November 1, 2014

Outside the Box: Damage Control at Nevada's Hidden Cave

A Nevada community rallies around a vandalized historic cave

  • By: Katherine Flynn

Nevada’s dark, dusty Hidden Cave is a prehistoric treasure trove. Early North Americans stored spear points, bird nets, milling stones, food, and salt in its dry depths, safe from animals and enemies. It’s been excavated three times by archaeologists since the 1940s, and each dig has brought new artifacts to light.

So when vandals took cans of spray paint to the entrance and walls of the cave near Fallon, Nevada, in early March, causing nearly $10,000 in damage, they should have counted on a strong public outcry, as well as a swift response from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the archaeological community. The extensive vandalism also included harm to excavation unit sidewalls, interpretive signs and walkways, and an entrance door and storage shed.

“We’re not sure exactly how they gained access,” says Jason Wright, an archaeologist with the BLM, which stewards the site. “We have a brand-new vault door on it, and they were able to breach that lock one way or another.”

With help from a National Conservation Crew group and archaeologists from around the country who volunteered their services, Wright and other BLM employees were able to complete the majority of the restoration work in a day. They dry-brushed Hidden Cave’s rock walls to loosen the paint before scrubbing them down by hand with paint thinner and acetone. The group also managed to replace a graffiti-damaged kiosk at the cave’s entrance.

“It was pure shock,” says Donna Cossette, who works at the nearby Churchill County Museum & Archives and is a member of the local Northern Paiute Native American tribe, of the collective reaction to the defacement. To the Northern Paiutes, Hidden Cave is a sacred cultural site. “It’s a senseless act that had no purpose. We were just really saddened to see that someone would go to such lengths to destroy something so uniquely valuable to our area.”

Wright agrees, describing the reaction as “outraged.” As of press time, there are 13 suspects in the case. The act of vandalism, according to Wright, is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

He is still impressed at the public outpouring of support that the cave received. The BLM fielded numerous offers of assistance from places such as Western Nevada College and local Boy Scout troops. “Although the resource is Native American in nature, it’s our public heritage collectively,” he says. “People from all walks of life were really concerned about that.”

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Watch the Hidden Cave documentary.

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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