Protecting ancient rock art

Vandals and thieves are destroying Nevada’s desert petroglyphs. Meet the people who are trying to save this ancient art.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

The Nevada Rock Art Foundation can be contacted at 284-1529 or

As he kneels next to an ancient petroglyph to cradle its awe-inspiring image, venerable Red Lake Chippewa elder Adam Fortunate Eagle has to be careful not to cut himself on the handfuls of broken glass on the ground beneath him. Long, gray braids thrown over his shoulders, he walks among the rocks etched with the symbols archaeologists want to study, American Indians endeavor to keep hidden, and many cultural thieves want a piece of. He pauses frequently to admire the work of indigenous artists—and to express his disgust at the degree to which this sacred site has been desecrated.

“See how that’s been peeled away? What did they expect to get outta that?” Fortunate Eagle says, moving on to the next travesty. “That was probably a bullet hole. Somebody took a shot at this. These are fragile. You can see that by the amount of cracks in them. They chipped off the surface. Down below, you see the lighter color, versus the ancient. They’ve been exposed to the elements for thousands of years. You can see what was recently chipped away, versus that which is very, very ancient. It’s wiped out.”

This is Grimes Point Petroglyph Site, a Bureau of Land Management Federal Interpretive Site and one of northern Nevada’s most-visited archaeological sites, where tourists come to gawk at tangible history.

While Fortunate Eagle speaks, recreational vehicles crisscross the highway. A hawk soars overhead. Tourists come and go. Rain falls into the whipping wind. Navy jets from the Fallon base take off and blast out of sight. Garbage rots where it was dumped on the concrete drive, only a few feet from a trash can. Worse yet, human excrement soils the very entryway to the site, a disgusting calling card left in the parking lot by an RV owner who didn’t care enough about the area’s historic and spiritual significance to drive to Fallon to dump his black-water tank.

“Isn’t this sad?” Fortunate Eagle can’t believe his eyes. “It’s devastation of a historic site. As if there wasn’t enough room out here in the desert to throw their garbage, they had to come up into one of the most [important] archaeological sites in the entire valley.”

Grimes Point is a prime example of the perpetual culture-clash that’s occurred in Nevada since non-Natives first set foot on the soil of what would become the Silver State, the ancestral lands of the Paiute, Shoshone and Washo Indian peoples.

It’s also a prime example in the debate about how to preserve ancient petroglyphs—designs and pictures chipped into the surface of rocks by Natives 5,000, even 10,000 years ago. Many Natives believe the art’s greatest protection lies in anonymity, with never a whisper of its presence to be published. Others believe exactly the opposite—the more people are around and aware of the petroglyphs’ presence, the less likely thieves are to get an opportunity to steal the irreplaceable art.

A sculptor himself, Adam Fortunate Eagle, is dismayed by the utter disrespect people show toward the ancient art.

Photo By David Robert

Fortunate Eagle has lived with his wife, Bobbie, on the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Reservation for 28 years. He’s an elder with a sculptor’s hand, an activist history and a doctor of humane letters degree. To him, there is delineation between science and culture, Indian and non-Indian, man’s law and natural law.

“Varnish,” he announces, pointing out the pictures carved into the volcanic basalt. “It’s quite dark, but not as dark as the desert varnish of the natural stone. If you could start, somehow, scientifically, to determine the darkening process, you could then be able to determine how old these petroglyphs really are. Carbon dating. Atomic dating. They used to think at first these were maybe 800 to 1,000 years old.

“Spirit Cave Man lived 9,300 years ago, and I wouldn’t doubt that his peers were out here, on the shores of the lake. This used to be an isthmus protruding out into Lake Lahontan, a fantastic fishing and hunting ground. Over here are the wetlands today—Stillwater. This was part of their survival. Everywhere I look, I can see them on the stones, [even] the ones that have been desecrated by vandals and pot-hunter type people.”

Fortunate Eagle figures most petroglyphs are stolen for the criminals’ personal satisfaction. There are others, though, who steal with an intention of trafficking the artifacts, a too-common, illegal enterprise for moving pottery, basketry and other archeological relics on the black market. At Grimes Point, looters have managed to break off massive chunks of monolithic rocks—only to discover it isn’t humanly possible to cart them off.

“The stone people,” Fortunate Eagle calls them. “That huge boulder, that huge mural, who knows what that may have depicted? And yet, fully one-fifth of that has been destroyed. It’s going to be impossible to ever determine the symbolism or the story that huge boulder was telling us. The destruction of these petroglyphs today could delay or destroy any possibility of understanding their meaning. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s irreplaceable. Once these works of historic art are gone, we’ve lost something of time and space, of an indigenous people who inhabited this area for thousands of years.”

There is just a trace, too, of resignation as Fortunate Eagle points out the full perspective and history of Grimes Point.

“Up the slope is the former site of the Fallon City Dump—a landfill, as they call it nowadays,” he says, his jaw tightening. “You can see the rubble, the remnants, the detritus of civilization.”

Alanah Woody endeavors on a local level to lessen the continuing impacts of Manifest Destiny. She’s an archaeologist and executive director of the Nevada Rock Art Foundation (NRAF). Woody received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno and a doctorate from England’s University of Southampton, where she presented her dissertation on Nevada’s rock art. She’s media savvy, sensitive and serious about documenting archeological sites.

Someone chose the entrance of the Grimes Point Archaeological Area to dump out their RV’s toilet storage tank.

Photo By David Robert

“The reason recording is so important is because you can’t prosecute vandals without a record,” Woody says. “When the boulders got stolen from Peavine, [authorities] were able to press charges because they were documented. We were involved in raising money for the Secret Witness Program, which was instrumental. The Washo tribe, the Forest Service and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony worked together. A tip was called in a day or two later, once the reward was offered.”

Woody says she’s “absolutely, passionately” involved in the preservation and protection of petroglyphs. “Rock art is the most beautiful expression of creativity that we have of the people who lived here. They were creative, dynamic people. I know there isn’t the manpower or the funding available to record the sites. Most people don’t realize that. With our current administration, it’s getting less, not more. Our cultural resources don’t get the highest priority. Rather than screech about something that somebody can’t do something about, I decided it’s going to be my responsibility to take care of these things.”

Woody sent letters and made presentations to Nevada tribal governments in hope of starting a grassroots effort to catalog and keep an eye on petroglyph sites. The site that inspired her crusade, Lagomarsino in the Virginia City Highlands, is the home of hundreds, if not thousands, of petroglyphs in one canyon. The Native leadership’s response was positive. The wondrous Lagomarsino site is owned by Storey County, she says, but the Washo people call this traditional land their own. Yet when she approached them, Woody says many tribal members had never been there, denied access to this sacred place for decades by ranchers, miners and homeowners.

“They didn’t want people coming onto their property, Indian or otherwise, and over time, Indian people just stopped going. But when I showed them pictures, they recognized traditional basket designs. Based on that, they felt that probably it was a Washo site.”

When she isn’t working at the Nevada State Museum, Woody oversees the fund-raising for NRAF, through the sale of T-shirts, postcards, memberships and grants. Although NRAF’s Web site does not include maps and directions to specific sites, it does identify petroglyph-rich places in Nevada that are threatened by development and criminals, as well as those rock art sites that her organization has already documented for posterity and protection. Additionally, guided site tours are one of the “benefits” of memberships, ranging from $30 for individuals, to tax-deductible donations up to $100,000 for the “Founders Presidential Club.”

“It’s a hard choice,” Woody notes. “I am not necessarily in favor of denying access to these sites, to anybody, if it’s on public land. People who go look at the stuff come away better people. But the problem is that there isn’t anywhere that can withstand hordes of people. Grimes Point is impacted [by] 500,000 visitors a year. The numbers alone are damaging. So there’s this balance that you have to find between letting people see the rock art and get captivated by it and keeping the numbers low. That’s really the hardest problem.”

The Nevada Rock Art Foundation has started a volunteer site stewardship program in some of the state’s hotspots. The group reports its findings to the BLM, which Woody acknowledges is “walking the tightrope, too.”

Government doesn’t have the right to restrict access to public lands. For every one person who likes rock art, Woody says, there are 25 people who like riding ATVs. Recreational use of public land is growing as the population grows. The Forest Service is in the same boat as the BLM, trying to protect cultural resources that are being devoured by developers.

Inside the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, Nevada Rock Art Foundation executive director Alanah Woody interprets the symbols on an artificial petroglyph.

Photo By David Robert

On the other hand, if there’s rock art inside an upscale development, chances of its being destroyed are lessened to some extent. The people who live around the sites tend to feel ownership and become protective.

A scant two years later, the seed Woody planted to get like-minded people together to ensure that public lands are patrolled by a few citizens has blossomed into 340 members.

“I think it shows that regular people, if they’re given a chance to do something to help, will do it,” she says.

Volunteers are the heart of the Nevada Rock Art Foundation. For the opportunity to help preserve ancient petroglyph sites, these citizens will cover their own expenses to get out in the desert and perform back-straining classification from dawn to dusk, then earnestly “beg to come back and do it again tomorrow.”

As an archaeologist, Woody is naturally curious about the indigenous artists who created these images and says the experience of communing with the spirit of these sites enriches NRAF’s members, who walk away with renewed respect for the place, its original people and their descendants. Working with the earth—for the earth—she believes will unite northern Nevada non-Indians and Indians focusing on a spiritual, singular cause.

Woody admits that this passionate pursuit naturally creates as many critics as it does aspiring archaeologists, who must be made aware of the necessary protocol.

“Prevention and education are our only hopes,” she insists. “Most of the damage is accidental. Most people don’t realize, when they carve their name on a rock, that it might be 10,000 years old. That’s why we should tell people about rock art. Once you get kids involved, they grow up to be people who vote.”

The Nevada Rock Art Foundation does not, she stresses, disclose locations or directions to petroglyph sites that have not been documented or aren’t already highly traveled by truckloads of trekkers. Woody says she’s grown accustomed to—and her work is worth—the confrontations from her colleagues and from Nevada’s Native Americans who expect to have the last word on issues regarding petroglyphs.

Petroglyph thieves broke the rock on the left and then couldn’t steal it; it was presumably too heavy to remove.

Photo By David Robert

“I’ll take all the flak I have to from people who say I’m doing something bad,” she says. “I understand how Indian people feel when they say that the sites are sacred to them, and they don’t like us being there. And I understand when archaeologists say that we’re taking people out, and they’re going to come back and loot the place. It is risky.”

Woody is a pivotal figure in the local rock art preservation movement and a vital link among Nevada’s sovereign American Indian nations, their nemesis the federal government and the growing number of well-meaning volunteers who want, literally, to lend a hand.

“She’s tried to build an awareness of some of the sites that she knows of, and of course protection is part of that,” says Raymond Hoferer, cultural coordinator for the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Mineral County. “I don’t believe there are very many Indian people in these organizations, but I know some people who truly do want to preserve them. If the public wants to continue to see and enjoy these historical features, then they’re going to have to help protect them, instead of writing on them, making graffiti, breaking bottles on them, things of that nature. I believe that’s why [specific sites have been] shut down. It’s a sacred area.”

The Walker River Paiute people are representative of many Native nations that historically do not want to speak about the significance and interpretation of their sacred sites. Yet the West’s burgeoning population forces many tribes to accept NRAF’s assistance in the cause as well as confront the increasing crime that justifies the need to engage in the dialogue.

“As Nevada grows, and with the California rush that’s happening now, our open lands are becoming overrun,” Hoferer says. “People are inadvertently discovering these sacred sites and burial sites. We have a problem with vandalism and theft. We’ve had a lot of our sacred rocks that were used for healing purposes taken off the reservation. There’s a site in a cave, and somebody’s vandalized it. I’m talking about people with little conscience. They were pot-hunting, digging up the floor of the cave, the campfire sites. It’s under investigation by the BIA, BLM and tribal police.”

Protection, Hoferer asserts, is the only perspective. If people run across petroglyphs, they should show them some respect and leave them undisturbed. Anyone who steals them is subject not merely to man’s law, but also to natural, spiritual law.

“Eventually, the spirits of the people they disturbed get their retribution, either against the person, or one of his family members gets sick. It’ll turn around and abuse you—one way or another,” Hoferer says.

The tangible forces of federal laws and law enforcement remain a lesser line of defense for tribes facing growing theft problems, the majority of which go unsolved. Petroglyph sites are remote, far and few between, and there isn’t enough law enforcement to protect them.

Petroglyphs are subject to interpretation, although most seem to illustrate natural things like mountains, rivers or animals.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

“We’re at a point where we have to employ the public to help us protect these sites,” Hoferer says. “We can’t depend on the BLM, Forest Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to do that. If you only have one person trying to cover a state as big as Nevada, it’s not going to have any impact.”

Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Pat Barker is a solitary lawman in the drama. A member of the Nevada Rock Art Foundation’s board of directors, Barker’s armed with experience, expertise and a business card with an illustration of woolly mammoths and an “adapt or die” slogan. He has no trouble reciting names of the state’s development-threatened rock art—places like petroglyphs near the Mount Rose Highway, Caughlin Ranch and Wingfield Springs.

The federal government owns upwards of 90 percent of the land in Nevada. Of that, the BLM has about 50 million acres, about 60 percent of the state. While much of the ancient rock art is on reservations, most theft crimes don’t occur on the reservations but on federal and private lands.

Any violation of the 1976 federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act involving archaeological items valued at over $250 is a felony. The market value is established by the feds, and the cost of restoring and returning the items is figured into the punishment, so the penalty can be harsh.

Penalties range to $1 million fines and 6-10 years in a federal prison. Hence, documenting and recording the description/photograph of archaeological resources is critical in these cases.

The state of Nevada imposed a $2.5 million fine on a felon who looted a delicate site in the Black Rock Desert. While court cases can take years to play out, legal victories are deeply satisfying to Barker, who says attempts to move rock art just ruin it.

The increasing clashes of old and new cultures come about for pretty simple reasons: Areas we consider to have natural beauty—trees, water, vegetation—ancient indigenous people also found beautiful.

“Everybody likes to live in nice places—along watercourses, with trees and good views,” Barker says. “As the edges of Reno expand, they come in contact with rock art sites. There’s a pretty general threat to archaeology sites of all types. I think the biggest threat to rock art in particular is unintentional vandalism. People are out there, camping in the area, and see something on a rock and don’t know what it is. They might take a shot at it with their gun, target practice, or tagging. They don’t recognize that there’s rock art underneath it.”

The BLM has jurisdiction over Grimes Point, the stunning, defiled, sacred site near Fallon that faces an uncertain future. Should the level of destruction increase or even continue at current levels, there could soon be nothing to commemorate. The park is widely known but not funded to the extent that would allow around-the-clock surveillance. There’s no going back for Grimes Point—the protection of anonymity is not an option. It seems the sacred spot’s only hope lies in educating the public to the site’s significance and the criminal punishments reserved for people who desecrate it. Maybe that will be enough for the site to survive for two or three more decades.

“It’s hard to judge what it’s going to be like,” Barker observes. “One of our problems is the general maintenance of the place. People have spread feces on the walls and done all sorts of strange things. Sites that can’t be protected by being hidden, like sites along the highway, get much better protection from being interpreted than they do from being left alone, because the community comes to value them more, and we get a lot less vandalism than we do if we just leave them alone. I hope in 50 years it’ll still be a good interpretive site. I’d like to see more Native American interpretation out there. As long as we have the money to maintain it and interpret it, I think it will stay protected fairly well.”

Adam Fortunate Eagle voices an indigenous opinion on what it will take to preserve this history for his grandchildren’s grandchildren.

“It always comes down to money," the elder says. "Money talks, bullshit walks. Ten thousand years from now, scientists will wonder what in the world happened up here, because there’s an overlapping of ancient Native American tradition and culture, with the beginnings of a white culture and the conflict of the two—the best of one, and the worst of the other."