Unknown vandals have caused irreparable damage to Creek and Cherokee rock carvings in northeast Georgia, reports Mark Price for the Charlotte Observer. Scattered across Track Rock Gap in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, the 1,000-year-old petroglyphs have long been renowned as some of the most significant examples of rock art in the country.
The United States Forest Service announced the news in a statement posted on Facebook Monday. (The statement has since been removed due to the ongoing investigation, writes Christine Hauser for the New York Times.)
Per the Observer, authorities are unsure when the crime happened but suspect that it took place months ago, possibly in 2020. Officials tell McClatchy News that the vandals scratched five boulders beyond recognition and painted two others in bright colors.
“[These] are special sites for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and for all people as part of the Heritage of this region,” says the Cherokee Tribal Heritage Preservation Office in the statement, as quoted by the Times. “Whether through ignorance or malice—the result is irreparable damage to a unique site that connects us directly to the people of the past.”
Track Rock Gap is part of Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, a federally safeguarded area spanning 867,000 acres and 26 counties. As the Forest Service notes, the site contains more than 100 petroglyphs depicting a wide range of subjects, from vulvas to football-shaped objects to feet.
“When you are talking about historic sites and culturally sensitive sites, it really is the most offensive thing,” Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, tells the Times. “It is our history, and to have that defaced and to be treated with such disrespect, it is very sad.”
Local lore had previously attributed the carvings to the Maya civilization. But researchers debunked this myth, showing that predecessors of the Muscogee Creek and Cherokee were active in the area more than 1,000 years ago. Excavations conducted in 2012 further dismissed the possibility that a Maya settlement once stood in the forest, writes Christine Fernando for USA Today.
Ancient people typically carved petroglyphs into boulders with a stone chisel and a hammerstone. Imbued with cultural significance, these carvings featured a myriad of subjects, including humans, animals and religious entities, according to the National Park Service. Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, boasts more than 25,000 examples of rock art alone.
Track Rock Gap is far from the only petroglyph site targeted by vandals in recent years. In 2016, for instance, officials covered a defaced petroglyph in Cullowhee, North Carolina, with an acrylic panel to shield it from further damage, per the Times.
Now that the Georgia site is open to the public again, the Forest Service has asked visitors to protect the etchings, report vandalism and treat the area with respect.
“When looters and vandals destroy archeological and historic sites, part of the Nation's heritage is lost forever,” says the statement, as quoted by USA Today.