Jen Beard said she’d been to that beach countless times, often to fish, but that Thursday she was there to collect driftwood and to show off some of the area’s 200-year-old Native American rock art to her friend’s young daughter.
This particular petroglyph depicts a person riding a horse (or mule or donkey) and is etched on the tip of a small boulder on the shore of Gunlock State Park’s namesake reservoir. It’s well-known to park regulars, probably because it’s near the entrance, although technically not on park land, said state parks spokesperson Eugene Swalberg.
Beard said when she got to that particular spot, she was shocked by what she saw. Where the boulder once sat, there was just freshly disturbed sand. And the boulder itself was in the water, upside down, the petroglyph submerged.
“It was devastating,” she said. "I wanted to cry.“
The State Historic Preservation Office is now asking anyone with information about what happened to contact the office, said Elizabeth Hora, a preservation office public archaeologist.
This type of vandalism has been increasing recently, she said, as more people visit Utah to explore its public lands. So much so, Hora said the office’s Public Archaeology Network is working on a campaign to educate visitors about the importance of rock art and how to respectfully observe it.
It’s not clear when vandals dug up up the rock or how it ended up in the water, but Beard said she found it that way May 7, one day after park officials announced its iconic waterfalls would be shut off because of overcrowding at the popular Washington County tourist destination.
(The falls form at Gunlock when water spills over the park’s dam. Officials are now releasing water from the base of the dam instead.)
Hora said the petroglyph was probably about 150 to 200 years old and put there by a member of the Southern Paiute tribe.
Hora said the the horse was a big giveaway as archeologists tried to estimate its age, because horses and other equines weren’t abundant in Utah until the Latter-day Saint pioneers arrived in the 1850s.
And she added that it’s possible the petroglyph could be older, since Spanish explorers trekked through the St. George area on trade routes as early as the 1770s.
Beard said people who grow up in Utah are typically familiar with them, but she theorized that when visitors come they may see the petroglyphs and not know to leave them alone.
But in this case, Beard thinks someone meant to move the rock, since that person had to dig it out of ground and flip it end-over-end for it to wind up in the water. And since the petroglyphs are so obvious.
Hora agreed. “There’s no way that this could have happened by accident.”
In her experience, most people who take or damage historic artifacts and art aren’t doing it maliciously. They just don’t understand the significance, how these items can give us perspective on how indigenous people lived and what was important to them.
“People don’t casually put things on rocks,” Hora said, “or they didn’t back when this was made.”
Yet, Hora said, there are certainly instances of people intentionally vandalizing artwork, or taking home pieces of pottery or arrowheads.
The Bureau of Land Management told FOX13 this week that they were looking into target shooters damaging petroglyphs carved into boulders on the southeast side of Utah Lake. People have also spray painted over the rock art, FOX13 reported.
Hora said the Utah Valley is one of the areas the Public Archaeology Network wants to reach out to for its education campaign, specifically to address the target shooting.
As for the petroglyph near Gunlock, Hora said Shivwits Band of Paiutes tribal leaders, state parks officials and members of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which may own the land where the petroglyph was damaged, will come together to decide what should happen to the rock.
Beard said she hopes the petroglyph at Gunlock can be saved and that officials put up some kind of signage to teach tourists what the rock art is and how to preserve it.
And that vandalism on public lands is a crime.
Anyone with information can contact the historic preservation office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-531-3847.