Six ancient works of art stolen from Volcanic Tablelands

As federal land managers continue investigating the theft of several priceless, Native American artifacts from an area north of Bishop, residents have an opportunity to help protect culturally sensitive sites in the future and possibly help capture those responsible for the recent crimes.

The Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association announced it is accepting donations that can be used for a number of projects, from ongoing monitoring to apprehending the thieves who used rock saws and pry bars to steal several prehistoric works of art from the Volcanic Tablelands north of Bishop.

Six ancient works of art were stolen last month in what officials are calling one of the most grievous acts of vandalism at an Owens Valley archeological site.

According to Bureau of Land Management Archaeologist Greg Haverstock, an unknown individual or individuals ravaged a half-mile, federally protected archaeological site by using power tools to remove petroglyphs that could date back as much as 10,000 years.

The Bishop BLM Field Office manages the area and it is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to the six that were stolen, several other petroglyphs were damaged or destroyed by rock saws or pry bars, either as the thief or thieves attempted to remove them, or as nearby petroglyphs were removed.

“Not only did they damage other artifacts when they cut petroglyphs away, but they broke some they were trying to take,” Haverstock said. “It’s pretty egregious. We’ve had some minor acts of vandalism before, but by far this is the most egregious in the history of this field office.”

The thefts and vandalism are a significant loss for the Bishop Paiute Tribe.

“The petroglyphs on the panel have been there since time immemorial and to be removed and damaged in a matter of minutes is detrimental and heartbreaking to the Bishop Paiute Tribe. We hope the individuals responsible for these horrid acts will be brought to justice,” said Chad Delgado, Bishop Paiute Tribal chairman.

Power tools and ladders were used to remove the ancient rock art. One piece that was removed, Haverstock said, was more than 15 feet off the ground and would have taken extensive effort to remove intact.

The thefts and damage were reported Oct. 31 when a member of a local Archeological Preservation Resource Group, a volunteer group of citizens who have been trained to watch for theft and vandalism at culturally sensitive sites, made a routine check of the area.

Haverstock said the site had been monitored five weeks prior to the report, which means the crime took place between the last week of September and the last week in October.

When the damage was reported, the BLM notified the Bishop Paiute Tribe and issued emergency phone calls to Archeological Preservation Resource Group volunteers, asking them to check all local petroglyph sites. No new damage was found at other sites. Monitors are continuing heightened patrols of archeological sites to ensure the damage is not repeated.

BLM Bishop Field Office Manager Bernadette Lovato, who notified the local tribe personally, told the L.A. Times in a recent article that it was the toughest telephone call she ever had to make. “Their culture and spiritual beliefs had been horribly violated,” Lovato said. “We will do everything in our power to bring those pieces back.”

“This was a very selfish act,” Haverstock said. “Thousands of visitors come each year to see these sites, and in a few hours, these people forever impacted this resource. The damage to the site is virtually irreversible, and the artifacts that were stolen are irreplaceable. The damaged site was a pristine example of Great Basin rock art and hunter-gatherer domestic, religious, and subsistence activities. The location of archaeological materials, feature remains, and the rock art clearly portray the activities that occurred at the site during the past 3,500 years.”

Theft of petroglyphs is a felony offense, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and up to $20,000 in fines for the first offense. A second offense could land the offender in prison for up to five years. Up to $100,000 in fines is a possibility.

The BLM is offering a $1,000 reward, with the Bishop Paiute Tribe offering an additional $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thief or thieves.

“We hope the community will assist the Bishop Paiute Tribe and Bureau of Land Management in bringing the responsible individuals to justice,” a press release from the tribe states.