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Stone Cultural Heritage Sites in Austria and Israel: The Role of Microorganisms in the Deterioration Processes

Project leaders:
Katja Sterflinger (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, INTK)
Ariel Kushmaro (Ben-Gurion University)

Project team:
Guadalupe Pinar, Laura Rabbachin (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, INTK), Irit Nir (Ben-Gurion University)

3 years
extended until 30.9.2024

Funded by:
FWF – Austrian Science Fund | International Programmes Joint Projects (I4748)

FWF | International Programmes Joint Projects Israel
led by Katja Sterflinger, Institute for Natural Sciences and Technology in the Arts
Duration: 1.4.2021 – 30.9.2024

Rock art in the form of pictographs and petroglyphs exist all over the world and are among the earliest forms of human expression. Due to their outstanding universal value, a number of petroglyphs have been inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List (WHL). Therefore, there is a public interest in the preservation of these valuable cultural heritage remains. The main objective of the project is to diagnose the factors involved in the destruction of rock carvings in alpine regions of Austria and in the Negev Desert of Israel. The focus is on the previously unexplored microbiogenic destruction processes. The results of the project form an essential basis for the development of recommendations for a better protection of petroglyphs. At the end of the project, a joint presentation of the results to the respective state authorities responsible for monument protection (IAA, BDA) is planned.

The petroglyphs in Israel and in Austria will be analyzed according to the glossary of stone decay patterns illustrated by ICOMOS. Further analysis will include petrographic and mineralogical studies (thin sections, X-ray diffraction) and culture-dependent and culture-independent microbiological methods (metagenomics, transcriptomics). After joint sampling in the field, samples will be distributed among laboratories and each team will contribute its expertise: mineralogical and petrological studies as well as classical microbiological studies will be primarily performed in Israel, while NGS studies will be performed in the laboratory of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna - with bioinformatics support from BGU. Biogenic weathering of petroglyphs has not been studied to date. The aspect of comparing different climatic zones - hot deserts and alpine regions - is also new and will provide new insights into weathering processes and their main influencing factors. For the first time, metagenomic methods and transcriptomics - for a deeper understanding of the functions of microorganisms - are used in this research field.