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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 08:39 GMT
Digital salvation for Aboriginal art
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, World Heritage Area
The Anangu have been visiting the rock for millennia
Australia's aborigines have turned to digital technology to preserve their unique rock art for future generations, as Sharon Mascall reports from Melbourne.
Uluru, or Ayers Rock as Australia's white settlers called it, is an icon of the Outback attracting millions of visitors every year.

Its traditional Aboriginal owners, called Anangu, have been visiting the rock for millennia, documenting their creation stories and history at over 90 rock art sites around the base.

Now, in a world first, they have teamed up with scientists from the University of Melbourne to preserve their art and ancestry in digital format.

"It's very much what some people would call a keeping place," explains Cliff Ogleby, from the University's Department of Geomatics.

"There are keeping places here, there is a men's keeping place and women's keeping place where things that are important to them can be kept and looked after.

"In this case it happens to be digital versions of plans, photographs, video and sound."

Graffiti and vandalism

Anangu people compare the rock to a cathedral, holding the spirits of their ancestors.

Cliff Ogleby from Melbourne University's Department of Geomatics
Ogleby: Producing digital versions of rock art
But it is a sacred site that is regularly defaced.

Every week large padded envelopes of so-called "Sorry Rocks" are posted back to the Park authorities, with letters from far and wide, telling stories of bad luck blamed on a piece of red rock removed from the site.

But it is vandalism that leaves the most damage - scratches, graffiti and even spray paint.

"That happened once before," explains Leroy Lester of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Rock Art Conservation Unit.

"He sprayed Big Dave or something like that. We looked at the visitor book and saw Big Dave in there, an address and everything. That's how we busted him."

The Anangu people recognise that "Big Dave" was just part of the problem. Hot desert winds, rare bursts of rain and even the occasional kangaroo, rubbing up against the rock to escape the desert heat, all play a part in damaging the rock art.

It is hoped that computer technology will help Anangu people to preserve their stories and ancestry for generations to come.

Audio and video

"We know these stories from creation. These stories have been passed down to our grandparents and so on," explains Mick Starkey, Cultural Heritage Co-ordinator.

University of Melbourne researcher
Aim for Anangu to compile the material themselves
"At the moment we're trying to readjust ourselves and use western technology in a really good way."

The system is able to store images and drawings of the art. It is also designed to record the testimonies of aboriginal elders as they explain the significance of the sites on video or in audio format.

The aim is for Anangu people to compile the material themselves, without outside help, and store it in a digital "keeping place" of their own design.

Cliff Ogleby is optimistic that they will able to handle the technology.

"We have developed this at their request," he said.

"These are people who drive Toyota Troupies and have mobile phones. When they're on fire-fighting duty, they go out with a GPS and radios.

"Technology is not alien and never has been. This is just a different sort of technology."

See also:

15 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
21 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
27 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Apr 02 | UK
11 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
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