Earth Notes: Thieves of Time

Jun 19, 2019

A couple years ago, a volunteer patrolling near Bluff, Utah, found a human-like figure pecked onto stone—rock art at least five times older than the Liberty Bell. The volunteer gasped to see that a thief had used a rock saw to try and cut out the panel. 

Pictograph with bullet holes
Credit Michael Engelhard

The criminal had permanently disfigured evidence of the Southwest’s Native American history. Unfortunately, the case is not that exceptional. 

Cedar Mesa—part of the brand new Bears Ears National Monument—is especially rich in archaeology, and a prime target of such vandalism.

The mesa rises near Monument Valley, bordered by the Comb Ridge monocline, San Juan River gorge, Grand Gulch, and Elk Ridge. Its 400 square miles holds abundant pre-Columbian sites and rock art. There are 25 archaeology sites per square mile, more than anywhere else in Utah—and taking in the greater region, it’s one of the highest concentrations of sites in the entire country.  

Ancestral Puebloans occupied the pinyon-juniper highlands and slickrock canyons between 800 and 2,000 years ago. Other tribes have roots there as well—San Juan Paiutes, Utes, and the Diné.

In Grand Gulch, Basketmaker pithouses to Pueblo fortresses have been ransacked, some repeatedly. Storage cysts have been cratered and pilfered. And rock art panels have been riddled with bullet holes or overlaid by graffiti. The Bureau of Land Management now limits visitation to protect some special sites.

Looting degrades sites and disturbs soils that would allow dating of objects. And irreplaceable artifacts are often sold online in black markets.