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Inside the dark, cliffside cave last occupied by the people of Frijoles Canyon some 500 years ago, the markings are clearly visible.
“2008,” the ancient wall reads. “I love you,” with a heart etched into the soft volcanic tuff.
“Oh, man,” art conservator Larry Humetewa muttered softly as he bent to inspect the damage.
This is the largest of the cave-like rooms – called “cavates” – accessible to the 300,000 people who troop through Bandelier National Monument each year.
It underwent graffiti removal work just recently; now it will need more.
Vandalism is just one of many threats to the fragile archaeological sites that are the heart of national parks and monuments in the arid West.
They're hammered by sun and rain, by freezes and thaws, by wind and the abrasive sand it carries. They're invaded by pests and loved to death by human visitors who can't resist touching.
In short, the ruins are in ruins.
For the past decade, a special program within the National Park Service has been struggling to combat the deterioration.
At 45 parks in eight states stretching from Texas to California, the Vanishing Treasures program has assessed, documented, stabilized and conserved sites. In some cases, it has udone damage from earlier preservation efforts.
“What we're really doing is prolonging their survival as long as we can, so people can see and learn from them,” said Jerry Rogers, who helped launch the program when he was a Santa Fe-based regional director for the National Park Service. “They're very precarious.”
Rogers, who was also the NPS's associate director for cultural resources, says the ruins in the West are among the most evocative of the park system's historical places.
“They instantly pull you into thinking about the past. ... They have a way of just grabbing the visitor,” Rogers said.
“To people that are culturally related to the sites, they're still very significant in terms of spiritual connection, the ancestral connection to those places,” said Vanishing Treasures program coordinator Virginia Salazar-Halfmoon. “Their relevance is more than just as an exhibit.”
Volcanic eruptions more than a million years ago left deposits of soft tuff that cover much of northern New Mexico's Pajarito Plateau. The residents of Frijoles Canyon – an estimated 800 people by the late 15th century – excavated into the tuff to create rooms, many of them fronted by big masonry pueblos.
There are nearly 1,100 such cavates in the canyon, and Vanishing Treasures has funded their first-ever extensive documentation, in addition to the graffiti mitigation.
Humetewa and his fellow conservator Conor McMahon, who work for the state museum system but spend a day at week at Bandelier through the Vanishing Treasures program, use a variety of methods to get rid of graffiti.
In Cave Kiva, accessible by ladder and the largest of the cavates on the public loop trail, they re-soot the ceiling about twice a year to obscure the vandalism. They close the cavate, don respirators, and light small pieces of wood to create the smoke and soot that blackens the ceilings.
The earliest residents of Frijoles Canyon used this technique as well, lighting large fires once cavates had been excavated.
“That was done because the sooting sort of consolidates the tuff. It makes it a little bit stronger and a little less crumbly,” McMahon said.
After sooting, the lower walls of cavates typically were rubbed to remove the soot, and mud plaster was applied.
Humetewa and McMahon work painstakingly to fill in incised graffiti on the mud-plastered lower walls of cavates, using natural materials – tuff, silt, clay-like soils – they dig from the washes and creek beds and mix together to match the color and texture of the various plasters.
Getting rid of graffiti not only helps stabilize the walls and enhances the visitors' experience, but deters other would-be vandals.
“People are much more likely to graffiti an area where they already see it,” McMahon said.
Roger Kennedy, who was director of the National Park Service from 1993-97, views the Vanishing Treasures program as a rebirth of the spirit of the programs of the New Deal, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
“It says, as those programs did, it's time to pay attention — and more than pay attention — to help sustain our common heritage,” said Kennedy, a Washington, D.C. resident who also is a former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
“This is a program that says we care about each other and we respect each other,” Kennedy said.