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Thieves take a power saw to a sandstone cave wall, trying to rip out a 1,000-year-old American Indian painting believed to represent a mythical figure named Red Horn.

Vandals leave their mark with spray paint, scratched initials and even bullet holes on the cliff faces at Petroglyph National Monument, a new national park created to preserve the animal, human and geometric figures carved by prehistoric Anasazi Indians in Albuquerque, N.M."New Agers" pursuing their '90s version of Native American religion damage fragile images painted on northern Arizona's red-rock spires by simply touching or smudging them with soot from candles and campfires.

The destruction of history by vandals and thieves is a prime concern of some 600 experts on rock paintings and petroglyphs gathered here this week for the 21st annual International Rock Art Congress.

"They're the bane of our existence," said Carol Diaz-Granados, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "They don't wish to learn from the past, they wish to profit from the past."

Participants in the weeklong meeting devoted half a day to discussing strategies for managing public visits to sites and to cleaning up damage by everything from penknives to spray paint, nail polish and magic marker.

Conferees, including rock art enthusiasts, art historians, linguists and archaeologists, also went on field trips to local rock art sites and heard presentations on such topics as new discoveries and advances in interpreting the ancient images.

Rock art is found around the world: 80-foot-long Australian aboriginal paintings of the "rainbow serpent;" life-size Stone Age cave paintings of bison and hunters in France; abstract animal and human figures no bigger than playing cards etched into the sandstone of the American Southwest.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have always considered the images as part of archaeological sites, but serious study of the pictures themselves has often been left to amateurs because paintings and petroglyphs are hard to date.

Advances in techniques to determine the age of the images has brought the study more into the academic mainstream in recent years, conference participants said.

But even the professionals seem to approach rock art with a kind of reverence. The arresting images often are found in spectacular natural settings, and the experts wish the vandals would understand that many are sacred to their creators and to native people today.

"If people understood what it is they're doing they wouldn't damage it," said Larry Loendorf, a private archaeological consultant from Tucson who is the organization's conservation chairman. "If they understood they're in a place of sanctity, a place of sacrament, to native people, they'd adopt that attitude."

A black market for native art drives some of the destruction, like the attempt to saw out the 3-foot-diameter Red Horn painting from the so-called Gottschall site near Highland in southwestern Wisconsin. Beloit College archaeologist Robert Salzer, who's written extensively on the site, returned for the first time this year in April to find the damage.