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Hiking and Archaeological Sites: What You Need to Know

Photo credit: Jay Park

Photo credit: Jay Park

You are out on a beautiful hike in the wilds of the American Southwest and you come upon a cozy rock shelter with pictographs, petroglyphs, and all kinds of pottery sherds. Great, you think! An added bonus to the day’s outing in the form of an amazing archaeology site in the middle of nowhere. You bend down to pick up that piece of broken, painted ceramic, and…then what do you do?

In many places in the remote back country, there are still historic cultural sites and prehistoric cultural sites that sit untouched, and possibly unknown. There are thousands of these places all over the Southwest, and many people hike into and explore them every year. However, there are rules for visiting these places. If the site is on public land, it is a crime to remove any object or damage any part of the site in any way, punishable by fines and jail time.

Artifacts at an archaeological site in Arizona. Photo: Julia Cozby.
Artifacts at an archaeological site in Arizona. Photo: Julia Cozby.

You may come upon an archaeological site with a large pile of objects left stacked on a nearby rock. Don’t add to it. If you pick something up, put it back down exactly where you found it. This is much more helpful to archaeologists that may visit in the future. Finding artifacts and creating a “pile,” as if to say, “look what I found,” is not helpful to scientists, and removes the object from its original spot–removing any hope of establishing a context for the object. Obviously, digging at an archaeological site is also against the law if you are not on official business with the governing land management agency.

The United States has a rich archaeological heritage. But many sites, especially those in remote back country, are being threatened by people who collect artifacts and dig sites as well as by those who vandalize rock art panels. These actions destroy data, attack Native American cultural heritage, and rob other people (those in scientific fields of research in particular) from the opportunity to study and understand other cultures and human history.

Many visitors do not realize that collecting artifacts, digging sites and defacing rock art have several harmful results. To that end, BLM-Utah has put out this great list of rules for visiting remote archaeological sites, and if you plan on hiking in the back country, be aware that being a responsible outdoors person also includes maintaining the integrity of our shared national heritage. Perhaps these directives seem arbitrary or nonsensical, but I can assure you there are solid reasons for these rules:

  1. Touching rock art will leave oils from your fingers that may speed the painting’s and the rock’s natural deterioration process. This is a no-brainer. DON’T TOUCH PAINTINGS. I’ve seen first-hand how a wonderful painting of a deer in an Arizona rock overhang was faded into oblivion by continued touching. It only took ten years. I’m sure hardly anything is left there now.
  2. Making paper rubbings or tracings may crumble rock art. Again, don’t touch the rock. Many sites are in rock overhangs in which the erosion process of freezing/raining/heating is slowly but surely causing rock pieces to come away from the walls and ceilings in a process that is called spalling. Obviously, any additional jostling or handling of the rock may cause permanent damage to the site.
  3. Making latex molds of rock art should only be done by professionals. Making a mold doesn’t touch the rock, per se, but please don’t assume that pouring latex onto a petroglyph, which is art pecked or carved into rock, is not harmful. Only someone who can ascertain the integrity of the rock where the art is located should be doing this kind of procedure.
  4. Building fires nearby can cause serious damage from smoke and high temperature. A fire was built by Halloween partiers in a pueblo site in New Mexico last year. The soot stain from the fire damaged the rock wall, which was built over a thousand years ago. The damage caused by the fire was the worst aspect of this vandalism—picking up the glow sticks, candy wrappers, and silly string was easy.
  5. Do NOT take it home. Collecting is illegal and punishable by law. The old saying, “your character is what you do when no one is looking” comes in handy right here. So many sites are in deep wilderness–the middle of nowhere. Who would know if you picked up that beautiful decorated piece of a broken pot to take home? You would know, of course, but if you were caught doing that, you could be arrested. Picking things up and moving them is bad, but taking them home is worse.
  6. Drawing chalk outlines is harmful to the rock art, and makes it impossible to use new methods of dating the figures. A long time ago, scientists would outline rock art with chalk, but they discovered it destroyed the integrity of the art, and made carbon dating of the paint impossible. They don’t do it anymore, and neither should you.
  7. Re-pecking or re-painting a difficult-to-see rock art image doesn’t restore it, but rather destroys the original. Would you go into the Louvre and touch up the Mona Lisa? Thought not. Same deal here.
  8. Defacement. Insensitive people often paint their names over rock art, or shoot bullets at it. Defacement is a sign of disrespect for other cultures. It’s also punishable by law. In this “me me me generation” of selfies and general nonsense sometimes posted on social media, it’s really no surprise that these particular crimes in the back country have escalated, and not just as vandalism of archaeological resources. Cactus tagging has become a thing now. It’s sad when you realize that people experiencing the great outdoors didn’t have a proper education in Leave No Trace, Tread Lightly, or just good manners. We all own these places. They are ours to enjoy–and protect. Don’t mess it up for others.
  9. Tunnel vision. People like rock art so much, they often forget to watch where they are walking and may trample or damage important artifacts. Yes, the archaeology is so spectacular you are walking all over other things, like ceramics or ancient fire pits. This happens. Just be aware that when you realize you are on a site, you need to stop and get your bearings and turn on your situational awareness.
  10. Removal/rearrangement of artifacts often destroys archaeological data. Artifacts should be left where they are found. I like to call this particular rule the “CSI” rule. Archaeology sites are taken apart layer by layer, artifact by artifact, in a meticulous manner analogous to studying a crime scene using forensic methods. If you move an artifact, you just erased part of the information that can be gleaned from it that archaeologists call “context.” You never know what is being lost every time you move an artifact, especially one that is partially uncovered and still in the ground. Don’t dig it out! Which leads to the last rule…
  11. Ground Disturbance. Any digging at an archaeological site is not allowed and unauthorized digging is punishable by law. Visitors should tread as lightly as possible, especially on loose slopes and under rock overhangs. Always stay on designated roads and trails.

If you see people vandalizing sites, please report it as soon as possible by calling 1-800-VANDALS. Obtain as much information about the people without putting yourself in danger. If you find something that appears particularly interesting or possibly valuable, use a GPS unit (if you have one) to mark the location of the site or object, and then contact the local land management agency office immediately. This applies especially to human remains, which do occasionally erode out of the soil and become visible. Now that you understand why certain places benefit from all visitors that use good “site etiquette,” you too can educate others who recreate in the great outdoors about how to behave at an archaeological site.

Indian petroglyphs photo credit: Jay Park

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