Once again the Mojave has peeled back another layer and revealed hidden gems. It’s hard to understate how easy it is to miss petroglyphs and archaeological features in this vast and rugged wilderness. Every boulder is laced with cracks and lines. Patches of lichen further disrupt patterns. Heck, bird droppings can look like petroglyphs at a distance - I’ve burned many a calorie clambering up loose slopes to a promising blotch only to realize it was closer to a hawk’s Jackson Pollock than the hand of a prehistoric artist. Being hyper vigilant to the faint and obscure can lead you fruitlessly from raptor poop to water stains with nothing to show for it. Pareidolia can wreak havoc on muscles not just your brain, I can tell you.
On the other hand, the bewildering amount of stimuli in the desert serves to further obscure things waiting to be discovered. The angle of the sun, the endless faces of rock, the uncertain footing, even at times the blistering heat and sweat dripping into your eyes contribute to missing things. It’s sensory overload in what can be a harsh and unforgiving land.
And so it was that I returned to a place I’ve visited a few times, and this time it revealed a completely different level (literally) of itself. On previous forays I’d been so focused on the obvious and easily accessible panels - and the sheer number of petroglyphs there - that I had completely overlooked that the early people had climbed to the top of the canyon and left a trail of rock art all the way up to the rim. Two magnificent panels, one featuring a massive basket or bag and completely filled in, must have taken ages to peck, had completely escaped my notice. The other, featuring rectilinear designs approximately 7 feet tall, is just stunning. I need to go back when the sun is less direct to get better shots of them. It can be difficult to get great photos of some of these when teetering on jagged boulders many feet above the canyon floor. Not a lot of room to get flattering light. There’s also the peculiar phenomenon of how entire panels can simply disappear given the right angle and light. It does feel at times like some desert magic is at work.
Here is a selection of the other petroglyphs located on the upper slopes:
And then the pièce de résistance - at least for me because it demonstrates how the early people lived in a direct, tangible sense - something I had missed entirely on previous trips. Bonkers. A rock shelter with a carefully built out floor to level it, and a magnificent lizard petroglyph just to the left of the threshold. There is also a curvilinear petroglyph shaped like a horseshoe below it. Your guess is as good as mine in terms of how I missed this. But then again, I can be maddeningly obtuse at times. Just ask my wife.
The shelters I find are in some ways more significant to me, simply because they provide an insight into the lifestyle of prehistoric people in a way rock art can’t possibly. You have a direct link to where people slept and sheltered and made tools. The rock art is sacred and amazing in its own right, but the practical, every day fragments convey an intimacy you won’t get from any other source here.
This was the first undocumented site I stumbled across and thus will always have special significance for me. It is not a major site and does not feature the dense proliferation of rock art that the bigger habitation sites do. But each time I’ve returned it has revealed a little more to me. Those of you who have been following my work for some time will recognize this as the cave site. There are two petroglyphs at the mouth of the canyon which spurred my exploration of the canyon itself and subsequently revealed the cave. At first pass, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of petroglyphs other than the one I affectionately call the Charlie Brown glyph.
However, on a later trip, I found petroglyphs on the wall opposite the cave. Further scrutiny of the immediate area came up with nothing more and I was satisfied I had exhausted the area. But this last trip proved that a lie as well. After visiting the cave site, we sauntered down the canyon and stumbled across more petroglyphs somewhat removed from the main site. There was a small panel featuring an atlatl and what appears to be an unfinished anthropomorph. The second is a very faint panel that seems quite ancient. It’s comprised of faint lines but two figures can be just discerned near the bottom of the panel. Again, what other surprises lay in wait in places I consider familiar? After these experiences, I’m willing to bet plenty.
This was a new one for me. Many thanks to Anthony for trusting me with the location. This is a particularly ancient site located in a nondescript wash at the head of a canyon. The casual observer would completely ignore this seemingly drab and uninteresting site. Their loss. Hiking down to it, we met up with one of my favorite denizens of the Mojave: the horned lizard.
The site is an interesting blend of the usual suspects: atlatl, anthropomorphs, and sheep intermingled with various abstract motifs. One striking example from this site is what appears to be a plant/leaf or possibly a penniform - not something I’ve seen at other locations.
But the feature that makes this site really compelling is evidence of at least one pictograph. It’s a wonder any of it survives at all given how exposed the rock face is, but there are definite traces of pigment lingering beneath the punishing desert sun. I’ve increased saturation and sharpness of the image below to make it easier to see. It almost appears to be anthropomorphic but it’s hard to say. What do you see?
And, finally, SITE 4
There is very little that can compel me into the main valley and its throngs of tourists, but if you dangle a wondrous archaeological site in front of me, I can be lured into the RV hellscapes that people call campgrounds. I know, I know - I’m a horrible snob these days but the last time I was in an established campground was June 2019 and that nearly drove me mad. I’m so accustomed to the splendid silence of truly wild places, it really does require a force of will for me to “camp” amongst people.
The sacrifice, however silly you may find that, was worth it. I knew through friends of this place, but honestly had I not been with someone familiar with it, I would have missed the most significant parts of the site.
It starts with a spring and young mesquite bushes at the gateway of sedimentary rock that wards the precious water. Veins of gypsum cut through it looking for all the world like aspirational quartz. A baby bighorn’s pelvic bone and spine, bits of sinew still clinging to them, lay pale in the wash. A little further up we find its skull missing one of its horns. Beyond the rocky gates, scattered feathers are another testament to predation in this place of rare water. A single Mojave Aster plant blooms along the wall - weeks earlier than the bone dry expanses beyond this tiny haven. Then a sound foreign in the desert: the rhythmic drip of water from a seep that begins several feet up the wall. Beyond that, I scramble up an eight foot wall to the spring itself, a tiny pool of water fringed with green and the split-hoof depressions of recent bighorn sheep. A game trail extends up the side of the canyon and vanishes over the crest. Tiny bats flit overhead, and our voices resonated in the booming acoustics of the bowl.
No evidence of early people here, however. That lay outside.
Climbing up the side of the spring area, we encountered the oldest documented petroglyph in Death Valley National Park. It is reckoned to be around 8000 years old.
These truly ancient sites are striking in that many of the petroglyphs were pecked or incised into smallish rocks. As such they are much more vulnerable to looting and vandalism. The national park service keeps a watchful eye on these places.
In the washes below, Anthony showed me the main site: dozens of sleeping circles, a geoglyph, a pinyon cache, seemingly random rocks atop rocks in what we would consider the middle of nowhere. What it lacked in awe inspiring construction or giant panels it more than made up in scale. The site extends for hundreds of yards. Anywhere you look there’s something else laying on the surface. Truly remarkable place.
*** Please, if you happen across any sites like this, leave no trace. Do not touch or remove rock art or artifacts. Leave them as you found them. ***