'Petroglyph police' try to save the art of the ancients

  • NPS volunteers Sharon and David Hatfield near South Gate Rock

    Lin Alder photo

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah - A prehistoric petroglyph, chipped out of red sandstone to resemble a fat sheep, contends with a crude contemporary scrawl about a foot away. The scrawl looks roughly like a circle, scratched out with a sharp stick - the mark of an unsupervised child, or a thoughtless adult. When Sharon and David Hatfield spotted this vandalism two years ago, it sickened them.

"It makes your heart just sink," said Sharon Hatfield who, along with her husband, monitors archaeological sites in Zion National Park in southwestern Utah.

"Every time I approach these sites, I say, 'please, let them be like the last time we were here.' " The couple are amateur archaeologists, and have been volunteering at Zion for the past six years. They survey a handful of the Virgin River Anasazi sites every month and notify park rangers of any suspicious developments.

"We want to see these sites protected and preserved, so our great-great-grandchildren can see them," says David Hatfield, who is also the mayor of Rockville, a town of 250 people. "It makes me angry, and sad, too, that people don't respect the past."

On this particular expedition, a warm clear day in April, the Hatfields are accompanied by Jack Burns, Zion National Park's cultural resource specialist. Next to a rock-art panel covered with petroglyphs - images of undulating snakes and mysterious spirals pecked out of red stone - he observes signs of recent activity. It's a circle with two legs and two arms.

"That looks new to me," Burns said. "What we're seeing is an increase (of vandalism), and that's of concern."

But the vandalism of ancient rock art is not new. In fact, it's been taking place in Zion at least since the days of the Gold Rush. Carved into a prominent slab of red rock, alongside a maze of Indian markings, are the initials "J.C." It's speculated that pioneers would leave messages on rocks like this one. Perhaps they were written in a moment of loneliness - an effort to reach out across time. "You can just imagine the shepherds and cowboys using the alcove as their shelter, the same as the people before them," explains Zion's archaeological technician, Matt Betenson. "Then they liked to leave their mark on the wall."

Such pioneer vandalism is known by the lofty title of "historic inscriptions." But the graffiti of today is not viewed as tolerantly. "Graffiti is not socially acceptable today," Burns says. In fact, according to the federal archaeological resource protection act, it's against the law to deface archaeological resources on public lands, including Indian land, national parks, national forest and BLM land. If the perpetrator is caught in the act, it can lead to a fine in excess of $25,000 and prison time. Burns notes that one person has been jailed for such activity.

Although sometimes it is best to leave the graffiti untouched, when fresh markings are located there are certain treatments that can be applied. These range from wetting the graffiti and rubbing it down with sediment to using strong acid washes to eat away the damage. Once, several years ago, the Hatfields came upon some deep scratchings, which they were able to diminish with a patient application of sand. "That made us feel good," Mr. Hatfield said. He pointed out the faint outlines of the figure, still visible today despite their efforts.

What Zion National Park is confronting is a problem with no clear solution: how to keep public parks open to the increasing numbers of visitors, and yet protect their resources against degradation at the same time. Today, the mission of the Park Service - to preserve, protect and to provide enjoyment - is an inherently contradictory one.

"It's like walking a fine-edged sword - there's a chance of losing the resource by exposing it to the public," explains Burns. This year, the number of visitors to Zion is close to 3 million. And this number has increased each year since the mid-1980s, partly due to lower gasoline prices. This trend extends throughout all parks in the Southwest, which have seen an increase in visitation that shows no signs of abatement.

"The parks were never designed to see millions of park visitors," Burns says. Zion has a "site disclosure" policy, which encourages the public to visit only certain archaeological features in the park. Other sites are not advertised. In this way, pristine locations can be protected. Some of the sites the Hatfields monitor are secret "class 2" sites, and they don't reveal them even to their closest friends. These "hidden" sites are nevertheless well known, and frequented by some despite the park's efforts at concealment.

It's common knowledge that some merchants in Springdale, the town at the mouth of Zion National Park, have provided tourists with the names and whereabouts of these sites. Articles in the media have also drawn attention to certain locations the park would rather keep undisclosed. However, when asked specifically about these "class 2" sites, the park is obliged to divulge information to the visitor. A logbook at one such location revealed that at least 12 people had recently stopped by.

Standing still in this secluded place, listening to the canyon wren, it's not hard to understand why tourists would seek it out, even if it's off the beaten path and missing from park maps. And while many visitors do no harm at all, others inflict unintentional damage by taking rubbings of the petroglyphs, which wears away the rock art over time.

Some damage, however, is inevitable: "Ultimately, the weather's going to get it if people don't," said Sharon Hatfield. "In terms of rock art, we can't preserve it forever."

Some sites have been "sacrificed" to the public already. One, the South Gate rock art panel, which is 200 yards from a campsite and easily accessible from the main road, is covered with a jumble of ancient and contemporary etchings. It bears what the Hatfields and others have theorized is a lunar solstice marker, designed to notify the Anasazi Indians that the longest day of the year is at hand.

Although no one really knows what these prehistoric symbols meant to their makers, they remain a testament to the mysteries of a culture that is long past, its tantalizing secrets largely unrevealed. But today these remnants must contend with a panoply of modern-day drawings and scrapings. Despite the best efforts of the Park Service, there seems to be little likelihood that the instinct to etch is on the wane.

"I guess it's a trait of mankind to say, "I was here," like animals spray to mark territory," says David Hatfield. After a day of monitoring, he and Sharon realize they have lots of work ahead of them. "There's been more activity than usual, and it shows," he muses. "So we'll have to return."

"We'll fix it up," Sharon says, finishing the sentence for him.

Jenny Attiyeh is a freelance writer who spent holidays in Grafton, Utah, a now-abandoned town outside of Zion National Park.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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