One Of Every Four Ancient Rock Art Sites In Wyoming Has Been Vandalized


A report prepared by a Wyoming State Archaeologist revealed that roughly nearly a quarter of the rock art sites in Wyoming have been subject to vandalism.

The cowboy state is home to roughly 1,100 known rock art sites that are a mix of petroglyphs, pictographs or a combination of both.

A petroglyph is an image carved, incised or scratched into stone while a pictograph is a painting, usually made of natural pigments on stone.

Wyoming State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton told the Star-Tribune that most of the art is typically done on sandstone or limestone – which are softer rocks and easier to carve into.

Where is the art

The over 1,100 sites can be found in all parts of the state but the southwest portion of the state has the most documented rock art locations – with over 400 sites.

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The northwest part of the state follows with roughly a quarter of the other known sites and the northeast and southeast part of the state combined only make up just over a third of the known sites.

The frequency of art sites is related to the prevalence of cultural resource management surveys that are conducted alongside energy projects.

“My impression is that the Bighorn Basin of northwest Wyoming, especially the canyons on the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains, contains the densest prevalence of rock art in the state,” Pelton wrote in a report to legislators.

Documentation of the sites also ranges widely with some sites only being points on a map based on a tip from a member of the public while other sites are entirely sketched by hand and thoroughly documented through photography and 3-dimensional modeling of the cliff face.

The vandalism

The Wyoming Cultural Records Office compiled a list of over 600 sites on federal, state, or private lands to assess the damage to rock art.

Vandalism to the sites tends to fall into categories of initial and names, dates, firearm damage or painting.

Art sites on state lands made up the smallest portion of the assessed lands. Only 47 of the 635 locations assessed were on state lands but 15 of the sites – roughly a third – had some signs of vandalism. Nearly 400 of the sites sit on federal lands and 22% of those sites have signs of vandalism.

“These differences are not statistically significant, but it is my opinion that rock art sites on state lands might be at a slightly higher risk for vandalism,” Pelton wrote in a report to legislators. “State land parcels are often closer to population centers and thus more easily accessed. Such parcels are often popular places for shooting, dumping, or other potentially destructive activities, thus placing rock art sites at higher risk for vandalism.”

The amount of vandalism at each site also varies.

“It could just be somebody carved their initials in once and then [the rock art] never got touched again all the way up to a site we documented last summer probably had 1,000 plus instances of vandalism. It was just carpeted in initials, dates and bullet holes,” Pelton said.

In addition to vandalism, natural erosion also accounts for a big hurdle in rock art preservation – with 71% of the sites having some signs of erosion. Only 28 of the over 600 sites assessed sites have no signs of erosion or vandalism.

Current laws

Protections for rock art in Wyoming lie on three federal bills and one state bill but enforcement of these laws is lacking, especially on the state side.

The Antiquities Act of 1906, The 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act all pass legal protections for any historic or prehistoric ruin, monument or object of antiquity situated on lands managed by the U.S. government.

The 1966 law created the National Register of Historic Places and the State Historic Preservation Office program.

Nine sites with identified petroglyphs or pictographs in Wyoming are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Wyoming Legislature last passed legislation protecting rock art in 1935 with the Wyoming Prehistoric Ruins Act, which requires the State Board of Land Commissioners to issue permits for the excavation of any prehistoric ruins, pictographs, hieroglyphics, or other ancient markings on any state or federal lands.

The law includes penalties for violations but the current Board of Land Commissioner rules do not include rules for enforcement of the Prehistoric Ruins Act, according to the Wyoming Legislative Service Office documents.

Pine Canyon Case Study

A case study at pine canyon was used to find out study vandalism over time.

The site on federal lands north of Rock Springs was thoroughly documented following a request from former Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Yufna Soldier Wolf – who had noted ongoing vandalism of the Pine Canyon rock art site.

“Rock art vandalism at Pine Canyon is extreme, but demonstrates the various types of vandalism incurred at Wyoming rock art sites,” Pelton said.

Initials, names, and dates are almost always incised into the rock face as opposed to pecked or chiseled; firearm damage is often present on images for which a logical target is present, such as the center of a shield-bearing warrior motif or the body or head of an animal image; and that painting is most often done to augment the shape or outline of an existing image.

Dates incised into a wall dating back to as early as the 1880’s allow for graphs to map how vandalism has changed over time.

“Based on the subset of vandalism depicting dates, rock art vandalism seems to have only grown more common through time, with the years between 2010 and 2020 having evidence for at least 10 vandalism episodes and likely many more that did not leave dates behind,” Pelton wrote in a report. “Based on 3 vandalized dates from the 2020s, this decade appears to be on track to be equally as destructive as the last.”

Pelton told the Star-Tribune that the increase is likely to do with a rise in vandalism and likely has to do more with the state’s population increasing through time.

“It’s not a new thing – It’s only increasing through time because there’s more people in the state. It doesn’t really seem to be more popular as we go through time,” Pelton said.

Management

Management and preservation of rock art could be tackled by the Legislature but considerations for each site should be handled on a case by case basis, according to Pelton.

High-profile rock art sites with signs and high traffic are rarely vandalized, according to Pelton.

“I think it’s because people are aware that this is a significant thing and it’s something that people want to go look at and it’s obvious that you should not mess with this thing,” he said.

The areas most susceptible to vandalism are the “middle range” areas that are not highly trafficked but also not remote enough to be often missed.

An existing program that manages and regularly monitors sites is the Wyoming Archaeological Site Stewardship Program.

The program created in 2006 by the state’s historic preservation office allows for members of the public to essentially “adopt” an archeological site.

“That’s been around for a long time but it’s kind of hard to get people interested in it,” Pelton said.

The Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations identified cultural education and resources as its second highest priority during this year’s interim. The protection of rock art falls under cultural education and resources priority.

David is a reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune and can be reached at 307-301-0506, or at david.velazquez@trib.com



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