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Stolen California Petroglyphs Returned, But Many Questions Remain

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now to the publishing past, the very ancient past. In California last fall, a set of petroglyphs was stolen from a sacred Native American site. They were brazenly sawed and chiseled out of the face of a rock formation. The petroglyphs are believed to be more than 3,000 years old. And now, they've been found. Still, authorities don't know who took them or why. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler reporting from Bishop, California.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The sun is just coming up on the dramatic snowcapped peaks of the distant Eastern Sierra as Raymond Andrews slides out of a jeep and into the crisp, early morning.

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SIEGLER: An ancient riverbed crackles beneath his feet as he walks through dusty sagebrush and stops in front of a small cliff.

RAYMOND ANDREWS: Then you see where there's kind of like a cut out there.

SIEGLER: Andrews is the Bishop Paiute Tribe's historic preservation officer. He points to white etchings - drawings of deer, snakes and circles. But in one small spot, there's only rubble.

ANDREWS: It seems like something's been severed.

SIEGLER: Literally. That's what thieves did here last fall. They came into this remote basin undetected and used sophisticated saws and tools to chisel out five different rock panels on which ancient petroglyphs were drawn.

ANDREWS: You see the saw marks around it?

SIEGLER: Yeah.

Was it a malicious act directed at the tribe who considers this area sacred, or were these panels worth something on the black market? Andrews doesn't know. He's just glad to have them back. He knew they'd return.

ANDREWS: People have taken things from Hawaii, and they get back home. And the Hawaiians tell them, you know, bad things are going to happen to you. And then that's pretty much the belief of all the indigenous peoples. So we were thinking the same thing.

SIEGLER: Authorities were led to the petroglyphs late last week, thanks to an anonymous tip. It came in a letter to the local Bureau of Land Management office in nearby Bishop.

BERNADETTE LOVATO: It was one of the worst things I've seen in my federal career.

SIEGLER: Bernadette Lovato is BLM's field manager here.

LOVATO: It was not done with surgical precession. It's very ugly. And the scars out there are going to be with us for a very long time.

SIEGLER: And the five panels themselves are ruined. They'll never be returned to the site. Lovato says the investigation is continuing, and she's tightlipped about any more details. What is known is that stealing or defacing cultural artifacts on federal land is a felony, punishable by jail time and up to a $20,000 fine.

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ANDREWS: Because they used to have a chain-link fence up.

SIEGLER: Back at the site, there are now surveillance cameras, and the BLM is ramping up patrols. Bishop Paiute tribal member Raymond Andrews says they want to keep historical areas like these open. But he says the tribe and the BLM have taken down marker signs and stopped promoting the area to tourists.

ANDREWS: It's a nice site. It's nice, you know, it's a nice setting and - but it's not helping us. It's not helping us protect it.

SIEGLER: Indeed, there are concerns all this publicity will encourage more thefts and vandalism. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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