Painting for Preservation – Rock Art in the Altai Mountains

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Rock Art sites in the Altai are intensely powerful. Their destruction is a cultural tragedy. I believe that artists’ interpretations can draw attention to the beauty of rock art and thereby raise their status as sacred sites in the mind of the wider public.  I also believe that the aesthetics of rock art and petroglyphs are highly sophisticated and are the key to doorways leading into the realms of sacred knowledge. Although archaeological research has not yet been able to decode this symbolic text, perhaps the knowledge inherent in rock art can be passed on to younger generations as a seed, simply by inviting them to become acquainted with this particular aesthetic and as a result, to make their own personal creative interpretations, These ideas serve as the basis for the project introduced below as ‘Painting for Preservation’.

Dear Friends, thanks to the support of the Altai Pilgrim Friendship Circle I was able to speak about the Rock Art Painting for Preservation Project at two international rock art conferences last autumn. The first conference was held at the University of Kemerevo and the second was held at Gorno-Altaisk State University. At both conferences I asked for informational support for the project from the archaeological community. I was able to establish useful contacts as a result but realise that this project will need to be developed further if it is to gain any significant support.

I’m uploading the full text of my presentation here.

‘Painting for Preservation’

Preserving Rock Art in the Ritual Landscapes of the Altai Mountains

Joanna Dobson, (writer and artist, Great Britain)


 The aim of this presentation is to introduce the project ‘Painting for Preservation’ and to invite collaboration in order to develop the project further. The idea for the project arose from the personal experience of re-painting rock art representations as a devotional practice. The practice was accompanied by an extensive exploration of the aesthetics of rock art and research into literary sources as well as the relationship of the Altai indigenous people to archaeological sites situated on their sacred lands.


 The process of copying and re-drawing rock art representations requires careful attention to detail and has the effect of holding the eye for longer, engaging the onlooker in a way that perhaps, gazing at a rock surface or considering a black and white image on the page of a book does not.

Whereas there is a tendency for the untrained eye to look at rock art and search for the representations that are most recognizable, be they animals or humans, when one reproduces elements of rock art, one is nudged away from the preference for realism. In order to reproduce a representation, one has to be fully confident of the nature of all its component parts. This has the effect of constantly refocusing one’s attention on the lines of the representations preventing one from ceasing to follow the aesthetic at a point at which the intellect is satisfied by the simple act of identification.

In one’s attention, the priority remains with the representation itself, freeing the mind from hooking into recognizable figures only. One becomes more acutely aware of lines and elements that reoccur within different compositions and yet for which there is no reference. One becomes aware of the details and rich variety within representations of established categories of motif such as ‘animal’, ‘human’ or ‘chariot'; one also experiences the nature of lines that either do not seem to fit any category at all, or that flow in and out of recognizable representations.

Whereas the analysis of rock art in literary sources offers a kind of window onto a world beyond the representations of rock art searching to define meaning, the exercise of re-drawing rock art leads one directly into the depth of the world of aesthetics. As one explores the details which gradually acquire a familiarity, there is a sense that the aesthetics of rock art representations embody an order and logic, at the same time as embracing a fluidity and complex interplay of the essence of forms. Keeping one’s attention focused on the tiny details of the images they become as way markers on a pilgrimage into the world of the culture of the original executor of the image.

My personal experience of creatively exploring rock art representations is that the process of making analogues powerfully influences the interpretative response; it evokes an intuitive appreciation of the meaning inherent within the aesthetic without necessarily having to intellectually identify definition. As in meditation on divine symbols, the condition of concentration invoked when remaking the ancient representations opens the inner realm of the image releasing the vitality inherent within the aesthetic. It thereby becomes possible to link with the mind of the past by creatively interacting with the present cultural landscape.

My creative project on rock art representations has of course been a highly subjective one. It has been a deeply enriching experience and has transformed my understanding of the value of rock art heritage into something sacred. The essence of the ‘Painting for Preservation’ Project lies in the belief that the power of the ancient world inherent in rock art can be accessed by others and that the creative process of interacting with rock art can be a powerful method for the transmission of traditional knowledge across generations.   

It is tragic to witness the continuing vandalism and theft of what remains of rock art monuments in the Altai Republic. This project explores the idea that the aesthetic content of rock art has potential which can be applied to wider preservation efforts. The ‘Painting for Preservation’ project is proposed as a way of extending what has primarily been a personal creative journey to other groups in society as a way of increasing public awareness of both the value and the urgent need to preserve rock art monuments.


The ‘Painting for Preservation’ project rests on the belief that the beauty of rock art can be appreciated by all and that this appreciation can increase the value and status of rock art heritage in the eyes of the wider public, thereby supporting preservation efforts. 

Examples of project activities offered for discussion include the following:

1. Bringing school children closer to rock art in the Altai Republic by developing interpretative skills

The aim of this project is to carry out creative field projects with school children at rock art sites in the Altai Republic; to introduce school children to a rock art site giving as wholistic an appreciation of the site as possible. Although attention is primarily focused on the aesthetics of the rock art itself the site would initially be introduced on a wider scale, drawing attention firstly to location, natural objects within the landscape, proximity to other cultural and historical monuments and then to aspects of orientation, light, nature of the rock surface, technique etc.

After a period of exploration the children would be provided with a variety of artistic materials and allowed to reproduce representations of their choice using a variety of techniques that produce two-dimensional images including tools that create two-dimensional images through relief such as lino-cutting or wax painting. The creative approach can be extended into the class room, closing with a group ‘re-telling’ and sharing of impressions. The form of creative expression would not necessarily have to be limited to drawing, painting etc but could also allow for story and poetry writing.

The method is aimed at enabling school children to engage with rock art heritage within the landscape and to discover their own relationship to this visible heritage in the contemporary landscape via a facilitated creative medium. The results of fieldwork would include creating an exhibition of the children’s work and recording of  ‘re-telling’ and written responses.

2. Children’s coloring book and teacher’s handbook

With the involvement of researchers and school teachers, a longer term project could include the designing a colouring book for children and facilitator’s handbook. This would enable the  first project to be formalised to some degree and repeated either in schools as an extra-curricular exercise or as part of a protected area awareness-raising activity.  The project idea being introduced here is an experiment, an attempt to enable young members of society to get closer to rock art heritage in a way that involves some discipline and yet does not enforce A specific hypothesis of ‘definition’.

3. Activity Areas to create a model for a creative interactive area where visitor centres and museums are located in the vicinity of rock art sites.


Collaboration among various interested parties would appear to be extremely important if rock art sites are to be somehow preserved for the future. The ‘Painting for Preservation’ project could be greatly enhanced by the participation of various individuals, particularly researchers, teachers, protected area management staff, and local ‘guardians’. Exploring the potential for collaboration with newly created protected areas and local communities in Altai may be particularly effective.

The creation of protected areas in the Altai provides new opportunities for managing rock art sites because they allow for management of tourists activities and are able to function in an awareness-raising capacity with both visitors and local communities. With the support of researchers and school teachers a project such as ‘Painting for Preservation’ could fit very well into the protected area system where cultural and historical monuments form part of the  landscape.

In the Altai Republic, rock art sites are often considered sacred places by local indigenous communities. Sacred places stipulate a particularly reverential code of behaviour. The project embraces the values of local communities who infer such high status on rock art heritage and recognizes these values and associated behavioural codes to be a significant force for preservation.

If you have enjoyed this presentation and would like to know more about collaborating on the ‘Painting for Preservation’ project please contact Joanna Dobson

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