(photo: Greg Haverstock, Bureau of Land Management)
At least six ancient stone carvings known as petroglyphs―considered sacred by Paiute/Shoshone tribal members―were hacked, sawed and ripped from cliffs by thieves in the Eastern Sierra Mountains outside Bishop, California. Dozens of other petroglyphs were also damaged.
The vandalism and theft of art believed to be more than 3,000 years old stunned the community and federal officials, and raised questions about the security of hundreds of such carvings scattered on public lands managed by the federal government. The theft was discovered October 31 along a half-mile stretch of cliffs in a remote area. About a quarter of the site was torn up.
“I think it’s akin to someone going and cutting pieces out of the Wailing Wall,” Greg Haverstock, archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Bishop, told NBC News. Native Americans consider the area sacred and still conduct prayer rituals there. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We still use this sacred place as a kind of church to educate tribal members and children about our historical and spiritual connections,” Paiute tribal historic preservation officer Raymond Andrews told the Los Angeles Times. “So, our tribal elders are appalled by what happened here.”
Although there have been random acts of petroglyph vandalism in the area over the years, Haverstock said, this was by far the worst assault ever. Another spokesman for the bureau, David Christy, told Reuters the thieves would have needed ladders, concrete-cutting saws and a power generator. The largest of the petroglyph panels removed was around 20-by-40-by-6 inches.
The job would not have been easy, but it is not expected to net the thieves much money. Authorities said one of the petroglyphs would probably be worth between $500 and $1,000 on the black market.
The carvings depict an earlier Native American culture of hunters and gatherers believed to date back 8,800 years in a region known as Volcanic Tableland. The designs include renderings of deer, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, hunters with bows and arrows, and more abstract images like concentric circles, scribblings and random peck marks.
Petroglyphs are created by chipping into the dark surfaces of rock with a harder stone. That exposes the inner rock, which lacks the darker oxidation of the exterior, and provides a contrast that makes the designs visible. They differ from pictographs, which are painted on the rock.
The bureau posted a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves. The crime is a felony, but the punishment is limited to a maximum year in jail and $20,000 fine for first offenders.