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Theft of sacred rock drawings stuns California tribe, federal officials

Greg Haverstock/Bureau of Land Management

An area in the Volcanic Tableland in eastern California where thieves apparently attempted to carve out a petroglyph and then decided to move on without it. They ultimately extracted six slabs with the ancient images, and damaged many of the others in between with their equipment.

Thieves apparently armed with power saws, ladders, generators and other heavy equipment gouged out ancient petroglyphs etched into the volcanic stone landscape in eastern California, removing six and damaging dozens of the carvings, which are sacred to the Paiute tribe, according to a tribal member and government archaeologist.

"This is by far the worst example of vandalism in my career in my field office," said Greg Haverstock, archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Bishop, Calif., about 150 miles due east of San Jose. "I think it’s akin to someone going and cutting pieces out of the Wailing Wall."

The Bishop office of the federal bureau oversees 750,000 acres of public lands in the Eastern Sierra mountain range, near the California-Nevada border. On what is called the Volcanic Tablelands, there are hundreds of rock art sites that date back more than 3,000 years, and tens of thousands of archaeological sites, Haverstock said.

Some of the carvings are recognizable representations of hunters, big horn sheep, lizards and deer. Others are geometric designs and other symbols, with meanings that have been lost to history. The Paiute see the carvings as a window into the souls of their ancestors.

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

The remote area is largely open to tourists, but Andrews said the bureau will close off the roads to rock-writing sites from time to time to ensure privacy for Paiute ceremonial functions. The damage was discovered Oct. 31 by a volunteer in the Bishop stewardship program, who periodically visits the site and reports any change or problem.

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The thieves left scars along a 650-foot cliff band, according to Haverstock, with petroglyph panels as large as 20-by-40-by-6 inches extracted, and many of the carvings in between apparently damaged by the equipment. Some slabs of stone were sawed off 15 feet above the ground.

"We’ve had a few (petroglyphs) taken in the past — sawed away — but not on such a massive scale like this," said Andrews. "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."

Greg Haverstock/Bureau of Land Management

One of the sites where thieves apparently sawed through the rock to remove a petroglyph considered sacred to the local Paiute tribe. The rock etchings are thought to be more than 3,000 years old.

Haverstock said that there is an illicit market for any archaeological relic, and the rock carvings are no exception, but he said the dollar value is only in the $500-$1,500 range per piece.

The bureau has offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to arrests in the theft of the artifacts, which is a felony.

Even if the missing carvings are recovered, there’s no way to adequately repair the irreplaceable, so the bureau may use the damaged site to highlight the importance of historic preservation, Haverstock said.

"Like (other) indigenous groups, we believe in karma," said Andrews. "Something is going to happen. We can try to investigate, but some things are out of our hands."

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