Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Pictographs At Ayers Rock, California

Petroglyphs are native American rock art scratched into rock (usually volcanic basalt) with stone tools, whereas pictographs are painted onto rock surfaces using naturally occurring pigments from plants, muds, etc., and natural straw and grasses as "paintbrushes." Because pictographs are more vulnerable to rain, humidity, and wind than petroglyphs, fewer survive today. One of the best preserved sites I've visited is Ayers Rock in the northern regions of California's Mojave Desert. It's east of Coso Junction on California highway 395, and is reached by a convoluted series of graded dirt roads. Exact directions can be obtained from a Bureau of Land Management office or at the combination service station/Taco Bell in Coso Junction; there's a large Cal Trans rest area just before the exit for Coso Junction. When I did this visit in 2000, the roads were suitable for passenger cars with careful driving but I think a high clearance vehicle would be a wiser choice. The distance from Coso Junction to the site is about eight miles.

There is a crudely graded dirt parking area for Ayers Rock, with a trail of about three-quarters of a mile to the site. The parking area is marked with the sign below, which gives various admonishments for visitors:

While the trail to the rock is faint------the shifting sands make a more permanently-worn trail difficult to create----the rock itself is clearly visible from the trailhead and impossible to miss. Unless you're visiting in mid-winter on a day when the temperature doesn't push past 60, I suggest carrying a snake stick or walking very carefully, taking note of the trail ahead and the areas adjacent to the trail. I took these photos on a day when the temperature was about 80, and spotted four sidewinder rattlesnakes near the trail, including one that zipped across the trail about ten feet ahead of me!

So what did I get for my courageous decision to risk death by the hand of venomous serpents somewhere in the desert hinterlands of the American Southwest? Well, I got see some really cool, surreal pictographs like the ones below:

I've tried to figure out what the image below is supposed to be; my first guess is that it is a scorpion, although it also looks quasi-human. Those zany Native Americans!

At the rear of Ayers Rock is a small, cave-like tunnel that would be adequate to shelter one person from the sun, wind, and the little rain that fell in this area. The sides appear streaked with smoke film, and I suppose fires were lit here for cooking (roasted sidewinder rattlesnake??) or for warmth on winter nights (the elevation here is slightly over 4000 feet, and freezing temperatures are common on mid-winter nights). It's easy to picture a native shaman or medicine man in here, depriving himself of food and water, smoking the vaguely psychedelic native tobacco, all to induce the hallucinations recorded in the pictographs. That's what archaeologists say, at any rate; I have a sneaking suspicion all lot of rock art was just random scrawling and doodling, much like contemporary "tagging" graffiti:

The surrounding area of Ayers Rock is littered with numerous obsidian chips, leftovers from the numerous lava flows. Obsidian was widely used by Native Americans in the Southwest for arrowheads, knives, animal skinning tools, and other applications where a strong rock that could hold a sharp edge was required. It is known that native peoples from as far away as eastern Utah traveled to this area to trade for obsidian gathered by the native peoples of the Coso Junction. As a result, many of the petroglyphs and pictographs found in this region are a mishmash of symbols representing various cultures of the natives of the Southwest.

Who knows. . . . . . . . maybe in future millennia people will visit ruins in abandoned, desolate lower Manhattan, ponder the strange symbols on a religious relic known as a "trading board," and ponder yes, this is where primitives of the distant past gathered to engage in a mystical ceremony known as "trading heating oil futures". . . . . . . .