An area where the thieves tried to carve out a petroglyph but ended up leaving it. (Bureau of Land Management)

California Petroglyphs Damaged and Stolen, Tribes and Authorities Stunned


Ancient petroglyphs were hacked out of the high desert chalk bluffs with power saws by thieves armed with ladders, generators and other equipment. Where once was ancient art there are now rough empty holes in the bluffs or Volcanic Tableland in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevadas.

“They weren’t surgeons; they were smashing and grabbing,” says Greg Haverstock, a field archaeologist in the Bishop Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, in a Los Angeles Times video that shows a tour of the area. He describes how the vandals used a rotating concrete saw to remove chunks of the rock art. “It’s one of the worst acts of desecration that one can imagine. This site is on public lands, it’s managed for the enjoyment of all individuals…and these selfish individuals basically destroyed a major portion of the site for their own personal gain or profit.”

A hole left by vandals where they stole a rock etching.

The area where the vandalism occurred has hundreds of rock art sites that are more than 3,500 years old and are sacred to the American Indian tribes in the area including the Paiute, Shoshone and Mono.

“These petroglyphs—in our language, rock writings—are held sacred to the people here,” Raymond Andrews, a Paiute who serves as the tribal historical preservation officer for the Bishop area, told NBC News. “Our ancestors etched messages in them, so they are sacred... People go and pray to them and try to seek guidance."

The area is remote, but open to tourists. However, Andrews said the bureau will close off the roads so the tribe can hold private ceremonies. NBC News reports that the damage was discovered on October 31 by a volunteer in the Bishop Stewardship Program who checks on the sites periodically.

Haverstock said panels as large as 20-by-40-by-6 inches were removed at five locations around the site, and carvings around those areas were also damaged.

“We’ve had a few (petroglyphs) taken in the past—sawed away—but not on such a massive scale like this,” Andrews told NBC News. “Usually it’s been like one. Or there’s like someone who wants to add a little more to the petroglyphs, not knowing they are desecrating them.”

Haverstock said the market value for such rock art is anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per piece. The bureau is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for this vandalism and is intent on finding out who did this.

“The individuals who did this have destroyed an irreplaceable part of our national cultural heritage,” said Bernadette Lovato, BLM Bishop Field Office Manager, in a press release. “We have increased surveillance of our sites and are working with other agencies to bring the responsible parties to justice and to recover the petroglyphs.”

The site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). First-time ARPA offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and can be imprisoned for up to one year. Second time offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and get up to five years in prison.

Anyone with information regarding the damaged petroglyphs can contact Melody Stehwien at 760-937-0301.

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