Reward Offered In Major Rock Art Vandalism

Power saw damage to a millennia-old petroglyph near Bishop | Photo: Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management has offered a reward for information leading to the apprehension of those responsible for a bout of archaeological vandalism near Bishop. The theft and vandalism of petroglyphs in the Volcanic Tablelands area at the north end of the Owens Valley, discovered October 31, has outraged local Native people and defenders of the West's cultural heritage.

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The petroglyphs are thought to be as much as 3,500 years old, and still play an important role in the cultural life of the Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone people. Paiute tribal historic preservation officer Raymond Andrews told Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun this week that the vandalized petroglyphs are regularly visited by modern-day Native people of the Eastern Sierra. "We still use this sacred place as a kind of church to educate tribal members and children about our historical and spiritual connections. So, our tribal elders are appalled by what happened here."

According to the BLM, the vandals drove ladders, power saws, and portable generators to the site to attempt to remove the petroglyphs. Four were apparently removed successfully. A fifth, shown above, was damaged by saw cuts but left in place: a sixth was broken after removal and left on site. BLM rangers also reported hammer damage to dozens of nearby petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs are a form of rock art created by pecking away at the thin veneer of dark desert varnish that coats rock surfaces, revealing the lighter-colored rock beneath. Though interpretations of individual petroglyphs vary widely, most are thought to have been inscribed by local religious leaders either as part of ecstatic experiences, or to record those experiences after the fact. Petroglyphs are generally found in places significant to local Native people, especially water sources.

Petroglyphs at the volcanic tablelands, 2011 | Photo: Greater Southwestern Exploration Company/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The vandals' motivation is unclear. The BLM estimates the petroglyphs worth on the illegal art market as less than $1,500. A straightforward urge to destroy may likely have played a large role, as was the case in the March, 2010 paintball vandalism of petroglyphs at the Grapevine Canyon site in southern Nevada.

The BLM is offering a reward of $1,000 for any information leading to the arrest of the vandals, who face felony charges carrying up to a year's imprisonment and a $20,000 fine for the first offense. Anyone buying the stolen art faces the same penalties. If you have any information about the vandalism, the BLM's law enforcement officers would like to hear from you at (760) 937-0301.

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