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'Digital Vandalism' Imperils Ancient Artwork

May 04, 2003|C.G. Wallace | Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — Bob Forsyth, a retired private investigator living in Las Vegas, takes his Jeep into the high-desert backcountry once or twice a week, searching for the elusive artwork of prehistoric American Indians.

With a global positioning system receiver mounted on his dashboard and plugged into the computer laptop by his side, Forsyth enters the no-man's land surrounding the Vegas glitz.

"I think of the people that were there, where you are, 1,000 years ago. You're walking in their footsteps," he said.

The question is: With exact GPS coordinates displayed across the Internet, are too many people now walking in those footsteps?

Most of the ancient artwork carved and painted into the rock walls and boulders of America's West survived for thousands of years in quiet obscurity. But technology has changed that.

These days, art that once took years for a person to stumble upon can be quickly pinpointed with a GPS, and discoverers can post the coordinates on the Internet. That leaves the ancient, priceless art vulnerable to what the Bureau of Land Management calls "digital vandalism."

"It certainly has changed how we think about our jobs. There's a breathless feeling that the public is ahead of us now," said Dale Davidson, a BLM archeologist based in Monticello, Utah.

A quick peek at the Internet auction site eBay confirms the sites are being plundered and sold piecemeal, said Kevin Jones, Utah's state archeologist.

It's not just treasure hunters who concern rock art aficionados. Some sites simply can't withstand public adoration.

The use of GPS "hasn't changed the nature, but the scale" of those who are finding the sites, Jones said.

Indians occupied the slick-rock desert country of the Southwest for at least 10,000 years. Much about them and their lives is a mystery to archeologists. What is known is gleaned, in large part, from the pictures etched on the rocks: hunting scenes, handprints, ceremonies, even the arrival of pioneers.

There are "huge concentrations" of ancient rock art in Utah, Jones said. He estimated that, throughout the West, there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of rock art sites.

When Forsyth, the Las Vegas adventurer, finds the treasure he seeks, he writes down the GPS coordinates and takes a digital photograph. Within hours, the photos -- and sometimes the GPS coordinates -- are added to his personal Web site, http://www.forsythlv.com/.

He wants to bring a glimpse of ancient cultures to the public. But he often withholds directions to sensitive artwork. The photo on his Web site of graffiti-covered rock art shows why.

"This is the reason that the BLM and private organizations are either restricting access or being very secretive about the locations of petroglyph sites," he said on his Web site. "Second, this is the reason why I am trying to locate and photograph all the sites that I can. I want to see them before vandals have completely ruined them."

Even the selective access afforded by GPS on Forsyth's Web site doesn't sit well with others who are known for their secrecy about their favorite sites.

"We share coordinates between close, personal friends, but not with strangers," explained Nina Bowen, vice president and archivist for the Utah Rock Art Research Assn. "We are so anti-telling people about sites that we don't even have a file on these sites. We're purposely very vague about [locations]. It's our passion and we have seen so much vandalism in the past five years."

That's when hand-held GPS units began being sold in sporting goods stores, Jones said.

Sometimes, by the time archeologists can get to a previously unknown site posted on the Web, it's already been damaged and information has been lost.

"Not only are we playing catch-up, but we're trying to record something that's already been impacted," Davidson said.

There's a lot of talk about how to deal with this clash between archeology and technology, but no answers.

"We all stand around kind of scratching our head about it," Davidson said. "It takes all sides to come to a conclusion here. It took a lot of time for this to get to be an issue and it will take some time to figure out how to deal with it."

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