Robert Gehrke: We can’t monitor every ancient artifact in Utah, but we can instill an ethic that values and protects the past

State has a new volunteer effort to prevent destruction like the Birthing Rock travesty.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A petroglyph panel outside of Moab known as Birthing Rock was defaced by vandals on Monday night.

Thousands of years before the first white settlers even set foot in the region, the West’s original inhabitants left their mark on the Birthing Rock.

Generation after generation etched dozens of images on all four sides of the iconic stone, spanning hundreds of years, withstanding time and the elements.

Last week, the famed relic was defiled by some person or group of people who hacked a penis into the stone, scratched out some juvenile profanity and carved the phrase “white power” into the stone — proving their stupidity by first misspelling, then crossing out, the word “white.”

One would think the master race could spell.

“What happened to the birthing panel,” said Kent Williams, president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association, “that’s just a whole other level of ugliness.”

It was indeed a vile act, and yet not one that is isolated. Every year, there are at least a handful of reports of dimwitted yokels carving into ancient petroglyphs, spray painting over the characters or shooting at panels.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Not long before the Birthing Rock was vandalized, a climber fixed a series of bolts into a large petroglyph panel, also just outside of Moab. He later confessed and said he didn’t realize what he had done.

“Every year, as the weather gets warmer and Utahns venture outdoors and we invite in tourists from across the country and around the world, we see an increase in damage,” said Elizabeth Hora, public archeologist with the State Historic Preservation Office.

Usually it is accidental, but there are times, as was the case with Birthing Rock, it is malicious.

“These rocks record everything we do to them over time,” Hora said. “This will be a testament to later generations as to who we were as Americans. Not great.”

Ideally, we could protect or at least monitor these archeological treasures, but that’s simply not feasible. There are more than 100,000 known archeological sites scattered across state, federal and tribal land in Utah, Hora said.

And new sites are being added all the time.

The fewer know, the better.

Tamara Billie, a senior archeologist for the Navajo Nation, said inventorying and documenting the artifacts is the first step. But when it comes to protecting items like rock panels, the fewer people who know about them and have access to them, the better.

“I know [the U.S. Bureau of Land Management] is really big on trying to cater to the public and get the trails fixed and stabilize sites,” she said. “We don’t support that.”

For those panels that are well-known, there are efforts to monitor the sites. In some instances, for popular locations, there are signs posted explaining the significance, asking people to be respectful and maintain distance. In some areas, simple fences or rock walls are put up to protect the panels. In others, motion-activated game cameras watch for vandals.

Even then, only a fraction of the most-visited sites get the attention.

So this year, state is launching a new program, where volunteer site stewards are given some training and asked to check in on known artifacts a few times a year. That way, Hora said, if there is a site that is impacted, archeologists can move quickly to consult with the tribes and try to repair the damage.

The program has the potential to provide significantly more boots on the ground and people who care for these sites.

Preserving these artifacts will also require that some of us shift our mindset.

Ignorance persists

Perhaps you saw former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum recent comments where he told a conservative audience that white Europeans had come to this continent and “created a blank slate.”

“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” he said. “I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there’s isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

His ignorance aside, his comments embody a distorted, egocentric view of history — that nothing meaningful existed before white settlers overran the continent and, if there wasn’t “a blank slate” to begin with, we can certainly create one.

That requires the type of educational outreach Hora and the state are doing, both targeting residents and visitors, that hopefully instills a sense of respect and reverence for those who were here long before us.

“It’s something that cannot be replaced,” Billie told me. “It tells a story and it tells so many things. Some of us don’t know the meaning of it, but others might because they’re part of a clan or it tells a story you only know a part of.”

“If you erase that part,” she said, “it’s losing a piece of history.”