U.S. Widens Its Protective Frame for Indian Rock Art
A ceremony at China Lake will mark the 36,000-acre expansion of the historical landmark.
By Fred Alvarez
Times Staff Writer
May 20, 2005
RIDGECREST, Calif. No matter how many times archeologist Russell Kaldenberg roams Renegade Canyon, its volcanic rock reveals new magic. Depending on the season or the slant of the sun, the dark stone will erupt with chalk-white images, carved over the past 16,000 years, that he hasn’t seen before.
There are bighorn sheep and long-tailed cougars scratched into the walls of the high desert corridor. There are snakes and dragonflies and mammoth-like creatures, captured in rock carvings by the native people who once hunted and gathered their food on the western edge of the Mojave Desert.
There are so many images, in fact, that they can’t all be counted. All anyone knows for sure is that the carvings, set deep within the Navy’s testing range at China Lake, make up the largest concentration of Indian rock art in North America. And that every visit yields new discoveries.
“The harder you look, the more you see,” said Kaldenberg, who as base archeologist is responsible for preserving dozens of canyons peppered with prehistoric art at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. “It’s magical to me, with the light and shade and angles of the sun. If the clouds move just right, you can almost see things move.”
Navy officials say they take seriously a promise made decades ago to preserve these fragile etchings, chipped into the rock of the Coso Mountain Range. While the primary mission of the base remains weapons development and testing, there has been growing interest in researching the Indian etchings, known as petroglyphs, and ensuring public access to a portion of the site.
A small section of the base was designated a national historic landmark in 1964, marking the only such designation on Department of Defense lands. And at a ceremony today, officials will add a 36,000-acre slice of the desert to that designation, increasing by 100 times the size of the area under protection.
The move is largely ceremonial. The Interior secretary approved the expanded boundary in 2001, and public access won’t increase.
Still, military officials are using the occasion to showcase the balance they have struck between their military mission and the management of cultural resources.
“One of the reasons things are as well-preserved as they are is because we’ve been here with essentially a secure land area where these cultural resources are not disturbed,” said Capt. Mark Storch, China Lake’s commanding officer. He said the Navy has had a long history of safeguarding cultural resources and said that at China Lake, military activity disturbs less than 5% of the base’s 1.1 million acres.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to conduct our military mission while maintaining the public trust to preserve these sites,” he said.
The public has been visiting the sites since before China Lake was established in 1943, and formal weekend tours have taken place since then through the base and the nearby Maturango Museum. Because visitors must drive through the heart of the weapons testing range, tours are restricted to weekends — and then only when no military activity is taking place.
The Navy provides tours year-round at no cost. The museum leads excursions in the spring and fall for $35 per person.
Today, about 3,000 visitors arrive each year to walk through Renegade Canyon, a 1.6-mile stretch of scrubland and lava flows that is the only area regularly open to the public. The area also is popular with China Lake’s 4,000 base personnel, about 3,100 of whom are civilians.
Richard Stewart, a member of the Big Pine Band of Owens Valley Paiute Indians, said he had no problem with the Navy limiting access beyond Renegade Canyon, arguing that the military’s presence had kept the etchings in good condition. Even with limited access, someone has carved the crude outline of a car on one boulder. Another rock bears the inscription E=MC2 and is thought to be the work of physicists at China Lake connected to the Manhattan Project.
“You don’t see off-road vehicle tracks or some of the other problems you have in other places,” said Stewart, who will sing a Native American creation song at today’s dedication. It’s like the images “have been put in a little time capsule.”
Indeed, the rock canvas at China Lake bears some of the oldest and newest Indian carvings in North America.
They are believed to have been made by tribes that settled the area, some of them ancestors of the modern-day Paiute and Shoshone Indians that populate the region today. The oldest petroglyphs are thought to date back to the end of the last Ice Age, a period that launched a rock art continuum that stretched to the late 1800s.
The story unfolds against slate-gray cliffs, swimming with strange and mysterious shapes.
Many of the rock panels depict hunting scenes, with stick figures clutching wooden shafts, chasing deer and bighorn sheep. Some stones are engraved with baskets and pelts, others with what could be medicine bags and baby cradles.
There were warriors on the property long before the Navy arrived, as evidenced by an etching that depicts two men squaring off, each armed with a bow and arrow. There are figures wearing headdresses and holding staffs, perhaps depicting shamans or medicine men. One theory holds that the rock art is connected to so-called hunting magic, created as part of a ritual to ensure a successful hunt.
“The thing about rock art is that you get into real trouble when it comes to interpretation,” said Kaldenberg, scrambling up boulders earlier this week to photograph images he had never seen. “All you can do is suggest what it might be, but no one knows for sure.”
For all its history, the volcanic canyons remain unknown to many, including those who live in surrounding communities such as Ridgecrest, Inyokern and Trona. So it was that Jessica Armstrong, a public affairs intern at the base, took her first tour last week, trailing Kaldenberg across the desert floor studded with beaver tail cactus and mariposa lilies.
Born and raised in Ridgecrest, the 28-year-old has been connected to the base all her life. Her mother and stepfather work there. And she is nearing the end of a one-year internship that taught her plenty about the base.
Now she knows something about the ancient people who also called this place home.
“You look out at this desert and you don’t think anyone was here before you,” she said. “To see this history set out before you is just amazing.”