EuroPreArt Contributions for a Guide
of Good Conduct to Prehistoric Art
Mila Simões de Abreu - UTAD

EuroPreArt home

A - Visitors' Etiquette

Simple advice for visitors

Prehistoric Art belongs to all of us and above all, to future generations. In the past, some of these decorated stones may have been moved indoors (i.e., museums, and collections). It happens mainly with small objects (e.g., "venus" statuettes, plaquettes) or more portable ones like decorated menhirs or statue-stele. However, we are lucky enough to find vestiges of prehistoric art in their original places most of the time. Some sites are inside parks or protected areas but in Europe, like in most zones throughout the world, rock-art and megalithic monuments are unprotected and vulnerable.

Caves, because of access difficulties, were the first to be protected and have controlled visits. Initially, this was almost entirely for economical reasons. After the sixties, conservation grounds prevailed. Slowly, these concerns extended to open-air prehistoric art sites and, in some cases, like Stonehenge, public access is now restrained. Even so, most engraved and painted rocks and rock-shelters, as well as most decorated dolmens and menhirs, can still be freely visited. Due to this, preservation of this ancient art is largely in the hands of us—the public!

Simple rules, like the ones that follow, can ensure that we—the visitors—do as much as we can to pass-on to our children’s children the legacy that we received from our ancestors. These rules are valid for most types of prehistoric vestiges, on private property or public land, in enclosed or open spaces, in rock-shelters or caves, on mountains or in museums. They should always be followed—for the sake of the preservation and conservation of prehistoric art.

Do not!

Why not?

Do not touch the engraved or painted surfaces

For conservation reasons: touching with your hands can damage the surface and the images; the oils and acids can attack the pigments or affect the rock; these actions, repeated by visitors, remove paint or erode surfaces and wear the prehistoric art.

For scientific reasons: these actions contaminate the surface with external elements; this can have serious consequences, affecting the results of studies like dating, analyses of pigments and binding substances.

Do not touch the engraved or painted with your hands or ANYTHING else

Water, chalk, paints or other substances are out of the question. So is rubbing with paper, cloth or other materials or brushing with anything.

None of this must be done.

For the same reasons given before. You may have heard people say that if you wet a painted surface you can see it better. The truth is that you will destroy the paintings. Minerals and salts dissolved in or by the water will remain on the paintings and make them opaque when the water evaporates. This happens, no matter what kind of water is used: river, fresh, mineral or distilled. With engravings, water can create steep temperature gradients (like putting a hot glass on a cold surface) and infiltration, which eventually cause surfaces to crack, flake or collapse. Water also feeds bacteria, lichen and vegetation. Paints or colouring (like white emulsion and lamp-black) seriously affect and contaminate the rock surfaces. The practice of chalking to outline and highlight engravings changes the nature and composition of a rock and puts its preservation at risk. It is ugly and only brings out a partial picture of what is there.

Rubbings on paper (frottage) wear away surfaces, eliminating the visibility of the engravings, eventually leading to their total disappearance.

Putting plastic sheet on decorated surfaces can create static electricity that will cause paint flakes or fragile surface fragments to fall off, especially in the case of paintings.

Do not add anything—it is perfect as it is

Writing your name or other things and drawing pictures is simply vandalism. Graffiti attracts more graffiti and eventually the prehistoric pictures will be covered and lost. If you want to keep memories of your stay, take a picture or tell a friend about your visit.

Do not walk, sit or climb over the decorated rock surface.

Many engravings are on horizontal or sloping surfaces. Walking or sitting on them it will damage the figures. Some surfaces are dangerous, don’t climb up rocks-shelters, dolmens or boulders. Apart from damaging them, it can cost you your life. Caves are dangerous. Don’t go on your own and always tell someone else where you are going.

Prehistoric art is so valuable that it has no true price. Do not move, remove or even try and take out any part of a rock or surface.

It is very difficult remove part of a rock or surface without damaging it. There is little chance it will be bought by anyone. No museum or private collector will be interested. In many cases, it is simply illegal.

Taking prehistoric art objects or fragments from their surroundings robs them of context. Without that, they have very little meaning or interest.

Do not damage the area. Respect environment. Do not cut the branches of the trees, light fires or leave things behind—especially rubbish.

Prehistoric art is not only the Art but also the Place. Features of the place often influenced and inspired the ancient artists and were part of the art itself. Respect the surroundings and landmarks, animals and plants. Fires or the act of simply cutting vegetation can put in danger the preservation of paintings or engravings. Keep to beaten tracks. Not doing inflicts further damage on the natural setting.

Do not disturb the peace. Respect other visitors and the tranquillity of the site

A proper attitude—not speaking too loudly, making unnecessary noise—can help you, and the other visitors to appreciate the beauty and sanctity of the place.



Take pictures, film or make sketches

They will help you understand and remember your visit. You can show them to family and friends, so helping to raise awareness of prehistoric art.

Try to find a guide, a specialist or a local person that knows the area

It will probably save you time, you will not get lost, you learn more, and it will be more fun.

Take away memories, as well as your trash

Visiting a prehistoric site is a pleasant experience. You would not like to find the place in a mess, would you?

Read books and get information about an area

Reading about an area and the art will help you appreciate your visit all the more. Many books are written by researchers who studied the area. They can lead you to a better understanding and you will learn more about the art and its meaning.

Contact the appropriate authorities if you find any form of vandalism or destruction, or people damaging the art or the surroundings.

Everyone has a duty to expose vandals or any body that endanger prehistoric art. Do not be afraid of protesting and use the legal system.

Ask those in charge (local authorities, government bodies) to protect prehistoric art. Ask for better funding for the study and protection of the area, site or object.

It is difficult to study and preserve prehistoric art without proper funding. Research is essential to ensure prehistoric paintings and engravings survive in to the future. New methods and techniques can help that goal.

Teach your children and other youngsters the "magic" of prehistoric art

They are the ones that will continue our efforts. The more they know, the better. Telling them about the Past is telling them about themselves.

B - Researchers' Concerns

General considerations

Prehistoric art is part of the common heritage of all the people of the world, regardless of their social, cultural, religious or economic status. Often prehistoric art is the only record left by our human predecessors. It is the sole example, left in the landscape, of the intellectual capacities of our forefathers. It doesn’t belong only to us and it is our duty to safeguard it for the generations to come. To study and to take care of any engraved or painted rock, cave, monument or object is essential to understanding and preserving it. The protection of the immediate surroundings must be part of any research effort.

Any prehistoric art researcher should respect local, national or international laws protecting archaeological sites and monuments. Rules, laws or requests of any individuals or organisations having legal or common rights must be taken in consideration. In the event of a conflict with the holders of the laws (e.g., a Government or authority that gives permission for the destruction of a prehistoric art site or object), a researcher should appeal to international organisations and entities dedicated to heritage protection (for example UNESCO, ICOMOS etc). In case of planned or imminent destruction, a researcher should use all proper means, including legal mechanisms or civil rights action, to stop the destruction or damage of any prehistoric art site monument or object. A researcher should always remember that local people are key elements in the strategy of protecting and promoting a site or monument. Nothing in the recording, study or preservation processes should be made that could, even in the future, damage or prevent other actions or studies. In case of imminent destruction a careful review must establish all possible methods and techniques that can be used. A prehistoric art researcher should publish, present and be prepared to show and discuss his methodology, work and results to other colleagues or people interested. He must take great care to preserved the data, records and other relevant information. This is especially important in the case of a site, monument or object that was, or will be destroyed. Copies of all the records should always be made and kept in different locations.

Publication in scientific journals and presentation of results in scientific meetings should be encouraged. However, in the case of areas without proper controls, it important to take in consideration that any other kind of dissemination of information can be potentially dangerous for the art and even for the public. The copyright and ownership of the studies must clear, especially where public money was used. Appropriate references, acknowledgements or fees must always accompany the use of data, studies or images.


Recording is an essential part of the study of a prehistoric art area, monument or object. It is essentially for two main purposes: research and management. All recordings are incomplete. This is especially true if only one technique is used. A good "recording" should be an effort combining different techniques (e.g., photography, drawing and tracing). A multidisciplinary approach is best and should be used. Every case is unique and every element should be carefully studied.

Physical interference with the surface should be avoided, as far as this is possible. No substances should be applied to the rock surface. Methods like the Neutral Treatment (Anati’s back and white) chalking or wetting painted or engraved surfaces have been abandoned by conscientious researchers. It was proved that they damage the art and the surface and in most cases, identical results can be obtained with other techniques. Less intrusive methods, like photography are advised. The use of proper lighting, mirrors and screens give good results in most of the cases. However, spotlights can be potentially dangerous if they are used inside caves and when the temperature gradients are relevant, or provoke the growth of algae and fungus. Tracing on plastic sheets can be made if the researcher arrives to the conclusion that it doesn’t damage figures or surfaces. The recording process must not imply cleaning, scratching or removing any elements of the surface without proper studies and considerations. The advice of an expert in conservation is essential before any of the above actions take place. For example, when lichens are removed they will usually grow faster and stronger and if they are eliminated they cannot be use in the lichenometry. If a surface must be cleaned, it is necessary to leave at least half without any interference.

New methods like the use of laser-scanning should be proper investigated. There maybe unknown effects on painted and engraved surfaces. Moulds or other kind of three-dimensional copies should be avoid and only applied in presence of imminent destruction. The use of standard aids like the IFRAO scale or the Munsell soil colour scale should be used.Qualified people should make the recording. The researcher should teach his techniques. As in any archaeological work, people and jobs should be properly matched. A site facing imminent destruction should be recorded by a well-prepared and experienced team. There is usually no reason why a site should not be recorded more than once.

Above all, any methods use in recording should not interfere with other studies (e.g., dating, and conservation).


Conservation should be left in the hand of highly professional persons. Unfortunately not many exist that dedicate themselves to preservation of prehistoric art. A researcher should first of all try to understand the dynamics of the deterioration (why, when, by whom). Any conservation action should take in the consideration not only the immediate future but also beyond that. Any action should normally follow the recording and other research processes.