I lead archaeological tours for many years. Arizona, New Mexico and the greater southwest offer many excellent opportunities to see evidence of the prehistoric inhabitants of the region. What I used to say was, “I go to places I like to go and I am willing to take people along with me.”
I also like driving, but I am a man who avoids interstates whenever possible. So it is when I head north from Tucson I do not jump on I-10, I usually choose one of my two favorite routes: Oracle Junction to Florence to Payson if I am going towards Hopi, or Oracle Jct. to Superior to Globe if I am bound for the White Mountains and/or beyond. You know, the scenic routes.
Once I depart Globe, strategically placed along this latter route lies the formidable Salt River Canyon. It is a spectacular place. It is my belief that if Arizona did not have the Grand Canyon, Salt River Canyon would get a lot more press.
It was standard operating procedure for me to pull over at the first large rest stop upon entering the canyon because I knew there was a collection of petroglyphs just below that spot with a stairway that lead right to them. I am not entirely sure why there are so many rocks with petroglyphs at this particular rest stop but I have a theory. Many of the rocks show signs that they may have been moved with heavy equipment. I believe that as they were building the torturous switchbacks that became the road down into the canyon and back up again, the construction crews ran into many examples of prehistoric rock art. What I think they did was bring them all back up to this one rest stop as a signature collection of prehistoric art.
Recently, after a hiatus of several years, I undertook a trip to Chaco as a fund-raising activity for Old Pueblo Archaeology. It was different from the ones I used to do for Pima College as it was a caravan trip, that is, each participant drove their own vehicle. I left a day early and made my way leisurely northward. As I entered the canyon I made my stop as I always had. Excited to see the glyphs again I strode over to the head of the stairs and stopped dead in my tracks. For the first time in over twenty-five years as a tour guide I was glad I was alone.
Someone, or several persons had tagged many of the rocks with spray paint, even writing directly on some of the ancient glyphs. I felt sick to my stomach.
Over the years I had taken many people to see these messages from the past. I invariably encouraged people to take pictures but I always cautioned against touching the ancient symbols and drawings. To make a petroglyph the artist pecks through the cortex of the rock, basically it’s skin. If there is an artificial coating on that skin, a natural varnish called a ‘patina’ the drawings stand out even better so many of the prehistoric artists purposely chose stones that feature that kind of surface.
Problem is, when you expose the underlying rock, new varnish and cortex will begin to form. Though it can take a long time, eventually the drawings will wear away.
If they are exposed to weather, this process will accelerate. And if people touch them it also increases the degradation of the drawings. Once they were created, it is a race against time for their survival as long as possible.
In the end all rock art is doomed, archaeologists simply try to forestall that death as long as they can. Seeing the paint sprayed upon these glyphs with all their polymers and additives I could not begin to imagine how one would go about trying to clean them. Someone had decided to display their hubris and highlight their extreme ignorance and in doing so they hastened the inevitable destruction of these ancient glyphs and ruined the experience of seeing them in a pristine state for the first time for many others.
What is even more depressing, for most of these aboriginal art forms the opportunity exists for technology to someday measure the degree of re-acclaimation of these natural processes of forming the patina over the glyphs and thereby definitively date when they were produced. Once that opportunity also existed for these examples but with the vandalism, even if they can be cleaned, dating them will now be impossible.
While the trip as a whole was superb, my first scheduled stop was a great disappointment. To see the wanton destruction of something that had existed for millennia, instantly transformed what used to be a cherished highlight into a tragedy. An even greater loss to the fund of human knowledge is that this useless act of destruction was performed with no more thought than that of someone mindlessly discarding a lit cigarette butt.