's modern vandalism was removed some twenty years ago during a supervised clean up. I had to remind myself that this unfortunate decision occurred twenty years ago, unfortunate but I can also make it a learning/teaching moment. Those in charge of the project at the time did not have today's understanding and point of view of proper rock art site etiquette which  includes respect for historic inscriptions.

If you have any questions that this is the case, should you head to Cedar Mesa or Grand Gulch to do some rock art viewing in the back country today, when you stop in at the ranger station to get your permits and are asked to sit and watch the movie covering archaeological site etiquette among other things, pay attention to the part about the folks who inappropriately took it upon themselves to clean up a prehistoric site, and rubbed out important and interesting historical inscriptions left by one of the early historic archaeologic expeditions to the area.   

How can you appreciate the prehistory which is, while fascinating even to fever producing levels, nothing more than a bit of very limited history itself, and at the same time degrade or even want to erase the history of a bit more recent time frame, a history that often bears record of locally significant persons or events, sometimes nationally significant even? One thing history tries to teach us is it does no good to destroy history, are we yet at an Age to begin to listen? Is erase and repeat so inevitable?

Someone might counter, "What of modern inscriptions, graffiti or vandalism, should that not be protected too?   Vandalism and graffiti in particular are frowned upon and unacceptable to society in general, particularly in natural settings and historical sites.  It should be avoided, dissuaded, educated against, and cleaned up where possible under supervised conditions as necessary. These markings are completely different than historical inscriptions, and completely different than the rock art.  In this Information Age where the corners of the planet are pretty well explored already, modern inscriptions from one person out of a hundred or thousands of visitors a year passing a canyon wall in modern time while simply on vacation leaves absolutely zero historical significance in making his or her mark there, no matter how talented, artistic, or en vogue in the ghetto the method or execution of any such markings might be considered (though most are ugly, ridiculously rudimentary scratching at best).  It is a crime to do so in parks these days, and frankly nobody ever wants to see it in pristine areas.  Should a record of modern inscriptions, graffiti, or vandalism survive in to the future, what will go down in history is hundreds and thousands recreated in nature and a few too many of those masses were morons who vandalized nature and destroyed historical and prehistorical sites.  That is it, we already have that legacy, most of us are sensible enough to wish we didn't already have it, and we certainly don't need any more of it.  End of argument.

Many do argue the rock art is simply an older version of the vandalism, that's all.  People who feel this way may simply have no interest in that prehistory and I doubt we should fault them for it, rather it does provide another learning/teaching opportunity. One might mention to such a person, briefly while an ear is bent on the subject, that archaeological record suggests that those who eked out a living out of the desert likely didn't have much free time beyond the energies needed for survival for such trivial things as making graffiti or vandalizing the rocks, let alone understood the graphical contexts and social predispositions for executing vandalism or graffiti, suggesting rather that some purpose of import was likely intended, by the same token it most likely isn't art for arts sake either.  But the truth is you could be right, it could simply just be graffiti on some ancient level, though not suggested by the archaeological record, or modern native interpretations, it is still within the realm of possibility until tests exist to prove any purpose or meaning, so if for anything just in case it can be proved out some day, lets have respect for the rock art sites preserving them for future contemplation and revelation on the subject and for the enjoyment of those who are interested in prehistory.  

Take the opportunity to teach current site etiquette, so instead of bemoaning the past, a better response would be; "While I wish they hadn't made that signature over the rock art in 1891, I realize this was a pretty remote area then, not that it still isn't today, but interesting how they managed to make it there and wonder what it was like and what they thought of the rock art, we know better now days not to touch prehistoric markings".  Today we know better, we know not to leave our mark on nature set aside for the public to enjoy, we know to respect the history of those who came before, and to respect the history of those who came early as the very foundations of our own history. In all respects simply do not touch the rock art panels and historic inscriptions, and use the plethora of bad examples from yesteryear or yesterday as new opportunities to educate the masses and have positive teaching moments.  It is the Information Age, rather than get upset, lets be informed, lets then teach what we've learned,  then perhaps we all can act our Age.

* see before and after images at the following link;

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