On Dec. 26, 2021, Big Bend National Park visitors scratched their names over a petroglyph that’s up to 8,500 years old. Experts say they can’t repair the damage.
In a rarely visited area of Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, “Isaac, Ariel, Adrian, and Norma” left their mark — permanently.
A small boulder that displayed abstract petroglyphs for thousands of years now reads “ISAAC + ARIEL 12-26-21 NORMA Adrian 2021.”
The vandals scratched the graffiti into the stone, obscuring a significant portion of the archaeological resource. Park visitors reported the vandalism to staff. Next, dispatched restoration specialists arrived at the site to assess. Unfortunately, they consider the damage irreparable.
The boulder lies in the Indian Head area, which contains “abundant rock art, shelters, etc.,” said Tom Vandenberg, chief of interpretation and education at Big Bend National Park. “It has been used by various groups of people for thousands of years, including groups from interior Mexico.”
Big Bend Petroglyph Showed ‘Archaic’ Art
Tom Alex is a retired archaeologist who works with the park. He explained that the petroglyph’s style and state of weathering reflected a long timespan and multiple groups of ancient humans.
“The style and motifs in it vary over the wide area from the Great Plains to the Desert Southwest and including the Big Bend,” he said. “[O]n the Indian Head site, abstract petroglyphs were produced over a long span of time, as evidenced by the degree of patination.” (Patination is the process by which a surface acquires a thin layer of discoloration due to aging.)
The panel itself dates to what archaeologists call the Archaic Period. Archaic petroglyphs show abstract style (as opposed to representational) and are anywhere between 1,300 and 8,500 years old.
Why You Shouldn’t Try to Remove Graffiti Yourself
According to Vandenberg, Alex and a few other archaeologists remediated the damage to the panel to some degree but couldn’t fully rehab it. This was partially because visitors had already tried to repair the damage themselves. Vandenberg acknowledged that they probably meant well, but he explained that their intervention made the problem worse.
“[The visitors] tried to scuff and rub it all off, and that abrades the patina of the rock,” Vandenberg explained. “It discolors it, perhaps even more. It looks like they probably used tap water out of their canteens, which can stain the rock as well, because of the small amounts of chlorine in it.”
Vandenberg went on to say that attempting to remove graffiti without expert techniques can also kill microbiota that often live on desert rock, like lichens and moss.
Big Bend National Park Tip Line Gets Hot as Park Seeks Suspects
Vandalizing archaeological resources on public or Indigenous lands is a federal crime. Furthermore, penalties include up to $20,000 in fines and 2 years in prison.
Big Bend asks anyone with information regarding the incident or the individuals involved to contact the park’s communication center at 432-477-1187. Alternatively, anyone with a tip can contact the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch at 888-653-0009.
According to Vandenberg, Big Bend park rangers have collected substantial information during their investigation. The park’s social media posts that highlight the incident have gone viral, as has the story.
“[The rangers] have plenty of things to work on right now,” he said. “Whether any of them will come to fruition, I don’t know.”
He also emphasized that while graffiti in parks is unfortunately common, anyone who sees people committing vandalism should let park staff know right away.
“If someone sees something like that, we’d like them to call the park and let us know right away. It’s best to not try to clean it off yourself, because it requires pretty specific, careful methods,” Vandenberg said.
“We’ve dedicated our careers to preserving these special places. Parks belong to everybody, so we want people to help us out. When [vandalism] happens, we all lose part of our history and heritage.”