A gang of art thieves armed with circular saws, ladders, and a generator have stolen a series of ancient rock engravings from a remote set of volcanic cliffs in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
Six of the petroglyphs, which are sacred to the local Paiute Native American tribe, were removed from the site and dozens more destroyed. Conservationists described the raid as "akin to someone going and cutting off a piece of the Wailing Wall".
The site, which has survived more than 3,500 years, is thought to have been raided during October, although the desecration only became public this week. A 650ft (200m) stretch of cliff, which had carried representations of bighorn sheep, lizards and deer, is now virtually unrecognisable.
"These petroglyphs are held sacred to the people here," said Raymond Andrews, a Paiute who serves as the local tribal historical preservation officer. "Our ancestors etched messages in them, so they are sacred … People go and pray to them and try to seek guidance."
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the site, says the theft required extraordinary effort. Thick slabs of rock 15ft off the ground were carved away from the cliff and then carried to a car park. Several broke en route and were left in pieces.
"It's one of the worst acts of desecration that one can imagine," Greg Haverstock, an archaeologist for the bureau, told the Los Angeles Times. "This site is on public lands, it's managed for the enjoyment of all individuals … and these selfish individuals basically destroyed a major portion of the site for their own personal gain and profit." The thieves appear to have been motivated by the fact that the stolen items are each worth between $500 (£300) and $1,500 on the black market.
"Sadly whatever they'll gain from it is far less than the damage they've done to this site," added Mr Haverstock.