The most recent post at Cultural Heritage in Danger reminds us of the ongoing threats to exposed and unprotected cultural heritage sites in the United States and abroad. In this case, rock art sites in Nevada and Arizona have been planned targets of graffiti vandalism. Police believe the hundreds of street gangs known to carry out such criminal activity are motivated by self-promotion in the form of “extremely destructive damage” and “shock value” — tagging high-profile places enhances reputation, as it were. At Agua Fria National Monument and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, two recently hit sites under protection by federal land conservation statutes, graffiti was discovered in largely inaccessible locations where hiking and climbing were required. The severely damaged panels at both sites include pictographs, rock paintings and drawings, and stylized petroglyphs, or drawings scraped and etched into a rock surface. Archaeologists date Agua Fria to c. 2000 B.P. and attribute the masterworks, known as the Perry Mason tradition, to Native American tribes indigenous to the region; the drawings at Red Rock are similarly dated. Many of them have not yet been studied.
The American Southwest is home to thousands of comparable sites in terms of content, nature, origin, location, access, interpretation, and protection. As I have argued in the past (See “Drug Addiction Fuels Looting of Antiquities”), “remote” cultural sites are never too isolated to suffer damage or desecration at the hands of uncaring individuals. Within this vast expanse, only a handful of federal agents are available to fend off criminal activity such as the rampant illicit looting of and vandalism to cultural sites and property. That the recent graffiti vandalism was perpetrated in far removed areas of National Conservation Areas further emphasizes the sustained vulnerability of these natural and cultural heritage sites without proper policing and/or security protection. I understand a lack of human and financial resources prevents monitoring of all sites on a daily, if not semi-regular basis. However, the solution to this cultural crime should not be to simply mop it up and restore the site as best to its original appearance, a measure employed at Keyhole Sink at Kaibab National Forest and planned for the Red Rock graffiti. Instead, we must consider viable practical alternatives to ensure the long term physical protection of our heritage sites without jeopardizing its quality or authenticity. I’m open to suggestions, thoughts, and criticisms regarding proactive heritage preservation for exposed sites and landscapes.
Unfortunately, in Nevada and Arizona the maximum penalty for “placing graffiti with a gang enhancement” carries a five-year jail sentence and $100,000 fine, a punishment I strongly feel will always be insufficient to absolve a person of such senseless conduct against human cultural heritage.