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People, Places, Stuff

Rock Art and Rocks in the Head

Official maps often leave out sites where the earliest inhabitants of the desert Southwest made art on rock: chipped or cut petroglyphs and painted pictographs. Both are highly vulnerable to vandalism which is why some of the best examples remain secrets known only to archaeologists and park rangers. Time and weather also take a toll on ancient rock art sites, but why humans mess with such compelling vestiges of the past is incomprehensible to me.

If you’ve visited a rock art gallery like Petroglyph National Monument outside Albuquerque or come across a stray sample of rock art while backpacking in the Southwest you know the fascination of the images, though their precise purpose remains mysterious. Some are abstract, others representational like the remarkable hunting scenes at Little Petroglyph Canyon inside the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in southern California, the largest known concentration of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere. Dating them is difficult, though there are clues; for instance, it’s thought that equestrian panels were made after the arrival of the Spanish who introduced horses to the area beginning around 1540. Panels with figures wielding sticks--weapons known as atlatls, used before the bow and arrow--could be tens of thousands of years old.

So it was with great anticipation that I made a recent visit to Carrizo Plain National Monument, a 50 mile-long valley in the high country east of California’s central coast. Bounded by two dry mountains ranges with a wide alkaline lake in the middle, it was a spiritual meeting place for the Chumash and Yokut Indian people who gathered at a sandstone hill on the west side of the valley, split almost in half, exposing interior faces that proved irresistible to rock artists. The religious significance of the suns, moons and anthropomorphic stick figures on Painted Rock’s interior walls is unclear, but the site is still sacred to present-day descendants of the Chumash and Yokut people.

For this reason and the fact that Painted Rock is a nesting place for endangered hawks and falcons, access is strictly-regulated. To get there I joined a national monument tour, offered on Saturday mornings in March, April and May. After viewing the plain from Soda Lake, tour parties caravan to the Painted Rock parking lot, then walk a half mile to the site. When we got there, we split up and took turns viewing the pictographs, each group limited to 10 minutes.

I’d seen the amazingly well-preserved petroglyphs at China Lake, off limits except on special tours run by the nearby Maturango Museum, so I was prepared for marvels. Imagine my dismay to find little left at Painted Rock besides pale, indecipherable lines and splotches, testifying to decades of desecration. The ranger who guided us said teenagers used to take beer kegs and spray paint to the rock. And though vandalizing such sites is a federal offense, that didn’t stop someone with a shotgun from using one of the panels as a bulls-eye. The whole experience made me rethink my resistance to eliminating rock art sites from maps. If people won’t behave, what else can you do? Read More 
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Mesa Verde's Mary Jane Colter Collection (But Don't Call It That)

From Smithsonian

Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.

Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940's by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went on to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.

At a time when women spent their lives in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park’s superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.

But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”

The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.  Read More 
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