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Staff Photo by Jessica Cejnar
Copies of petroglyphs found throughout the Mojave Desert are shown at the Mojave River Valley Museum Wednesday. Petroglyphs at Inscription Canyon bear fresh signs of vandalism and theft.

Fresh vandalism, theft reported at petroglyph site

Art older than the Mona Lisa graces the Mojave Desert’s vermillion rocks, yet the only security system that protects it is secrecy and a harsh landscape.

Ancient people once carved animals, humanoid figures and intricate pattens into canyon walls for reasons only they know at thousands of sites throughout the desert. But with people accessing these remote areas with off-road vehicles, vandalism and theft has increased.

Inscription Canyon, north of Hinkley, is one area people know about. Archaeologist Jim Shearer, who works with the Bureau of Land Management, estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 people a year visit the site to view its petroglyphs. It bears signs of vandalism and theft as fresh as this year, he said.

In March, the BLM received reports of people loading up rocks with petroglyphs into a pickup truck, Shearer said. People have also been using Inscription Canyon for target practice. Bullet holes dot some of the remaining petroglyphs.

Shearer is currently involved in another archaeological project, but because he’s worried about the potential for theft and vandalism, he won’t publicize the location. Even printing the tribe’s name would reveal the location, he said.

“The area is already seeing looting done,” he said.

Vandalism and theft of an archaeological site is a felony that can carry a 10-year prison sentence, Shearer said. Theft of archaeological sites includes stealing arrowheads, stone tools and coins. Anything that’s more than 50 years old is considered an artifact, Shearer said.

Bob Hilburn, Mojave River Valley Museum president and a volunteer with the Society for California Archaeologists’ Site Stewardship Program, said he visited Inscription Canyon in February with a group of archaeologists.

Someone had removed the barrier — large logs designed to keep cars out of the canyon — but Hilburn couldn’t tell the new vandalism from the old because of the extent, he said.

As a site steward, Hilburn records changes to archaeological areas. He also signed a confidentiality agreement with the BLM. If more people became site stewards it would cut down on the amount of vandalism and theft, he said.

Hilburn also encouraged witnesses to vandalism and theft to get license plate numbers of the people involved if they can and to report it to the BLM or law enforcement. People involved in the vandalism and theft shouldn’t be approached, he said.

“Don’t approach them because they will hurt you,” he said.

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