Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Photo Essay: Ancient Petroglyphs Secured Inside a Navy Weapons Testing Station

It's kind of amazing that just driving around the West, you can get pretty close to some pretty top-secret military operations. At Calico Ghost Town, I literally heard bombs going off at neighboring Fort Irwin.

It's unsettling.

Understandably, the U.S. armed forces have selected some sites that were once remote but – given their natural wide open spaces – contained some significant historic, natural, geological, and perhaps even archaeological sites within their boundaries.

Little and Big Petroglyph Canyons of the Coso Rock Art District is one of those significant sites.



Designated a natural historic landmark, the areas within the district were first "discovered" in the 1930s, containing over 20,000 images (at least, those that have been documented to date), carved into the rock formations along a wash.



Most of the Coso Mountain Range lies within the boundaries of the Navy's China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station which assumed management of the area in 1943...



...so, for now, it is remote and protected, available to view only after passing through tight security...



...accompanied by trained and Navy-approved docents (often current and former employees of the base)...



...after a long drive through the station, past all of the armament testing areas which cannot be photographed...



...and the mustangs that roam the open spaces on either side of a long dirt road.



Viewing the petroglyphs requires a relatively short but tiring hike...



...only a couple of miles down a sandy wash, the loose ground giving way with every step.



Because water has (and does) run through here at times, the rocks that must be climbed over are slippery...



...and many of them have been marked by the USGS for help in identifying the various areas of interest within the canyon.



Also known as Renegade Canyon, Little Petroglyph Canyon was landmarked in 1964...



...and because of its remote location protected by the military (which only began allowing photographs within the last year)...



...it has avoided widespread vandalism and destruction that many similar sites have fallen victim to.



It is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved displays of Native American rock art in the country.



Most of the images can be and have been deciphered based on available knowledge of the Native American peoples that inhabited the Coso area before Euro-American ranchers arrived in the 1860s.



Some of the petroglyph symbols are recognizable symbols (mostly of animals and human figures)...



...but as much as archeologists have figured out the what of Little Petroglyph Canyon...



...they are still baffled by the why.



The animals are depicted chasing each other, fighting, and running away, often surrounded by images of tools, spears, and other weapons.



There are also more abstract images, including lots of grids which are thought to possibly bring rain.



Maybe some of it – like the "Skull Rock" – was merely an expression of whimsy or just...art.



Maybe some symbols protected the people who carved them...



...maybe some told stories...



...or gave instructions.



As much as historians don't really know why these images were carved into the rocks...



...especially in such a dense concentration...



...they also disagree as to who made them.



Some evidence suggests that rival tribes' petroglyphs may occupy the same space at the same time...



...or that one Native American population may have followed another.



Some of the carvings are relatively shallow, quick works of art...



...while others are so deep, it must've taken hours – or days – to complete them.



Raging waters have washed away some of the surfaces...



... and exposure to moisture and sun have changed the pallor of many of the rocks.



But there is so much there to behold...



...especially high up on the ridge...



...reachable by few humans...



...and perhaps more frequently by the wild animals depicted in the petroglyphs.



One thing is clear:



...in this desert landscape...



...they were desperate for rain.



We don't know whether their etchings that called out for rain ever really worked for them...



...but these days, even in the spring, the wildflowers are few and far between.



This area – 5000 feet above sea level, with surrounding walls 20 to 40 feet high –



...is only open for public tours in cooler temperatures of the spring and fall.



It would be insufferably hot in the summer.





















The hike through Little Petroglyph Canyon actually does make a couple of drops along dry waterfalls...



...hitting some pools of water – or, rather, "green slime" – along the way...



...but some of the most fascinating evidence of desert survival out there...



...are the holes dug by horses to access seeping groundwater.



Somehow, those mustangs manage to climb down there, dig around with their hooves and/or snouts, get a drink...



...and then get back out.













After climbing down two dry waterfalls...



...we reached an old sheep herder's fence from the area's ranching days...



...which, for me, served as an excellent turnaround point.



Others went farther down the canyon, for a total of a 300 foot drop, but knowing my lack of skill at bouldering and rock-hopping...



...I decided to stay behind with some others, and take my time on the way back.



After all with a slight shift of the sun...



...everything looks totally different.



Areas previously darkened in shade...



...were illuminated just a short while later.



Besides, it was going to take me a little extra time to get back up those dry waterfalls.



I don't know how anybody or anything ever survived out here.



Clearly, not everyone (or everything) made it out alive.



But there are delicate grasses and tiny wildflowers...



...and so many stories told on those rocks that we won't understand for a long time...



...or may never understand...



...but at least we get to see them...



...and find our way amongst them.



Some of the rocks near the entrance to the canyon...



...feature indentations which have been bored into the rock, the resulting debris rubbed onto the bellies of would-be mothers hoping to get pregnant.



Perhaps they are the women in their dresses, depicted on the rocks near the shaman's alcove.



Are these images, then, sacred or descriptive? Instructive or artistic?



And what, then, do photographs of the petroglyphs mean, if anything?



At the very least, they document a lovely day outside, when I caught a glimpse into ancient history, and saw something very few others have ever or will ever see.

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Nevada Test Site: A Matter of National Security
Photo Essay: Joshua Tree's Barker Dam, Closed to Public