What The Rocks Memorialize: Bighorn Rock Art in the Mojave Desert

By Ruth Musser-Lopez
May 30, 2014.  Memories of loved ones who put their lives on the line or actually lost their lives in the cause of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness was my way of spending my Memorial Day…all while I was at work—pursuing my own happiness–doing the work I love: that is, recording Native American rock art.
I was working not exactly in San Bernardino County but near the “Point” where California (San Bernardino County), Nevada, and Arizona come together, particularly that area surrounding Needles, California; Bullhead City, Arizona; and Las Vegas/Laughlin, Nevada.  While everyone else was watching fire works explode from casinos, I spent my day in the hills with archaeologists of the Basin and Range Heritage Consultants on a mission to document ancient ruins that had been torn apart by pothunters.
So what we found on Memorial Day was nothing short of remarkable to me, better than fireworks–a previously unrecorded, intact, undisturbed rock art site.  And what was the art? What did we see?  A depiction of a flock of bighorn sheep pecked into a flat, vertical rhyolite cliff face, a art panel raised high above eye level, large enough for all to see—as if it were a celebration of the past, like fireworks.  And these were not just ordinary bighorn sheep images, but the type of stylistic line drawing incorporating a very distinguishable ovoid belly that represents an iconic motif indicative of very old northern Mojave Desert rock art.
So stylistic was this panel of big horn sheep art that I was tasked with the job of rechecking with the American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA) for updates on their categories of big horn sheep styles, how old each style is and if they could be linked to any particular culture. Kind of like a design on a dinner plate, archaeologists have found that big horn sheep image patterns on rock changed through time and depending upon the style pattern or a repeated iconic image perhaps are symbolic for and can be linked to a particular cultural group.
By the way, coincidentally, the ARARA will be meeting in Laughlin for their annual meeting on Memorial Day weekend next year, 2015 at which time they tentatively plan to visit San Bernardino County rock art sites.
Since I am a member of ARARA, I have been following some of the attempts to classify rock art styles by age and cultural affiliation.  There are actually several types of iconic stylistic big horn sheep motifs that can be found repeatedly in the Mojave Desert.
Just west of San Bernardino County, in Ridgecrest, Alexander K. “Sandy” Rogers of the Maturango Museum synthesized and integrated findings from various sites associated with Mojave Desert rock art to estimate the initial production ages of three bighorn sheep rock art style motifs.  The sheep rock art that he studied was found in the Coso Mountain Range, also bordering near San Bernardino County on the northwest.  He used obsidian hydration dates, xray florescence and cation ratio data to determine the ages.  He presented this taxonomic chronology to the ARARA in 2009.
Cation ratio dating is a technique for dating the natural patina or varnish that develops over petroglyphs after they are made.  One of the reasons why scientists ask people not to touch the rock art is because of the oily deposits on fingers that could leave deposits, causing  deterioration of the art and preventing the researcher from extracting reliable data from it.
The three different Mojave Desert bighorn sheep motifs that Rogers studied can be seen in his “Table 2” above “Taxonomy for bighorn sheep images.”  Strong evidence exists that these motifs are associated with ancient ancestral Puebloan, Fremont and related early Uto-Aztecan speaking people.  Note that the Type I style shown in the figure is the type that was found at our “Memorial Day” site.  The sheep is viewed in profile, a side view, and has excessively long horns in side view as well, as opposed to a front view as in the Type III sheep.  The body is oval shaped as opposed to rectangular as in the Type II sheep or the boat-shape, commonly called “jelly belly” of the Type III sheep.
Based mainly on archaeologist Amy Gilreath’s 1999 obsidian hydration data, Rogers found that the characteristics of our Type I sheep figures first appeared at the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago.
Obsidian obeys the property of mineral hydration, and absorbs water, when exposed to air, at a well-defined rate. When an unworked nodule of obsidian is initially fractured, there is typically less than 1% water present. Over time, water slowly diffuses into the artifact forming a narrow “band,” “rim,” or “rind” that can be seen and measured.
Analyzing artifacts associated with rock art, like prehistoric tools made of obsidian, is something that archaeologists do to determine the age of rock art and the culture associated with it.
Many rock art enthusiasts attempt to interpret rock art as if the images represent a language or  an attempt to communicate a message.  They treat rock art as if it is something that can be read like a book, like picture writing, similar to icons on the tee pees or blankets of plains Indians.
For example, LaVan Martineau wrote in his 1973 book “The Rocks Begin to Speak” that bighorn sheep images are a metaphor for travel, where the length of the legs indicates the length of the trip and the shape of the belly indicates the roughness of the terrain ahead.  This is an example of torturing meaning from images where there is no objective basis. He said, “Bighorn sheep petroglyphs with a deeply rounded belly show the contour of the country to consist of deep valleys, in other words rough country with plenty of mountains and valleys to cross.”
One can see how confusing that interpretation can be when you have a whole flock of petroglyphs clumped together as in our Memorial Day site.  How twisted would it be to have just crossed a rough mountain range only to find on the opposite side a petroglyph sign depicting a long legged bighorn sheep with an extended belly?  “So now you tell me ‘rough road’.” Now, that’s an understatement!
It is important that archaeologists have found that rock art styles changes through time and that they can perhaps use these style changes to make interpretations about how old an associated archaeological site nearby is and perhaps what culture lived there.
Boundary markers, maps, trails markers, water rights, territorial boundaries, place markers, clan or individual’s names, birthing places, puberty and fertility ritual and rites, rites for renewal of earth, commemoration of events, ceremonial or religious symbolism, counting, hunting magic, time keeping, marking solstice and other astronomical events and many more explanations are all potential reasons for rock art.
Undoubtedly, there is meaning associated with rock art motifs.  There are also many interpretations.   Often people assign their own meaning depending upon their own culture projecting their own experience into their interpretation. Ultimately though, most often individual interpretations can’t be proven. Nevertheless making interpretations is great fun and a memorial cultural experience in itself as people share their creativity and intuitiveness.

Syndicated 2014, Ruth Musser-Lopez— Permission to reprint this article may be obtained by contacting Ruth at the Archaeological Heritage Association (AHA) 760/885-9374 or via email at Ruth@RiverAHA.org.

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