Visitor impact is an inherent and dynamic component of cultural heritage management wherever and whenever cultural sites are accessed by people. Visitors impact on Aboriginal sites, such as artefact scatters, in a variety of ways: the impacts can be direct or indirect, obvious or concealed, small or large. Whatever the scenario, such impacts need to be recognised and quantified in order to preserve the cultural values and significance intrinsic of Aboriginal sites.
The aim of this study has been to determine exactly what constitutes visitor impact at Aboriginal artefact scatters through plotting the movement patterns of artefacts and relating visitor impact at sites to locational and seasonal variables, while also investigating visitor behaviour and cultural site awareness through the administration of a visitor survey.
The study was conducted at Mungo National Park (south-western New South Wales) from the 1997 Easter school holiday period through to the Winter school holidays. The study fieldwork was carried out in prime visitor access areas within the park, whereby a series of mock artefact scatters was set out at sample locations with periodic site monitoring and participant observation used to gauge the magnitude and frequency of visitor impact.
A visitor survey was utilised to understand the attitudinal, behavioural and motivational factors that may explain why Aboriginal cultural sites are being disturbed within the park. The survey results have enabled the development of a type profile of someone who is most likely to disturb an Aboriginal artefact.
The site monitoring has found that the number of artefact and bone movements at various site locations were significantly different, as were numbers of artefact flips according to site location and artefact size. Numbers of bone movements and flips according to the type of bone layed out were significantly different as well as distances bone pieces moved. The monitoring has also revealed that holiday program periods generate a higher number of artefact and bone movements as well as bone flips than non holiday program days. A visitation model has been applied and tested at a high visitor access area within the park. The model has found that those sites at greatest risk from visitor impact at the Mungo lunette are in fact those situated in or near the central visitor zone and track areas.
The study's results have delineated and defined the visitor impact problem at the park, thus illustrating where impact is most evident, when impact is most prevalent, what types of impact occur and the reasons why sites are impacted upon to begin with. Beyond the research location, the study has highlighted the potential for all park visitors to irreversibly alter Aboriginal cultural heritage sites and it is this ideology that will require close attention in the future management plans for Australia's culturally significant places.