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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?

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