by Wendy All
23 March 2020
by Noel Hidalgo Tan
Senior Specialist in Archaeology, Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO SPAFA), Thailand
Archaeological studies in Southeast Asia began as part of the colonial experience initially oriented toward studying temple architecture and sculpture. In later, postcolonial times, archaeology has become a source of national pride and revenue through tourism. Against this background, rock art has traditionally been under-researched. In the past decade, there has been a marked increase in site discoveries and research publications from both local and international scholars (see overviews by Scott and Tan 2016; Tan 2014b; Taçon and Tan 2012). Rock art is now known in nearly every country in Southeast Asia; most rock art is thought to be from the Late Holocene to the Neolithic, although there is evidence of rock art from the Pleistocene (Aubert et al. 2014; O’Connor et al. 2010) to the more recent colonial period (Tan and Walker-Vadillo 2015; Mokhtar Saidin and Taçon 2011).
Southeast Asia is a diverse region, and as a result, rock art research and its management varies from country to country. In this paper, I will outline some successful rock art management and communication strategies from Southeast Asia. They are divided into two approaches: traditional strategies involving physical site management and co-opting local beliefs into the protection of sites; and new media strategies utilizing the internet and social media to engage people in caring for and monitoring sites. This latter strategy has potential for future development, particularly in the case for managing sites that are open to tourists.
The Phu Phra Bat site (“The Mountain of Buddha’s Footprints”) was established in 1991 as a historical park and is a sandstone ridge located in Udon Thani Province in northeastern Thailand. The site has a number of natural, historical, and cultural features, including magnificent rock formations—many of which have been converted into Buddhist and animist shrines—architectural ruins from two ancient kingdoms, and some one hundred rock art sites. Taken together, Phu Phra Bat represents a sacred landscape that has been used over a long period of time (Tan and Taçon 2014; Tan 2014a; Munier 1998).
The Khao Chan Ngam site (“Mountain of the Beautiful Moon”) in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima Province is a large sandstone massif containing rock art scenes of huntergatherer lifestyles. At the same time, the rock shelter houses a Buddhist shrine with numerous Buddha images. A number of other signs and posters outlining the history of the temple and stories of prominent monks are laid along the wall of the shrine.
The shrine effectively protects the rock art by preventing access and interference (fig. 2). Both the archaeological and the religious value of the site are acknowledged. The shrine is part of a larger temple complex that is maintained by the monastic community, while the Fine Arts Department has placed the rock art on the official register of protected sites and provided signs to inform visitors about the site.
Similar coexistence of rock art sites and Buddhist shrines can be found in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos (Tan 2014a; Tan and Taçon 2014) and has been observed elsewhere with other religions in India (Peter Skilling, pers. comm. 2017), Kazakhstan (Lymer 2004), and East Timor (O’Connor, Pannell, and Brockwell 2011). When a site becomes a sacred space, the religious activity protects the rock art from physical damage by preventing access to the rock art; however, religious activities at sites tend to be indifferent to the presence of rock art and may modify the actual site itself. In this regard, local custodians of the site play an important role in understanding the significance of the rock art. By educating them about the importance of the rock art, local custodians also become invested in the long-term preservation and protection of these sacred spaces (fig. 3).
The protection of a rock art site through association with a sacred space, while fairly common in Southeast Asia, is a regionally specific phenomenon. In addition, protection of the rock art is not the intention of the religious actors at the site but rather a by-product of maintaining a location’s sanctity. For a more direct approach to raising public awareness and protecting sites, the internet and social media present new opportunities for connecting people with sites and experts. A prime example is the ongoing Gua Tambun Heritage Awareness Project (GTHAP) in Perak, Malaysia.
GTHAP is an initiative developed by the Centre for Global Archaeological Research at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Gua Tambun is a cliffside rock shelter located outside of Ipoh, the capital of the state of Perak in central peninsular Malaysia. Discovered in 1959, a reexamination of the site in 2009 recorded the presence of more than six hundred paintings, making it the largest rock art site in peninsular Malaysia; from associated finds, the site is dated from the Late Holocene to Early Neolithic period (Matthews 1960; Tan and Chia 2012, 2011, 2010; Tan 2010). In response to the new findings from the 2009 campaign and heightened awareness of the management and conservation issues at the site, GTHAP was launched in 2015.Facebook and Instagram that enhance the community dimension of the project by cultivating interested followers.
The researchers at GTHAP identify a gap in the sense of ownership of Gua Tambun between the researchers and the people who live there now (Goh 2016). Through the GTHAP workshops, Saw et al. argue that encouraging public interpretation of the rock art also raises social awareness and ownership of the rock art sites. At the time of writing, the public archaeology workshops at Gua Tambun are undergoing a fourth season, lasting from March to December 2017.
A contributing factor to the success of the Gua Tambun Heritage Awareness Project is the role of social media in spreading the word and connecting people across space; the researchers at Universiti Sains Malaysia are based in Penang, two states away, but through their efforts they have facilitated an understanding of the often inaccessible academic literature and increased local-level appreciation of the site.
From personal experience, members of the public—often interested tourists—have reached out to me via my personal website (Tan 2007), Academia.edu, and institutional e-mail to ask about rock art sites they have encountered. In one example, an Austrian tourist who visited Laos in the middle of 2016 saw a rock art site in Luang Prabang Province. Through her internet searches, she found my research and contacted me for more information. As it turns out, the site she visited was known but as yet undocumented (Bouxaythip 2011) and her information led directly to a baseline recording of the site (Tan 2016).
The flow of information shared between the public and researchers works both ways. After reading an article I published about the Karimun Inscription, a petroglyph site in the Riau Islands of Indonesia, near Singapore (Tan 2007), a Buddhist monk was inspired to visit the site and contacted me. I later found out through his blog post that he did visit the site with some of his followers, but unfortunately poured water over the rock engravings and attempted to trace over the carvings (Dhammika 2013). While I could not have foreseen the actions of the monk and his followers, the Karimun Inscription episode is a reminder that obscurity is a great protector of rock art sites. On reflection, social media can play an important role in educating visitors at rock art sites on the proper behavior to promote the preservation of sites.
Underlying the two traditional and new media approaches outlined above is not so much the management of the physical site itself but rather the management of people connected to the rock art sites. The key task for the site manager is engagement with the authorities, local custodians, and visitors. In the case of Southeast Asia, traditional, on-the-ground engagement with local religious and community leaders has an important role to play in the long-term protection of sites; moreover, the cooperation of religious custodians is the single most important protection sites can have from physical interference.
The internet and social media have an equally profound potential for managing visitors, particularly with sites that are already open to tourists. Strategies for use, communicating rock art values, and managing sites fall under four broad categories: raising awareness, creating communities, generating calls to action, and site monitoring.
Raising awareness: In the Southeast Asian experience, rock art is generally unknown and hence undervalued. Therefore, social media and the internet play an important part in creating appreciation of undervalued sites and in educating potential visitors on how to visit and appreciate such sites. Caution and judgment must be used, however, in determining if opening a site to public knowledge exposes it to unnecessary risk.
Creating communities: GTHAP is a successful example of mobilizing a local and international community through the creation of a Facebook page and an Instagram account, and developing a follower base around the site. Care should be taken in choosing the right kinds of online community platforms according to the audience patterns. Community members in turn become vested in the long-term welfare of the site, and a channel from which more publicity and awareness are shared. Generating calls to action: With a large enough follower base, social media can be used to mobilize actions such as clean-up activities, fundraising, and organizing community events. Such events should be designed to generate publicity in order to enlarge the existing community.
Site monitoring: For heavily visited sites, social media can be used to monitor rock art and site degradation through photos shared between community members. Most social media outlets offer some way of tracking the number of followers, but hashtags (#s) should also be propagated and monitored to track specific activities and sites (fig. 5). Watermarking images with hashtags and website addresses are also useful methods of spreading important information.
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