Archaeologist Greg Haverstock pointing out a spot where thieves cut the petroglyphs from the rock

Archaeologist Greg Haverstock pointing out a spot where thieves cut the petroglyphs from the rock (screen shot from LA Times video)

Thieves have stolen and vandalized dozens of ancient petroglyphs in Bishop, California — “the worst act of vandalism ever seen” at the site, which consists of 750,000 acres of federally owned land, said US Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Greg Haverstock.

The vandals did incredible damage to the Native American rock engravings, cutting out and stealing four of them, defacing another one with deep cuts, removing yet another but then breaking it and leaving it in the parking lot, and scarring dozens more with blows and cuts. The thieves may have been motivated by money: the Los Angeles Times reports that the petroglyphs are only worth between $500 and $1,500 each on the black market, which isn’t a ton of profit, but may be enough. Still, when you consider the widespread destruction they left behind as well as the effort required to do so — getting ladders, generators, and power saws out to the desert to remove stone slabs that were 15 feet off the ground — something like malice seems to be the only explanation.

Petroglyphs in the Volcanic Tableland region

Petroglyphs in the Volcanic Tableland region (image via Flickr/GSEC)

The petroglyphs, which depict concentric circles, deer, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, and hunters, are more than 3,500 years old and part of a sacred area known as Volcanic Tableland. Members of the Paiute-Shoshone tribe use the site “as a kind of a church to educate tribal members and children about our historical and spiritual connections,” according to Paiute tribal historic preservation officer Raymond Andrews. Federal authorities are offering at $1,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only recent act of petroglyph destruction: in September, vandals destroyed aboriginal pictograms and petroglyphs on a 16-foot boulder in Alberta, Canada using drill, acid, and a power washer. A historian who had been planning to document the site the next day speculated that the motive there may have been to erase evidence of his thesis about the Blackfoot First Nations, but with the two incidents less than two months apart, one wonders if we should be concerned about some sort of awful petroglyph vandalism trend.

In the meantime, anyone thinking of visiting an ancient rock engravings site — or worse, contemplating defacing one — should familiarize herself with Common Etiquette for Visiting a Petroglyph Site. The most important takeway? “While visiting the national monument consider yourself a guest in someone’s home and act appropriately. Native Americans today consider the entire national monument to be a sacred landscape.”

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

One reply on “Vandals Destroy Ancient Petroglyphs”

  1. People have been defacing the Bishop petroglyphs for decades. Now they have gone nuclear. Are we becoming a primitive culture using advanced technology to deface the culture of others, both past and future?

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