Protecting petroglyphs as Utah County develops

PROVO, Utah (AP) — As Steve Acerson perused ancient petroglyphs on the west side of Utah Lake on an unseasonably warm February morning, he started getting more and more upset.

The rock art enthusiast and president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association goes out frequently to identify rock art, and is intimately familiar with many of the known petroglyphs in Utah County — he helped discover many of them.

But as he reached down to point out a petroglyph depicting a bighorn sheep, he noticed the top half of the sheep had been damaged to the point that anyone who wanted to could pick up the detached piece of rock depicting the sheep’s head, put it in their pocket, and walk away.

The reason for the damage? The piece of rock depicting the bighorn sheep lay at the base of a ridge used as a backdrop in a popular target shooting area on public lands.

Other petroglyphs also bore the marks of being hit by stray bullets, except for the few lucky enough to be protected by being carved into flat rocks less likely to become accidental backstops.

Though bullet marks from shooters, who by and large have no idea their backdrop is filled with petroglyphs, pose a danger, it’s far from the only risk to preserving these ancient artifacts scattered around nearly every corner of Utah County.

Acerson said there’s petroglyphs in at least 15 different areas around Utah County, including Provo Canyon, Santaquin Canyon, Eagle Mountain, Cedar Fort, the Lake Mountains and West Mountain, among others.

The biggest threat to rock art in most cases is people, and Utah County, already the state’s second-most populous county, is getting more and more of those.

Population estimates show Utah County’s population adding more than 1 million people to its population by 2065, for a total of about 1.6 million.

That means nearly triple the number of people target shooting, developing new homes and businesses and a larger number of people willing to purposely steal or damage ancient artifacts.


Multiple Native American tribes called Utah County home for thousands of years before Mormon settlers arrived, and several of them practiced the art of etching or “pecking” images or shapes into rocks, leaving a record still visible today.

It’s difficult to date rock art, said David Yoder, anthropology professor at Weber State University who previously taught at Utah Valley University in Orem.

“We’ve got some general idea,” Yoder said. “But rock art is not one of these things you can nail down with really hard facts. It’s squishier than that.”

Much of the Lake Mountain rock art in particular is thought to be from the Archaic period, Yoder said, so a rough guess is that it’s four to five thousand years old.

Other rock art in the county was done by the Fremont Indians, who occupied Utah County about a thousand years ago. Then there’s petroglyphs thought to be more recent than that.

“It spans a range,” Yoder said. “It goes back thousands of years, but that area was probably used right up until contact with Europeans.”

Nailing down exactly what rock art was intended to mean is even trickier than dating it. Many pieces of rock art depict symbols. Even the pieces that obviously depict something specific, like a human or an animal, it’s difficult to say why it was drawn or what it’s supposed to mean.

“Nobody knows exactly why it was drawn” said Mike Searcy, anthropology professor at Brigham Young University. “Some say it’s historical, some say pictorial stories, some say it has religious meaning. Other people would say they could be indicative of hunting grounds, a sign of here’s where we hunted, here’s what we caught.”

When rock art is destroyed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, an irreplaceable part of the historical record is lost.

Other artifacts that give glimpses into prehistoric cultures, such as clothing, don’t preserve as well over time as petroglyphs do, Searcy said.

“So when someone comes along and hits the face of a rock with a bullet, it can’t be reconstructed,” Searcy said. “Or it’s damaged in such a way that it doesn’t give a complete picture.”


Much rock art has already been lost in Utah County already, though Acerson said it’s impossible to tell exactly how much.

For one thing, petroglyphs are often not very noticeable to the untrained eye. Often, the etchings “patinize,” or begin taking back on the original color of the rock, making them less noticeable than the average observer would expect.

Other natural occurrences, such as lichen growing in or around the images, might make them harder to distinguish to someone who is either not looking for them or isn’t trained in what to look for.

And even if private landowners do know of petroglyphs on their land, there is nothing requiring them to preserve those artifacts unless they choose to do so.

Even on public lands, petroglyphs face danger. In multiple locations on the west side of Utah Lake, the Bureau of Land Management had put up signs, warning about artifacts in the area and the fines and penalties for destroying any.

The majority of those signs had been shot so many times they were no longer legible.

Mining and extraction activities on public land can also pose a threat to the petroglyphs, assuming its presence is undetected.

It’s also not uncommon for documented boulders with petroglyphs to simply disappear. Acerson said, in the West Mountain area, four boulders that he knew there were rock art on are no longer there.

“A lot of rock art is on small, broken rocks,” Yoder said. “It’s easy to just pick up some of these and walk away with them. People have been recording rock art for decades, and sometimes we find where a rock should be, so we know at least some of it is getting stolen.”


Steps are being taken by multiple organizations and individuals to make sure as much as possible of these historic markers remain untouched for years to come.

Acerson and his wife, Diana, who focuses on preservation for Utah Rock Art Research Association, are out looking to document new rock art, “almost every day we don’t have something else going on.”

Every piece of rock they find that contains petroglyphs has its GPS location documented and shared with whichever entity is responsible for the property it’s found on, whether that be state, federal or municipal oversight.

“That’s part of our purpose, is to get it all documented,” Diana Acerson said. “Because when it’s recorded through state history, it gets a Smithsonian number and then whenever there is a land-use activity that might disturb that area, they have to mitigate it.”

At that point, it’s mostly up to those entities to protect it.

In rapidly-growing Eagle Mountain, for instance, any historic sites the city is aware of are documented with the City Recorder’s Office so that if or when a developer asks the city to build houses, they can work with them on preserving those historic sites, said Eagle Mountain Assistant City Manager Paul Jerome.

The city is currently working with one developer to preserve known petroglyphs in a housing development, Jerome said.

Every land development in the city is required to have a certain amount of “green space,” and Eagle Mountain and the developer worked to make sure the petroglyphs are part of that green space, which will eventually be turned over to the city as a park.

“We’ve already got that preserved,” Jerome said. “So when developers come in the future, we can say, you are going to have to avoid this historic site or work. That’s what we’ve done to try to encourage preservation and document sites we are aware of.”

Other private landowners in the county have taken steps to make sure petroglyphs are protected, including the Smith family, who in 2012 donated nearly 200 acres to the Archaeological Conservancy.

The area is pristine: bullet marks won’t be found on the approximately 240 rock art panels located there.

Eventually, the hope is to acquire funding to create trails so that the rock art in the area can be utilized by school districts for field trips and historical education, said Randy Griffin, steward of the Smith Preserve.

But right across the road from the preserve is the popular target shooting area where Steve Acerson found the damaged bighorn sheep art, and that, combined with shooting on other neighboring pieces of property, make safety a concern in bringing kids out for tours, Griffin said.

Griffin and the Acersons are hoping for action on a permanent target shooting ban on more than 2,000 acres of BLM land, including that area across State Route 68 where rock art has become an accidental backstop.

“I went out and talked to people, and they didn’t know the rock art was there,” Griffin said. “Which is one of the reasons it shouldn’t be open to shooting in the first place.”

The BLM has already issued a temporary shooting ban on about 900 acres in that area, because of shooters shooting over roads, toward homes and destroying rock art, and issued a proposal at the end of 2016 that would extend the permanent closure to about 2,000 acres to protect the petroglyphs that are now in imminent danger.

Though local leaders signed off on that plan, it’s still waiting on final approval before it goes into effect.

In the meantime, Utah County is building a long-delayed shooting range on 160 acres deeded over to them by the BLM for the purpose of building a shooting range to accommodate target shooters who might normally have done their shooting on the acreage that is now closed to shooting.

In addition, the BLM has a public awareness campaign called “Respect and Protect” to eliminate the looting and vandalism of archaeological and paleontological resources across Utah, according to Hannah Cowan, public affairs specialist for the West Desert District Office of the BLM.

Part of the battle is letting people know where the petroglyphs are, Steve Acerson said. Most people aren’t intentionally destroying it. But publicizing the whereabouts comes with its own risks.

“One percent of people who come out here have no ethics whatsoever,” Steve Acerson said. “So they end up leaving their mark, or destroying or manipulating. But sometimes you have to share the information so people find out about it.”

Yoder advised that those lucky enough to come across petroglyphs heed the “leave no trace” mentality.

“This stuff is a wonderful resource that you should enjoy,” Yoder said. “I don’t want to make it sound like you shouldn’t go check it out. you should enjoy it, but don’t touch it. Take a lot of photos, but don’t touch it, don’t deface it and don’t move it. Enjoy it in place.”


Information from: The Daily Herald,