Little Lake

For more than ten thousand years, until the late nineteenth century, the sounds of hard rock striking soft reverberated around Little Lake, in Inyo County, California, an oasis situated in the ecotone between the Mojave Desert and the western Great Basin, as indigenous peoples made rock art.

For the last decade, a team of multi-disciplinary volunteers, working with Jo Anne Van Tilberg, the Director of the Rock Art Archive at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, recorded the now mute testament to this primal mark-making. I was a part of that group from 2007 and the results of our work, Rock Art at Little Lake: An Ancient Crossroads in the California Desert, was published in December, 2012.

My introduction to the team was through Doug Brotherton, who became a friend after I designed a re-model of his 1920's Greek Revival cottage. Doug was key to the effort both as a photographer of the work and then the designer of the book; I made small contributions as an illustrator and word-smith. From the beginning, my involvement was inspired by a belief that rock art exists as a conduit to the spirit realm and I was much influenced by my reading of David Whitley's book, The Art of the Shaman, Rock Art of California, University of Utah Press, 2000.

Working with Jo Anne, I was introduced to the Archive's painstaking scientific method and came to realize that this 'third level' of meaning (beyond semantic or taxonomic evaluation and the next level, the linkage of the motifs with associative phenomena) which potentially reference the spiritual or mystical, may only be discovered through experiential participation in the art work's cultural framework. Given that that is no longer possible, all else is conjecture.

Whitley's notion that all rock art is exclusively the work of shaman has come under increasing scrutiny and certainly our book takes the position that over the extended temporal landscape that exists at Little Lake, this art was produced by both men and woman with a variety of societal motivations. One such motivation, the ritual activity surrounding hunting, is considered, particularly as it relates to big-horned sheep.

More generally, Jo Anne takes the position that petroglyphs are key elements in the ritual construction of a landscape, that the pecked motifs are instrumental in giving meaning to place. Our consideration of the work at the site was thus divided up into eight loci which were characterized by their terrain. While this represented a unique point of departure in the analysis of rock art I am not sure that it returned any substantial insights. It did, however, afford the opportunity to single out the most remarkable rock art phenomena at Little Lake - Atlatl Cliff, where, on the planar faces of seismically fractured basalt boulders are hundreds of pecked representations of the atlatl (a spear throwing stick that adds leverage to the thrower's arm and pre-dates the bow and arrow). This dramatic rock fall, marked by the proliferation of this motif (in varieties of shape and size) is unique in south western rock art.

Much of the other work at Little Lake pales in comparison to the rock art at the nearby Coso Rock Art Landmark (Things fall Apart). From an archeological perspective they are not strictly comparable. A great deal of the Little Lake production is earlier, but it was during the Newberry (1500 BCE - 600CE) and early Haiwee periods (600-1000 CE) that Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, carved into the sugar loaf Cosos, debouching thousands of feet above the salt flat of China Lake, became the Greece and Rome, Paris, and New York, of North American rock art (while out-of-town try-outs were consigned, perhaps, to the marshy fringes of Little Lake).

It may be inappropriate to apply contemporary aesthetic judgments to this work but once your eyes adjust to the low levels of contrast between the pecked and un-pecked rock in Little Petroglyph Canyon and the full graphic impact of the motifs (many created in seemingly impossible locations high on the canyon walls) begins to reorganize the cellular structure of your brain you know you are in the presence of great art. Here, higher level meaning transcends ignorance of its originating context.

Little Lake was an oasis, but to use a crass analogy, it was a truck stop compared to the rarified convocations at the Coso canyons which were more akin to Davos where the World Economic Forum gathers. At Little Lake, the vernacular messages are garbled (with the exception of the stentorian but enigmatic voicings from Atlatl Cliff); at Coso, the high seriousness of matters concerning rainfall and the successful procurement of large game animals was negotiated, at least partly, through the magnificent clarity of iconic rock art motifs.

Remarkably, the clean peal of rock against rock was likely very similar in both locations; but while the joyful noise that tumbled out of the Coso canyons (like the torrents that emerge from these chasms during the wet, or the herds of big-horned sheep and antelope that were prodded down their lithic defiles and fell to their death on the salt flats below) was in incidental service to the production of cosmically affective petroglyphs; at Little Lake, there is the suspicion that the gravitas of the graven motifs was secondary to the glorious tintinnabulation of this percussive art.

Ultimately, Jo Anne's sense that the rock art at Little Lake, whether inspired by the local psycho-tropic drug of choice (datura), the eidetic imagery available to us all behind tightly closed eyelids, environmental mimesis or simply age-old tradition, functioned as an amplification of the ritual meanings inherent in the landscape, made our work and the resultant book worthwhile. The establishment of a fully dimensional ethnographic, geologic, geographic and archeological context for the study of these millennia of scribblings brings this particular place, in all its vast temporal vicissitudes, into a highly resolved focus: where an oasis has, across the ages, served to sustain the human spirit.