Stolen petroglyphs mysteriously reappear

Linda Saholt

News Review Correspondent

The four ancient petroglyphs stolen from the volcanic tableland near Bishop have been returned. The Bureau of Land Management, while much relieved to have the rock art safely returned, is continuing its investigation.

The story broke last October and made national and international news. “As soon as the Los Angeles Times got hold of the story, it shot around the world,” Raymond Andrews, tribal historic preservation officer for the Bishop Paiute Tribal Council, told the audience at a recent meeting of the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert.

Now the agency is seeking the public’s help to identify the vandals responsible for the damage.

The reward that was posted shortly after the discovery of the theft has now risen to $9,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the destruction and theft. An additional $1,000 has been placed into funds for surveillance cameras and site steward training.

Anyone with information regarding this case can report anonymously to either Melody Stehwien at 760-937-03-1, or Eric Keefer, 760-937-0657, both with the BLM’s Bishop Field Office. “We’re happy to meet with them if they want. We’re just hoping someone will come forward,” said Stehwien.

The area where the desecration took place is a sacred site, and the native people of the Bishop area still conduct ceremonies there. The petroglyphs, which are estimated to be 3,500 years old, were removed from the rock face with power tools. Nearby glyphs were scarred with hammer strikes and saw cuts.

The Bishop glyphs were carved into volcanic tuff, which is comparatively soft.

Andrews said tribal police are trying to get security cameras in place to monitor petroglyph sites in future.

“We assisted the BLM in closing a road where the desecrations took place. There’s been no other vandalism since then in that area.”

He explained that, to keep more damage from happening, the exact location of the vandalism is not being announced. “We don’t want anyone else thinking they could do better,” he said.

The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 and is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

Among donors to the reward fund are the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, BLM, the Bishop Paiute/Shoshone Tribe, the Society for California Archaeology, the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, members of the climbing community, and individual concerned citizens.

The reward fund is being handled by the ESIA, and donations can be mailed to ESIA, 190 E. Yaney St., Bishop, CA 93514. You can also call ESIA at 760-873-2411 during normal business hours. Donors can specify where they want the money to be used — for the reward fund, to adopt a camera for continued site monitoring, to fund archaeological site stewardship training, or for interpretive opportunities, to show how the damage has affected the overall panel.

Locally, Alexander “Sandy” Rogers, curator of archaeology at the Maturango Museum, pointed out that the petroglyphs in the Coso Range have been thoroughly documented. They are located on the Naval Air Weapons Station, and are protected by the Navy. Coso glyphs were carved into basalt, which is much harder than volcanic tuff.

“The vandalism at Bishop was discovered by the site stewards. They did everything right. They were careful not to disturb any tracks and they took pictures and notified the BLM. The site is on BLM land, so BLM’s law enforcement is the agency handling the case.”

Site stewards are volunteers participating in and trained by the California Archaeological Site Stewardship Program. “They agree to visit a site periodically and submit a report on it. It’s a standard form, and the report is very easy to do,” said Rogers. “This is a very good program, and greatly increases the chances you’ll catch an incident of vandalism or damage.”

The agency is stretched very thin, and volunteers are vitally important to help protect rock art, an irreplaceable national treasure.

For more information about becoming a site steward, contact the Ridgecrest BLM office. For more information about the story of the return of the petroglyphs, see www.nbcnews.com. For more information on the ESIA, see www.esiaonline.com.

The site in Bishop that was vandalized was documented long before the damage, so the designs were known.

“The authorities knew what the petroglyphs looked like,” said Rogers. “Hopefully, with the Native American groups involved, this case will be prosecuted vigorously.”

Story First Published: 2013-02-06