Q&A: New Book Aims to Save Southwestern Rock Art From Vandalism

An example of rock art in the American Southwest. | Jonathan Bailey

It’s not often that photographic literature of the American Southwest also has a strong message of keeping people out of photographed areas. In Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape, Jonathan Bailey aims to do just that, taking a conservation bent on rock art across the Southwest that is being destroyed by vandalism. Arizona Highways chatted with Bailey, who’s based in the San Rafael Swell area of Central Utah, to learn more. (This interview has been edited and condensed from a phone conversation with Bailey and a follow-up email.)

Tell us a little bit about your book.
First and foremost, it is a conservation book dealing with the ancient rock carvings and paintings known collectively as rock art. It is also a vessel to discuss the real issues with the Internet, land management and especially vandalism when it comes to cultural resources. Furthermore, it focuses heavily on personal responsibly. Good stewardship and responsible visitation are no longer limited to the direct effect of visitation. What are the cumulative impacts of your actions? That is something that I would like every reader to answer.

The book includes more than 150 images, and there’s also essays from all sorts of people and myself as well.

How did you find writers for the book? How is their work featured?
I just contacted the people that I respected the most to write it. There’s William Lipe and Andrew Gulliford, Greg Child, Scott Thybony, a bunch of really great people.

I had many reasons for choosing the writers that I did. I wanted diversity in how rock art was represented, but I also wanted individuals who I not only respected, but knew were well received. This message can be so political that one voice was just not enough.

Their work is featured along with the images. I organized the book from the creation to the death — that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense until you look at it, but at the beginning, people talk about emergence and birth a lot in rock art, and then it kind of slowly goes to the death of rock art through vandalism.

How did you get started working on this book?
It’s hard to say, because a lot of times when a writer’s working on a book, they may give you the last four years that they’ve been researching, but this is really something that I’ve done since I was a small child, so it’s 14 years or more of research. I’ve hiked my entire life, but I’ve been exclusive to rock art for about 14 years.

I grew up in the San Rafael Swell in Central Utah. It’s the sort of place where ceramics, projectile points and fragments of corn wash up in your yard after a rainstorm. I could walk from my front porch into areas where I was discovering prehistoric art and architecture. So, in a way, I can't answer that question, as I was always involved in this work.

When did the idea come to you to make this into a book?
I began working on this book when we started to see the issues of vandalism and looting skyrocket. In a matter of three or four years, we saw upward of a 1,000 percent increase in vandalism. People don't believe me when I say that, but it's not just a matter of pristine sites being destroyed once. Vandalism attracts more vandalism. If a site is vandalized, we may quickly see 20 or more cases of vandalism on that same site in the following months. So, if we consider each of these as a case of vandalism, you really have something that has become a very big issue in a very short time period.

What was the biggest challenge for you?
The biggest challenge, I think, was on the publishing end, because I went through several publishers who just really didn’t want to commit to a conservation message. They wanted me to disclose locations and focus less on conservation, and make it more of a travel book and photographic guide. That’s not what I wanted, so I had to switch publishers several times until I got one that was committed to the message as much as I was.

Why does this book matter? Why should people care about conserving these cultural resources?
They’re nonrenewable, first and foremost. Once we lose them, they can’t be replaced.

I think we are so programmed to answer that question with a thesis in hand of why rock art has scientific value. I mean, you have to realize that rock art wasn't even valued by archaeologists until recently. People get so defensive about that question. But I think personally, and in this publication, I sought much more personal reasons of why these sites matter. I have my own connections to these places, and the other contributors to this publication have their different values. The wealth of these places is in collective meanings and collective values. When we consider the level of individualism and diversity in the past, having a level of individualism and diversity in how we understand, manage, and appreciate rock art is not just appropriate, but required.

What did you learn in making this book?
I guess I never realized how essential this book would be. I never realized how serious these issues had become. We had organized this book in a way that had pristine sites in addition to the sites that had been desecrated. We have been nipping at the heels of our timeline, because these pristine sites are being destroyed before we can publish this book.

What do you think is the solution to vandalism?
I think being proactive is essential. We talk about education so much, and, yes, that is a requirement for preservation, but that alone won't solve the problem. We need more responsible visitors who are much more cautious with what they share publicly, and we also need land management that grows up with the current-day issues and our understanding of the past.

— Molly Bilker

Jonathan Bailey’s book Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape will be released January 15. It is available for purchase on Amazon. To learn more about Bailey, visit his website.

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