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Arizona officials work to protect ancient rock art sites from vandals

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — Investigators have yet to identify any suspects in the case of a 1,000-year-old rock art panel that was damaged in northern Arizona over the summer, but officials say what happened on the Kaibab National Forest is a reminder of the ongoing assault on archaeological sites in Arizona and across the Southwest.

A hiker reported the damage in August at Keyhole Sink, named for a keyhole-shaped lava flow. The word “ACE” was written in silver paint over the rock art, known as petroglyphs.

Kaibab officials aren’t sure exactly what the letters mean, other than a potentially expensive restoration job that might not work.

“It’s beyond words,” Kaibab archaeologist Neil Weintraub said of the damage. “It feels like an attack on this site. What has it done except give people pleasure for years?”

Officials say sites around the Southwest are being vandalized, from graffiti and looting to littering and garbage-dumping. Sites are defaced with paint, bullet marks, paintball stains and messages scratched into rocks. Professional thieves remove pottery, hack out chunks of ancient art-covered rock and dislodge anything they can carry away.

The sites are vulnerable because they’re not behind locked doors, and monitoring is intermittent at many of the locations.

There aren’t enough people to check them frequently, there are simply too many sites, and often, they’re hard to reach.

“We can’t monitor them all, and neither can the land managers,” said Nicole Armstrong-Best, interim coordinator for Arizona’s Site Stewards program, which oversees a group of volunteers who monitor local, state and federal sites all over the state.

There are about 800 volunteers who monitor the 3,000 most significant or most affected sites the program tracks.

More than 130 vandalism reports have been filed by the stewards since October 2009, when a computerized reporting system was put in place. Reported incidents include petroglyph thefts, paint damage, graffiti and dumping of debris. In a few cases, even shrines and cairns have been built on the sites.

At Keyhole Sink, officials say they may have to consider installing cameras and motion detectors to protect the site.

Until the paint is removed, Weintraub said, people who come there from around the world will be disappointed.

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