Six ancient works of art were stolen from the volcanic tablelands north of Bishop last month in what officials are calling one of the most grievous acts of vandalism ever at an Owens Valley archeological site.
According to Bureau of Land Management Archaeologist Greg Haverstock, an unknown individual or individuals ravaged a half-mile federally protected archaeological site by using power tools to remove petroglyphs that could date back as much as 10,000 years.
The area is managed by the Bishop BLM Field Office; the site itself is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to the six that were stolen, several other petroglyphs were damaged or destroyed by rock saws or pry bars, either as the thief or thieves attempted to remove them, or as nearby petroglyphs were removed.
“Not only did they damage other artifacts when they cut petryoglyphs away, but they broke some they were trying to take,” Haverstock said. “It’s pretty egregious. We’ve had some minor acts of vandalism before, but by far this is the most egregious in the history of this field office.”
The thefts and vandalism are a significant loss for the Bishop Paiute Tribe.
“The petroglyphs on the panel have been there since time immemorial and to be removed and damaged in a matter of minutes is detrimental and heartbreaking to the Bishop Paiute Tribe. We hope the individuals responsible for these horrid acts will be brought to justice,” said Chad Delgado, Bishop Paiute Tribal chairman.
Power tools and ladders were used to remove the ancient rock art. One piece that was removed, Haverstock said, was more than 15 feet off the ground and would have taken extensive effort to remove intact.
The thefts and damage were reported Oct. 31 when a member of a local Archeological Preservation Resource Group, a volunteer group of citizens who have been trained to watch for theft and vandalism at culturally sensitive sites, made a routine check of the area.
Haverstock said the site had been monitored five weeks prior to the report, which means the crime took place between the last week of September and the last week in October.
When the damage was reported, the BLM notified the Bishop Paiute Tribe and issued emergency phone calls to Archeological Preservation Resource Group volunteers, asking them to check all local petroglyph sites. No new damage was found at other sites. Monitors are continuing heightened patrols of archeological sites to ensure the damage is not repeated.
BLM Bishop Field Office Manager Bernadette Lovato, who notified the local tribe personally, told the L.A. Times that it was the toughest telephone call she ever had to make. “Their culture and spiritual beliefs had been horribly violated,” Lovato told the L.A. Times. “We will do everything in our power to bring those pieces back.”
“This was a very selfish act,” Haverstock said. “Thousands of visitors come each year to see these sites, and in a few hours, these people forever impacted this resource. The damage to the site is virtually irreversible,” and the artifacts that were stolen are irreplaceable.
The BLM is planning to erect a plaque or kiosk near the site, telling the story of the theft and consequences in an effort to educate the public of the significance, archeological, cultural and even economic (because the sites are a tourist destination), of stealing or damaging the ancient artwork.
“It’s important to keep in mind that these sites are valued on a number of levels,” Haverstock said. “They’re a tourist destination, a direct connection to our prehistoric past and ceremonial significance. Someone violated all those different values for personal gain.”
Haverstock said the artwork could be sold on the black market, or kept as home decorations or part of a collection of artifacts.
Theft of petroglyphs is a felony offense, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and up to $20,000 in fines for the first offense. A second offense could land the offender in prison for up to five years and up to $100,000 in fines.
The BLM is offering a $1,000 reward, with the Bishop Paiute Tribe offering an additional $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thief or thieves.
“We hope the community will assist the Bishop Paiute Tribe and Bureau of Land Management in bringing the responsible individuals to justice,” a press release from the tribe states.
Haverstock said apprehending the perpetrator of the thefts and recovering the artifacts is not unheard of and BLM offices in Nevada and Utah have successfully prosecuted vandals of sensitive sites in the past.
But no matter what punishment the thief or thieves may receive if they are apprehended, local tribal officials said the damage to the site, which is used to this day for spiritual ceremonies and to educate tribal members about their ancient history in the area, “cannot be undone.”