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Shea Johnson
At a petroglyph site in the Black Mountain area north of Hinkley, rampant vandalism has made it difficult to discern between modern graffiti and ancient artwork.

Petroglyphs vandalized

Historic rock art losing luster thanks to vandals

Staff Writer

HINKLEY • In the Black Mountain area, north of Hinkley, images that pre-date all modern art can be found chiseled into basalt rocks.

A favorite of ancient indigenous people for its dark color and ability to withstand the elements, these basalt rocks have been under recent continuous attack by vandals who threaten to destroy history one slab at a time.

“Some of these have been here, I would estimate, maybe several thousand years — maybe as long as 10,000 years,” Jim Shearer, archaeologist at the Barstow Bureau of Land Management, said about the rocks, known as “petroglyphs.”

Shearer said he gets complaints all the time from petroglyph enthusiasts about damage being done to sully the ancient art.

Vandals who travel long, bumpy roads to the petroglyphs’ secluded mountain locations — often in off-road vehicles — scratch personal messages on the rocks, attempt to cut images out of them or copy the images with damage-causing contraptions and, sometimes, even shoot at them with high-powered weapons.

“Damage has been going on for quite a while, but it seems to be getting more extensive,” Shearer said. “In some cases it seems to be professionals going out there.”

Shearer thinks most people don’t know it’s a felony crime.

Under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, a first-time offender of petroglyph vandalism can receive up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine in addition to restitution fees that include the commercial value of the artifacts that are damaged.

Individuals can also be cited for destruction of government property, which carries an even heavier sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine plus restitution.

Shearer said the Barstow field office relies heavily on a hope that vandals are caught, prosecuted and made to pay restitution to cover clean-up and preservation costs. Otherwise, repairs eat into the field office’s already tiny budget.

In order to protect the artifacts, Shearer said law enforcement and volunteer stewards try to keep a watchful eye out. Also, the field office doesn’t make the locations of all sites known — he estimated more than 60 were within the 3.2 million-acre land the field office surveys — and they also post warning signs, put barriers up to keep vehicles out and try to educate the public.

Locals and petroglyph enthusiasts from all over the world visit the site every day, according to Shearer. He said it will be the public’s continued watchdog mentality that will limit the amount of future attacks.

“It’d be great if people who had knowledge of their location would take a more active part in protecting it,” he noted.

American Indians used stone tools to peck images in the rocks thousands of years ago, by Shearer’s estimations. Many believe concentrated areas of petroglyphs were sacred to ancient shamans.

In Bishop, the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association is currently accepting donations to assist with the recovery of petroglyph panels at its own major rock art site after recent destruction by vandals.

“The petroglyphs are really important to the Native American people,” Shearer said. “Reality is once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”

The petroglyph site in the Black Mountain area is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

For more information, contact Shearer at (760) 252-6034. For more information about making donations to the Bishop petroglyph recovery, contact the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association at (760) 873-2411.


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