Best Of The West 2012: Petroglyphs
Two top destinations for the ancient rock art are in the American West.
Photography: Lisa Dearing
The word comes from the Greek petra, meaning rock, and glyphe, meaning drawing or engraving. Far from being ancient graffiti, petroglyphs, according to archaeologist and rock-art expert David S. Whitley, are nothing less than windows onto the emergence of human creativity and religion. Among his Top 5 sites in the world where you can peer through those windows, Whitley singles out two in the United States. Right up there with the world-famous cave paintings of Lascaux, France, he puts Horseshoe Canyon in Utah and the Coso Rock Art District at, of all places, the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in eastern California.
Known as the Coso Petroglyphs, the California site is one of the best preserved on the planet and may have as many as 100,000 images, some as old as 12,000 to 16,000 years. Because it’s military land, you can’t just four-wheel it out to the canyons to see for yourself without previous arrangements (tours are available through the Maturango Museum; 760.375.6900, www.maturango.org). But a visit is worth the effort, even if the true meaning behind the familiar images of animals, human figures, masks, and geometric shapes remains elusive.
“Native Americans are unanimous in their opinion that these are sacred images,” says Whitley. “A single careless or inconsiderate act can erase in seconds what has been preserved and revered for centuries.” So whichever site you visit, approach these ancient rocks with reverence and care, and an open mind.