Grave fears held for thousands of rock art sites after bushfires lay bare irrevocable damage | Art and design

An important rock art site in northern New South Wales has been discovered after being irretrievably damaged by bushfire, with grave fears held for thousands of other sites.

Some of the art at the site, which is on private property west of Armidale on the NSW northern tablelands, was known but had not been fully documented. Fire also destroyed a nearby site which had not been documented. The art is thought to be at least 500 years old.

The property owner alerted the local Anaiwan traditional owners Steven Ahoy and Callum Clayton-Dixon, who visited the site on Monday with the academics Mark Moore and June Ross from the University of New England’s archaeology department.

What’s left: an ochre painting of a plains turkey and its tracks, part of an important Anaiwan creation story. Cracks are visible and Dr Mark Moore is concerned the rock is vulnerable to further damage from wind and rain. Photograph: Mark Moore

Moore said an intense bushfire burned right up to the edge of the boulder, shearing off enormous slabs of granite. The shearing – known as spalling – was probably caused by a rapid temperature change rather than prolonged heat exposure, he said.

The site was recorded for the first time a few months ago, though local landowners had been aware of it for many years. Last week the team discovered a second, unrecorded panel on a neighbouring boulder where the face of the rock, along with the images that may have been there, had already been sheared away.

“It’s clear there was more art there, but now it’s gone,” Moore said.

Anaiwan traditional owners Steven Ahoy andCallum Clayton-Dixon inspect the damage to the rock art

Anaiwan traditional owners Steven Ahoy and Callum Clayton-Dixon inspect the damage to the rock art. The large spalls – shards of granite which have cracked in the heat of the fire – can be seen on the ground. Photograph: Mark Moore

“The art site is a part of the Anaiwan cultural landscape and is directly connected to other significant art sites in the New England area,” Ahoy said. “These art sites are very rare due to the fact that art sites have been highly damaged or destroyed in the past.”

Ahoy said Anaiwan were keen to resume cultural burning techniques near vulnerable sites to help protect them from future catastrophic fires. “Fires and other weather patterns have greatly affected the landscape,” he said. “And we as Anaiwan people have not had the ability or opportunity to continue our land management practices.

“These cultural practices have been developed over thousands of years, not only to sustain the land but also the people and environment.”

A fire-damaged stone tool

A fire-damaged stone tool. Photograph: Mark Moore

Moore said the assessment of fire-damaged heritage sites would take a long time and the situation was “uncharted”.

“My greatest fear is that this is not an isolated example,” he said. “These sites are vulnerable to further damage and erosion. They were already vulnerable because of the drought. Stone artefacts have been exposed, lying everywhere on the ground because there’s no grass to cover them.

“The fact that they’ve survived many, many bushfires only to be significantly damaged in this fire is telling us something has changed dramatically,” Moore said.

Moore said the site could not be saved.

“There is not much that can be done for this site, other than documenting the effects of the fire while it is still fresh, monitoring the long-term impacts, and evaluating how the adjacent vegetation might have been managed to prevent the damage,” he said.

“The rock art sites in the New England granite country are poorly known and have not been comprehensively studied or identified, and this example demonstrates that they are clearly under threat from the new bushfire conditions.”

Heritage experts say thousands of secret, sacred and important Aboriginal sites in NSW and Victoria may have been damaged by the bushfires, and are calling on the federal government to make sure Australia’s “rich cultural heritage” is included in every bushfire recovery plan.

The Australian Archaeological Association – representing heritage professionals, researchers and traditional custodians – said urgent visits were needed to known sites and heritage places to survey the damage and assess the condition of what survives.

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