A theft of unprecedented proportions has occurred in eastern California. Equipped with ladders, saws, and other heavy duty power tools, unknown thieves gouged out six ancient petroglyphs etched into the volcanic stone landscape and damaged dozens more. Petroglyphs as large as 20 x 40 x 6 inches were extracted and some slabs were sawed off at heights of 15 feet above the ground. The theft occurred in the Eastern Sierra mountain range, near the California-Nevada border. The area from which the carvings were taken is called the Volcanic Tablelands, which dates back to more than 3,000 years ago. The area contains tens of thousands of archaeological sites.
The petroglyphs are sacred to the Paiute tribe who live nearby. The carvings represent a wide range of images, from recognizable forms such as hunters, sheep, deer, and lizards, to geometric designs and symbols. The Paiute believe that the etchings connect them to their ancestors.
The area is open to tourists, but the area is periodically closed so that the Paiute people can conduct ceremonies and rituals.
Raymond Andres, a Paiute who serves as the tribal historical preservation officer for the Bishop area, explained that the tribe view the images as messages left by ancestors, and that people go to pray and seek guidance at the sacred stone sites. “We still use this sacred place as a kind of church to educate tribal members and children about our historical and spiritual connections… so our tribal elders are appalled by what happened here.”
There is an active market for illicitly procured Native American art and artifacts. Although Congress has attempted to regulate theft of sacred art and artifacts through legislation such as NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), which bans illegal traffic of human remains and artifacts obtained from grave sites and sacred areas, trade in these items still continues.
The value of the carvings are estimated to be within the $500-$1500 range per piece, but even if the drawings are recovered, there is no way to repair the damage to the site. The Bureau is offering a $1000 reward for information leading to arrest. A first-time felony conviction for damaging or removing petroglyphs can carry a one-year prison sentence and a $20,000 fine.