Petroglyphs, rock engravings left by ancient Native American people, stood along the California cliffs for up to 5,000 years. Yet it only took a concrete saw and pliers for thieves to steal the ancient rock writings last month, leaving the surrounding community stunned.
"When we went out there and looked at it, it hit my heart more than it did anything else," said Raymond Andrews, the historic preservation officer of the Bishop Paiute tribe. "These are old and it's part of our culture."
The thieves did damage to six different petroglyphs, removing five and damaging one that was left behind. The carvings stood along cliffs of the Eastern Sierra Volcanic Tableland near the California-Nevada border, approximately 15 miles north of Bishop, Calif. They are what the local community calls "rock writings," also referred to as rock art.
"They're old writings that our local people here still go out to periodically to visit, either just to be around them or pray to them," said Andrews.
Archaeologists describe the carving as an "engraving with color contrast," created by removing the exterior coating of the rock that exposes lighter colored stoned underneath.
For archaeologists and members of the tribe, the carvings are much more than just physical representation of the past.
"It's a very important spiritual and ceremonial artifact in history," said Greg Haverstock, an archaeologist with Bishop field office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). "It has a very religious value and it's irreplaceable."
Haverstock said the ancient petroglyphs were reported stolen on Oct. 31. Local authorities describe this crime as the worst act of vandalism they have seen in the 750,000 acres under their watch.
"This is a spot where thousands of visitors go to experience to make a connection with the past, so this is a really important location from a community perspective," said Haverstock. "These people really made a selfish act and they basically have destroyed it."
Haverstock said if the thieves try to sell the artifacts, each piece could run anywhere from $500 to $1,500. He said that even if the carvings were recovered, it would be nearly impossible to restore them.
"It's more than the actual motifs they stole, but also in the process of stealing them they scarred and damaged the surrounding petroglyphs." said Haverstock. "There's no way that you could properly restore it."
As a result, authorities have ramped up security in the region and the BLM is now offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to arrests. Under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, those convicted with theft and vandalism could face a $20,000 fine and 5 years imprisonment.
"It's not only Native American history but it's everybody's history," said Andrews. "Now nobody's grandchildren are going to be able to enjoy those because now they're gone. Hopefully they'll come back."