Climbers and Archaeology

By Elizabeth Hora, Public Archaeologist at the Utah Division of State History

Within the space of two weeks, I have heard reports of more than four sites (all rock imagery!) damaged by spray paint, climbing chalk, and now bolting. That’s quite a lot for the first sunny weekend of the year! The last few weeks have been challenging to say the least, and two principles have helped me organize my thoughts and emotions regarding the recent jump in damage to archaeological sites.

  • There are no bad people, only bad behaviors
  • Behind any destructive action is a call for education

Now that I’ve taken a few days to process, talk to my friends who climb, and pore over some of the comments that people have left on social media and climbing web forums, I see the good intentions that climbers have, and also the myths that climbers fall prey to. The climbing community is made up of some of the most educated and most environmentally-responsible people around, but without us archaeologists reaching out to tell people how to identify sites, some bad advice has started swirling. And climbers: you are by no means alone in believing in these myths! I’m here today to set the record straight on some of these things.

This is just old graffiti

“Graffiti” is a particularly Western concept, and when we label prehistoric rock imagery with this word it strips it of its historical importance and on-going sacredness to people. Descendants of these ancient people still visit these sites, and still can understand the meaning of these symbols, no matter how small or imperceptible to Western eyes.

This doesn’t look ancient

A trained eye can see the difference, just like people can often catch fake paintings. The method by which prehistoric people created these images (usually using a rock chisel-and-hammer method) usually isn’t favored by modern copycats who have knives or other tools in their pockets. Also, prehistoric people from different cultures and time periods tended to create images in a certain style, so often just by looking at the rock imagery’s subject matter, aesthetic appearance, and other details we can spot a fake. 

Modern or even historic “copycats” are rare in my professional experienceYou’ll just have to take this one on faith – I’ve been an archaeologist for almost two decades and just haven’t seen many fakes!

Look carefully at the color to see repatination – a process that takes decades, even centuries

These are my public lands and I can do what I want

If you heard someone say “this is my dog, and I can do what I want” you might suspect that the dog was in some amount of danger… and this is what I hear when people rely on this phrase when talking about public lands. Yes, you do own a (shared!) stake in these lands, but that does not entitle you to abuse them. When we treat our public lands as though they are something we are the guardians and stewards of, not a resource to be used up, we are being kind not only to the environment but to past, present, and future generations of the people we share these places with.

There is nothing here

Sometimes traces of the past are so faint, even archaeologists have to look closely. Especially in the case of rock imagery, sometimes to see everything on a rock you will need to return at different times of day as the light shifts, or even different times of the year to understand how the images interact with the world around them. Archaeologists have also discovered rock imagery that is invisible to the human eye with the help of technologies such as LiDAR and D-Stretch. Just because you don’t see something at first glace doesn’t mean there is nothing there – if you can see any rock imagery, assume that there is more nearby!

My impact is small

People who say this are absolutely correct: on average each action we take on an archaeological site is so small compared to the enormousness of time and space. But small impacts add up, and the cumulative effect over time is devastating. When we disturb an archaeological site, for example if we scratch our names into a rock, that will stay there forever. Think about it: some of the rock imagery you see could be up to 8,000 years old, and it’s still here! The rock imagery and all the damage to it will exist until that rock crumbles into sand. 

Also, we have some evidence that when people see damage to a rock, they feel less obligated to make good decisions, and are more likely to leave their own (destructive) mark. So, even though your impact may truly be small, it sticks around and can attract more damage that will then stick around and attract more damage…on and on.

One last thing on this subject… even if someone drills into a panel and it isn’t touching the rock imagery, they have now introduced a hole and a non-porous material that will affect the way the rock behaves when water freezes and thaws. Even if the bolt is removed, having a large hole in the rock leaves the surrounding material at greater risk of spalling off. Ever notice how around a crack, the exterior crust of sandstone spalls off? We definitely don’t want that around rock imagery from a human-caused impact!

Ok Elizabeth, enough beating me over the head with this stuff, just tell me what to do!
Please don’t touch rock imagery

The exotic dirt and oils (not to mention chalk!) on your hands can change the chemical reactions on the surface of the rock and affect rocks’ biotic communities. Any of these changes can start a chain reaction that could end up with losing more of the rock surface. And it should go without saying that grippy climbing shoes aren’t kind to rock imagery!

Please don’t attempt to repair anything

The idea of “fixing” a human-caused problem is a Western concept. Not everyone agrees that we can fix the damage caused by modern people. The agencies in charge of keeping the land in the public trust (e.g. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service) do extensive outreach to Native American tribes to consider what actions they would like to see at a site. When we by-pass that process and make decisions based on what we want to see, it’s disrespectful. 

Report problems that you find

You can be proactive and be an ally to the past! There are lots of ways to report the problems that you see on archaeological sites. Check out our Stop Archaeological Vandalism page for a link to an online reporting form, and stay tuned later in the summer for a specialized webapp that can handle more detailed reporting. Also, the BLM tipline is an invaluable resource, if you see damage on BLM land please call 800 722 3998

Spread the word about great places to climb

Utah has thousands of routes available for climbing, and when we show people where to climb we’re taking steps to keep archaeology safe and climbers happy! You know the hits: Mountain Project, Summit Post, The Crag… just make sure that when you are talking about Utah sites that you highlight protecting the past as one of the ways climbers can be good outdoor citizens.

Preach the gospel of Stop Archaeological Vandalism

Stop Archaeological Vandalism is a public-awareness campaign with the core message that the only acceptable loss to our past is zero. History and prehistory are non-renewable resources, once we lose an archaeological site it is gone forever. When you think that some of these sites are thousands of years old, it would be a shame to lose them on our watch! We need to raise awareness of how irreplaceable, and sometimes sacred, these places are, and give people the tools they need to take care of them.

Become a Site Steward

If you are ready to take the next step and proactively protect the past, join the Utah Cultural Site Stewardship program! Site Stewards work with our office and with land managing agencies to keep any eye on sites that are the most at risk of damage. Site Stewards learn a lot about their sites, check on them a few times year, and are our first line of defense against damage. Learn more and join up on our UCSS website.

Climbers are some of the best allies that the archaeological record has. Staying educated and aware of the past and our impact will protect the past and stop archaeological vandalism.