U.S. Forest Service officials never believed John Ligon's claim that he dug up two boulders etched with American Indian petroglyphs four years ago to put them in his front yard for safekeeping.
But they did share a concern he voiced that someone would steal the centuries-old rock art on national forest land a few football fields away from a growing housing development. After they recovered the stolen property, federal land managers struggled for years with the question of what to do with the rock etchings of a bighorn sheep, an archer, a lizard and a wheel.
Now, after initially thinking it was best to place them in a state museum, the agency -- in consultation with local tribal leaders -- has decided to return them to the mountainside where they were for perhaps as long as 1,000 years before they were disturbed.
"It belongs out there," said Linda Shoshone, cultural resources director for the Washoe Tribe in Nevada and California. She and others said removing the petroglyphs from the site takes them out of their spiritual context.
"I realize it is a tough decision on our part because we don't want it to be damaged any more than it has been," Shoshone said. "But I've come to the conclusion that maybe the more we educate John Q. Public at the sites, the more they will help us preserve stuff like this."
The theft of the petroglyphs on the northwest edge of suburban Reno garnered national attention at the time and still reverberates through the community.
"The significant assault on Native American memories and cultural items is as bad as walking into a Catholic church and taking a cross off the wall," said Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Archaeologists believe the rock pile where the drawings were located was a hunting blind where 800 to 1,000 years ago tribesmen lay in wait for deer and elk migrating from Peavine Peak toward the Truckee River valley below.
The site is visible three miles away from the upper floors of the federal courthouse in downtown Reno where the accused looters stood trial in 2003.
That's an interesting problem with no easy solution. If they return the petroglyphs, they risk another theft. But the art loses something if its housed in a museum I think. The only real solution is to educate the public about the benefits of archaeology, why it is important, and how easy it can be to lose information from important sites forever. I think that is one of the biggest reasons why more nations should adopt the approach most of the UK has taken with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which David Gill talks about today as well. As Professor Patty Gerstenblith has argued, a nation protects those elements of its past which it values. As Linda Shoshone, cultural resources director for the Washoe Tribe in Nevada and Colorado, said in the article "It is really hard to educate a society that has no culture here in the United States -- our land. They left it in Europe... But when we teach fourth graders about things like this, they are going to teach their parents."