Friday, December 28, 2007

The Petroglyphs Of Fallon, Nevada

Like ghost towns, petroglyph sites are outdoor history museums. Technically, there are two types of Native American rock art sites: petroglyphs, which are scraped or scratched into the surface of a rock, and pictographs, which are painted onto rock. Petroglyphs are more common because they were easier to make and more durable. Dark basaltic rock (a product of lava flows from volcanoes) was a favorite surface for petroglyph artists, and most of the sites are near current or ancient water sources.

There’s a lot of fanciful hooey circulating about petroglyphs, but the bottom line is that we really have no idea what the symbols mean nor do we know why they were created. Some feel they had some sort of spiritual or religious significance (perhaps to record hallucinations experienced during “vision quests”) while others say they were used to mark tribal land boundaries, record battles, indicate hunting areas, etc. Many of these “explanations” are detailed and superficially convincing, but all are nothing more than subjective interpretations; asking what petroglyphs mean is like asking what the Mona Lisa is smiling about. Personally, I suspect many are the equivalent of contemporary graffiti, namely random scribblings made by bored people with nothing better to do.

Fallon, Nevada is about 400 miles north of Las Vegas and 60 miles southeast of Reno. I originally visited there to do research for my book Top Secret Tourism; the petroglyphs were just a bonus. Fallon is a dumpy little town that serves as the seat of Churchill county (the county courthouse is a rambling two-story wood structure resembling a New England bed-and-breakfast) and as the location of Fallon Naval Air Station, the new home of the “Top Gun” fighter pilot school immortalized in the movie Top Gun.

While Fallon is located in arid central Nevada, there are some surprisingly green patches around it-----in fact, some high-grade hay is grown there. That’s because Fallon has areas of abundant groundwater, including several flowing springs. The petroglyph site is located near such springs, and the petroglyphs are found on several dozen rocks scattered around the springs.

As you might suspect from a desert-dwelling people, rattlesnakes are a common motif at Fallon. Note the broad, triangular head of the snake figure at left below; that head shape indicates a pit viper, and "rattlers" are the only pit vipers in the Great Basin desert:

But other figures are less easy to interpret. Yes, there are snake figures on some of the rocks below, but your guess is as good as mine as to what the other images are supposed to represent:

In the background of the photo below is Fallon Naval Air Station, the current home of the "Top Gun" school. The petroglyph figure looks like a ghost or phantom. Consider that the star of Top Gun, Tom Cruise, adheres to a religion which holds that all human suffering is caused by invisible entities which attach themselves to humans, and such entities live underground and are released through volcanic eruptions (that's why those copies of Dianetics always have an erupting volcano on the cover). The Fallon petroglyphs are on basaltic rocks from an ancient volcanic eruption; did the petroglyph-maker manage to glimpse of one of those entities and record his experience on rock? Suppose the movie Top Gun had been made in the 1990s, and Tom Cruise had to go to Fallon for filming. Further suppose he had glimpsed the petroglyph below. Would he have fled Fallon in terror?? Would he have come to his senses, realized his religion was congealed gibberish, and as a result still be happily married today to Nicole Kidman???

Those are the sorts of thoughts that go through my head when I'm visiting a place in The Great Empty of the American west.