Vandals etched their initials on the ancient Hellgate pictographs in Montana. (courtesy the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest via Facebook)

Montana authorities are seeking information about unidentified vandals who have defaced an ancient pictograph panel at the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The vandals etched “JR + DR 2022” into the limestone surface of the centuries-old Hellgate pictographs in western Montana. Park authorities estimate that the vandalism occurred between June 3 and July 28; they urge anyone with information to contact Townsend Ranger District.

The pictographs, painted on a 65-foot cliff wall emerging from a canyon, encompass more than 280 images that include human figures, hoof prints, and handprints painted in orange and red pigments. Archaeologists estimate that the pictographs were created between 500 and 1700 CE, if not earlier.

The Hellgate Pictographs are sacred to local Indigenous groups, who have expressed a desire to keep the site closed to the public. The area does not have kiosks or signs directing visitors to the paintings, even though they make up one of the largest pictograph sites in Montana.

“The Hellgate Pictographs are a significant cultural resource, and while they can survive thousands of years of elements through time, they cannot withstand this type of vandalism,” the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Service said in a Facebook statement on August 11.

If apprehended, the vandals could face a fine of up to $20,000 and/or up to two years in prison, under Federal law.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.