Officials work to protect petroglyph from vandals


Michael Selle, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, doesn't understand why ancient people carved some of the petroglyphs in the canyons of Rio Blanco County.

Nor does he understand why modern people drive into the wilderness to shoot the petroglyphs with rifles.

The Shield Rock Art Site in the western half of Rio Blanco County is one of the most endangered historical sites in all of Colorado, Selle said. The petroglyph, carved about 2 millimeters into a sandstone wall, features a man-shaped anthromorph with stick legs and feet, holding a shield resembling a sun over his midsection.

The petroglyph is riddled with bullet holes from .22-caliber rifles. The stone around it is crumbling -- damage from attempts to chisel the petroglyph from the canyon wall.

"They destroyed a priceless bit of American heritage, and they're continuing to mess with it, unfortunately," Selle said.

This vandalism trend isn't unique to the Shield Rock Art Site. Selle said 20 to 30 petroglyph and painting sites throughout Rio Blanco County have been vandalized with firearms.

The disclosure of the site's exact location is protected by Article 7 of the Archaeological Research Act. But vandals, obviously, have had no difficulty finding the site.

The artist who carved the petroglyph likely did so through a process called "pecking," which involved slowly chipping away at the patina of the rock wall using a hammerstone and maybe a chisel-type stone. He may have chosen to create his art in the loosely compounded mesa verde stone because he could chisel into his medium quickly.

But erosion is having a detrimental effect on the soft stone. Water is slowly washing the petroglyph away, and unless some sort of structure is built to protect it, erosion will eventually destroy the artwork -- unless the vandals do first, Selle said.

In 2001, Colorado Preser-vation Inc., a nonprofit historic preservation organization, nam-ed the Shield Rock Art Site as one of the most endangered sites in Colorado. Simone Howell, a graduate student studying historic preservation at the University of Colorado in Denver, interned with that group at that time.

The plan, she said, was to work with the Bureau of Land Management to protect the site by bulldozing the road that runs by it. Vandals don't typically walk to places they want to destroy.

A sign that identified the site, which has been shot down, was to be replaced. The site would have been fenced in and walkways would have been built around it, much like the work done to preserve petroglyphs at the Canyon Pintado National Historic District in the Douglas Creek Valley between Rangely and Fruita.

But the BLM agent in charge of the project was transferred to Montana, and the project's funding was removed along with his position. Now Colorado Preservation Inc. has placed the Shield Rock Art Site on alert status, meaning the preservation effort is in danger of failing.

Selle said the art could have been created by Fremont Era people anywhere between 300 B.C. or 1300 A.D. Although it's existed for at least 700 years and may have existed for much longer, Howell has heard estimates that the site cannot sustain even two more years of abuse.

No one has done any interpretation work on the petroglyph, and Selle said Native Americans have refused to say whether it means anything

to them.

"They don't want to talk to a white man about it after centuries of hostility, being made fun of, and being displaced," Selle said. "And look what white men have done to it now. Why would they want to talk about it?"

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at

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