"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Little Petroglyph Canyon

About 45 miles north of the desert California town of Ridgecrest, hidden in the confines of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station (which happens to be larger than the state of Rhode Island) is one of the best preserved and most extensive examples of Native American petroglyphs in the country.  If you want to see it though, you have to go through quite a rigamarole via the local Maturango Museum and the U.S. Navy. As I'm sure you can imagine: if it's governmental, it's complicated. 

Once you've jumped through the hoops and reserved a spot on one of the tours, gotten up before dawn to meet at the museum, carpooled with other excited folks, passed through a complete inspection of the vehicle, shown your legal ID and auto paperwork, and wound your way through the twisting-turning dirt backroads of the Naval Base, you will finally arrive at Little Petroglyph Canyon for a real feast for the eyes and imagination.  Phew!

Every tour is accompanied by several highly informed volunteer tour guides. Here's Tom, one of ours. I tried to stay close enough to him throughout to hear what he had to say about all we were seeing.  Here he's telling us about the little dots above the heads of some of the figures, symbolizing power. 

There are hundreds and hundreds of petroglyphs in just this canyon alone, and there are many other canyons with petroglyphs out there as well. This however is one of only two (I believe) that are accessible to the public.  Here's another one our guides and a view of the canyon.

In some places the canyon got kind of narrow and required scrambling over dry volcanic rock waterfalls. The guides were very helpful in those spots, if help was needed. Even without the petroglyphs the three mile (round trip) hike would have been interesting.

There were two groups out there that morning. We got a little backed up at times as some folks needed to navigate the dry falls a little more slowly than others. There were some visitors who opted not to negotiate the dry falls at all and stayed back to see what they could closer to the canyon entrance, and there was plenty to see. The speedier types quickly passed by and were on their way down the canyon in the blink of an eye. Except for those few times it never felt over-peopled, and didn't interfere with viewing the petroglyphs in any way. 

Now, for the petroglyphs themselves. Most of what is "known" about them is hypothesized by various experts, and the subject matter, artists and ages of the glyphs are still in question.  The most ancient are thought to be as old 3,000 years.  Some think they are made by the ancestors of the local Paiute-Shosone tribes, other hypothesize that they are an altogether different group. It's possible they were made by several different groups of people as they were created over a very long period of time and have clearly different styles and subjects.

Many images are anthropomorphic, that is of human-like shapes. Some are identified now as "shaman" figures because they are highly complex and uniquely decorated, looking like they are dressed in ceremonial regalia. Others are humbly human (center and right below), with a few exaggerated features, like arms, hands or feet. In the bottom left is what looks like a 1:1 bow and arrow battle.

This one is known as "Bad Hair Day" by the frequent visitors.

Many others are abstract, or symbolic of unknown subjects, many one of a kind.  Enthusiasts like to hypothesize about what they represent, but it's all guess work. 

I think that by far the most commonly depicted are animals, especially long horned sheep. But there also seem to be a few mountain lions, deer, dogs, thunderbirds/eagles and maybe rabbits and turtles. Who knows?

In a few places there are images of what are thought to be "medicine bags."  It's interesting how things are often represented in collections, possibly returned to over time and recreated there for some reason.

There are quite a few "atlatl" collections. The atlatl is a spear throwing device, the hunting weapon used before the bow and arrow. The bulb-like object in the center of the all the atlatls (below) is supposedly an exaggerated rock that served as a counterweight.

Of course no one knows why the rock is made so much larger than it would be in the actual weapon, (if that's what it is at all) but there seems to be clear agreement among the artists about what it should look like.  (The images seem to be of only the atlatl, without the spear part.) Why are there no bow and arrow collective images?

This is thought to be a picture of a man hunting with an atlatl. It's the only picture of its kind. The descending wavy-lined image below him supposedly represents rain. It's one of the more commonly seen symbols.

Some interesting anomalies can be found as well, including this singular image of a human footprint...

…and this modern petroglyph. It was actually made by a scientist participating in the development of US nuclear weapons at this site during WWIII. Interesting how "primitive" his artistic methods are compared to the older petroglyphs. Was it meant as a joke, or a profound statement of one of the most powerful symbols of our time? It too is now protected as one of the historic petroglyphs, even though it's only about 60 years old. 

It was a fascinating day, and I recommend the outing to anyone who's interested in anthropology, history or art. It's a real eye-full and so thought provoking.


  1. Oh I love finding petroglyphs on a trail, this looks like a mother lode! If you ever find yourself near Laughlin, NV, check out the Grapevine Canyon Trail just outside of town. Hundreds or thousands of petroglyphs and it's free!

  2. Thanks for sharing.... noted for our future visit to the area :-)


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