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Ugandan Rock Art in Peril

In February 2009, the Uganda Department of Museums and Monuments contacted TARA with information about threats to Nyero rock art site, a National Monument in Eastern Uganda, and to other neighbouring sites, ranging from granite mining and encroaching agricultural activities to graffiti and the smearing of oil for ritual purposes directly on the art.

Ugandan Rock Art in PerilSo in early September, David Coulson and TARA’s Chief Operations Officer, Terry Little, undertook an emergency survey mission with staff from the Uganda museums: Rose Mwanja, Commissioner, Museums and Monuments and Jaqueline Nyiracyiza, Conservator of History / Archaeology.

The Nyero Rock Art site has a group of massive granite outcrops where exceptional geometric art, believed to be the work of Twa hunter-gatherers, is found. The Teso community are the current inhabitants of the region, having arrived with their livestock about 300 years ago. Nyero’s cultural value has long been recognised (gazetted in 1972 as a National Monument) and is inscribed on Uganda’s Tentative List for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

On arrival at Nyero, the group immediately noticed large piles of granite chips on the way to the site giving the impression that the group was arriving at a mine or quarry rather than a sacred (cultural) site. In addition to the piles of granite were lots of ugly (as well as dangerous), cavernous holes where the illegal ‘miners’ have dislodged and, using fire, broken up beautiful boulders that are then removed in pieces. These activities have seriously scarred the natural and the cultural landscape and destroyed large quantities of archaeological material – numerous decorated pottery sherds lay scattered around these holes. Similar scenes, and also graffiti, were evident at a number of other rock art sites in the area.

It was clear to the members of the survey team that a number of urgent actions are required to improve this situation – beginning with raising awareness of these sites as potential alternative sources of revenue for the local communities apart from granite mining. Also paramount are establishing site management plans, improving infrastructure (eg. demarcation, signage) and removing graffiti – all with a view to creating tourism products based on the rock art and the surrounding natural heritage.

Date: 30/09/2009