By Ruth Musser-Lopez
A first in the history of San Bernardino County, a major intra-continental anthropological organization will be meeting just across the county/state line over Memorial Day weekend to inspect prehistoric rock art in eastern San Bernardino County. During the conclave, studies and papers will be presented, all of which will pertain in some way to the subject of prehistoric rock art in the east Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County and adjacent Mojave Desert areas in Nevada and Arizona.
The American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA) was established in 1974 by a small group of archaeological professionals, artists, Native Americans and others rock art experts and advocates from a variety of professions, backgrounds and countries, all committed to research, conservation, and education surrounding rock art.
The association has established committees devoted to the conservation and preservation of rock art sites and to educating the public to the importance of protecting rock art and the integrity of its surrounding landscape. The organization has grown since its inception and typically draws 250 to its annual convocation that includes two days of presentations and two days of guided visits to rock art sites.
This year the rock art of the Mojave Desert and the Lower Colorado River is put on the map of regions important to American rock art. The convocation will be held in Laughlin, Nevada, with a variety of PowerPoint research presented in the meeting room at the Colorado Belle resort on Saturday and Sunday.
In the past, the ARARA annual conference has been held in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and in Casas Grandes, Mexico and Winnipeg, and Manitoba. In 2013 ARARA joined with a partnering organization, the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO) with a joint conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico drawing over 300 attendees. Last year, the international association met in China to observe rock art there.
Among ARARA’s publications are American Indian Rock Art, containing papers from the annual conferences, the quarterly newsletter La Pintura, and occasional papers or monographs.
On the Friday and Monday preceding and following this year’s conference, numerous field trips have been scheduled for loops to be made through the east Mojave, southern Nevada and Arizona side of the Colorado River. Several field trips are offered that provide riverboat excursions through the Topock Gorge and the shores of Lake Havasu. Some of the guided tours will follow and branch off of the route of the prehistoric Mojave trail that Padre Francisco Garces was first shown in 1776 as reported in last week’s Sentinel. Participants will be able to view the rock art that Garces probably saw 250 years ago as well as historic inscriptions left behind by the U. S. military troops situated at outposts along this route in the 1860s.
Various forms of rock art can be observed on the field trips. Petroglyphs are the most common type of rock art in the Mojave desert and were made by pecking, etching, carving or sculpting images into stone. Often the outer surface of the stone is covered with patina, a “rind” of darker color that is caused by the accumulation of airborne bacterial and chemical deposits such as manganese on its surface. Exposing the underlying surface of the stone results in a light mark surrounded by the contrasting dark color. When an image is sketched into stone creating a petroglyph, the resulting contrast in color is often striking.
Patina develops over a long period of time, but once it is removed from the stone to form a petroglyph image, the exposed area is immediately subject to “repatination.” Attempts have been made to calculate the rate of this repatination process, to compare the relative thickness of repatinated images and to suggest a relative age for various images based upon more or less patina. It is often assumed when comparing adjacent images on the same rock art panel, that the thicker and darker the repatination, the older the petroglyph. This same relative dating scheme cannot be relied upon when comparing sites in different location due to the fact that patinas develop at different rates in diverse atmospheric conditions, which includes factors such as climate, air quality and the type of stone that the patina may (or may not) form on.
Pictographs are another form of rock art that will be visited on Memorial Day weekend by ARARA participants. Imagery was painted on rock surfaces in the prehistoric past using paints made of mineral pigments and organic binders. Binders are sticky substances that attach the pigment to the rock. It is the organic material in the pigment, binders and other inclusions of the paint that provides researchers with the evidence they need to obtain a radiocarbon date. Removing this material destroys the painted rock, however, so such dating techniques are limited, applied only when essential under the authority of special permits and with extreme caution to minimize the sample.
Earthen art or intaglios is another form of rock art that is rarely found but can be encountered in abundance on ancient relic river terraces sitting above the current Colorado River bottom. These art forms consist of giant human and animal figures along with curvilinear designs. The motif is made by removing the dark individual gravel stones from the shape leaving behind a lighter surface consisting of lighter gravel. This light surface is in contrast with the surrounding darkly patinated gravelly landscape.
Famous examples of intaglios can be found fenced in along Highway 95 north of Blythe just south of the San Bernardino County border, but these have been damaged and attempts to recreate them have compromised their integrity even further. The examples found farther north on the 95 in San Bernardino County near Needles have been largely preserved and evidence of the method used to produce the original art can still be observed. The art work is distinguished from reliefs which involved the scraping up of gravels to form mounds and row mounds. This method was used at the nearby “Mystic (or Topock) Maze” site and is evidence that the so-called maze is actually rows of gravel made in a historic gravel mining operation.
Rock art often includes stylistic “signatures,” conventional symbols or icons that can often be linked with living or past cultures known to have “owned” or used that same imagery. Objects depicted in the rock art, rock art style and the “delivery technique” are used as clues as well. Archaeologist, like forensic investigators, analyze other material remains physically associated with the rock art, the global position and known tribal territory and the landscape within which the rock art is located in making the connection to a particular cultural group that the art work might be credited to even when there are no known direct descendants living today.
An atypical link of living people to prehistoric rock art includes the example of an Indian scout working in the US Army in the 1800’s who signed his name using a symbol in a ledger. It can be assumed that his tribe used the symbol and that rock art containing that symbol was likely made by the tribe or cultural group the scout belonged to. Upon a rare but fortunate occasion evidence exists of a particular person or persons who made the prehistoric rock art.
“What does it mean?” is a question that many ask. ARARA provides this explanation:
“So-called ‘biographic’ rock art of the Northern Plains is probably the rock art where we can be most certain of parts of its meaning, because of the very close relation between the ledger art just referred to and rock art using the same symbols. Both ledger books and the related rock art often recorded biographies of individuals, their accomplishments, victories in battle, and other events. Or they may record partial histories of entire villages or peoples. Such records are partly like the buffalo skins known as “Winter Counts” which could continue for 80 years, one important event each year. So there can be something close to history here. Quite a large vocabulary of signs can now be interpreted in this style of rock art, not because of any single “Rosetta Stone”, but because of the combination of details preserved in many places.
“For other kinds of rock art, we may not be so lucky. We may have to use a very wide range of techniques of analysis, to gain partial clues from each, until many clues point in the same direction. Which symbols occur together often, which rarely, which never do? Which occur in particular kinds of locations (residential vs. ceremonial)? What is the geographic distribution of particular rock art traditions, and did it change through time? Do the symbols used in one tradition of rock art resemble those used in another tradition?
“Designs on shields, both real shields and rock-art images of shields, are very likely to be symbolic, whether of powers which a warrior relied on for help in battle, or of other cultural ideas. Particular types of design may have been favored by particular cultures. Rock art, whether shields, large human-like figures, or even mere handprints, may have been used to mark territory, homes, food storage, or other things. Small shields in less public places might have merely meant that the bearer(s) of that shield design were there, perhaps as part of a larger alliance. Clan symbols might be used in similar ways.
“Other explanations which may be valid for some rock art include these: Girls’ puberty ceremonies; Vision quests; Prayers for rain; Hunting magic (hoping to ensure a good hunt); Pictorial representations of hunts showing where nets were placed, how game was driven into nets; astronomical indicators of the seasons; elements of rituals and ceremonies; echoes (voices from within the rocks); patterns often “seen” after consuming psychoactive plants; patterned phenomena of the natural world. The list goes on and on.
“But the understanding or ‘interpretation’ of rock art symbols, alone or in combination, remains very difficult. Simply because a symbol looks like something to us, it may not have looked at all like that for the people who created the rock art using it. Two symbols which we judge the “same” may have been very different symbols for some culture. Evidence will often be indirect, fragmentary, and even seemingly contradictory. To be on a sure footing in interpretation, we have to use every clue available from every branch of science which studies ancient and modern cultures. And even then, there are many things we will just never know. We need to be very modest when we think we do know, and keep gathering new kinds of information we had not earlier realized could be relevant. Even Plains Sign Language for example may hold some clues.”
As a member Archaeologist with rock art expertise in the region of this year’s ARARA convocation, I have been asked to act as local chair and field trip coordinator. This year’s field trip scheduling involves a complexity of coordinating issues that will pull me away from writing the Glimpse column. I am currently communicating and attempting to collaborate with the ten federal agencies involved, including the National Park Service at both the East Mojave National Preserve and the Lake Mead Recreation Area; the Bureau of Land Management’s field offices at Barstow, Needles, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Yuma and Las Vegas; the Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City; and the Fish and Wildlife Service in Needles. Further, there are also State, County and City officials and private individuals whose permission is sought to visit rock art on land they manage or own. As Field Trip Coordinator, my responsibility is to obtain permits and coordinate the guides for the various field trips ARARA has designed.
This year a variety of papers will be presented including one I am preparing on how the style and delivery technique used by the Mojave in decorated pottery and other artwork we know can be associated with historic Mojave individuals can be used to attribute rock art in the region as having originated from them. I will also use this presentation to show my evidence of the famous San Bernardino County “Mystic Maze” being historic and not of traditional Mojave origin. The following is an abstract of the paper I will be presenting called “Mojave Style:”
“Our conference this year takes place in the hearthland of the “Pipa Aha Macav,” “People of the River,” (Lower Colorado), abbreviated to “The Mojave.” Mojave language, culture and traditional religious beliefs are deeply rooted in the region’s landscape and so is their rock art. The artistic style and delivery rendered in the artwork adorning pottery, crafts and earthen art made by local historic tribal artists can be linked to the stylistic patterns viewed in rock art of the greater region, distinguishing Mojave art from modern constructions and that of foreign, prehistoric pilgrim-sojourners using trails within Mojave territory crossing the river in strategic locations.”
Arizona State University, Tempe. houses ARARA’s archives and research library. A variety of awards have been established by ARARA to recognize individuals, groups, and organizations for distinguished service in the field of rock art research, conservation, and education.