Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Then and Now: Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain

Painted Rock on the Carrizo, circa 1929.

 The Carrizo Plain underwent increasing settlement by white ranchers and farmers during the first two decades of the 1900's, peaking by the late 1920's. In the years that followed many ranch and farming operations failed and were consolidated with their more successful neighbors. Eventually these too folded and today the Carrizo has become a patchwork of land that is either government owned, privately held, or held in trust. The designation of the Carrizo as a National Monument has had various effects, one of these being the increased recreational traffic associated with Monument status. Hunters, birders, rock art and history aficionados, hikers and road trippers can all find something in the Carrizo worth seeing, and many of these folks walk out to Painted Rock for a look at some Chumash rock art.

Painted Rock, always one of the principle attractions of the Carrizo Plain, has had a tough go. The art there has most definitely suffered at the hands of generations of visitors. Seeing the site as it is today is still a mystical experience, the paintings there so grand and complicated as to inspire those esoteric questions: Who were these people? How did they live? What were their beliefs and what gods held sway in their lives? And most of all, what does all this paint I'm looking at mean? Unfortunately, there is a type of person that doesn't ask those questions and derives no intrinsic value from what they are viewing. Often, those types of people suffer from an irresistible compulsion to commemorate their brief passing in such a way that they destroy a part of something that has historic/cultural value and ethno-religious significance. It's a tagger mentality, but the crimes are worse (remember when the Taliban turned their tank guns on two ancient stone Bhuddas? Same sort of deal.) The damage done to native art sites cannot be taken back, nor can it be repaired.

Case in point: Painted Rock. Monogrammed initials, some quite nicely rendered, can be found chiseled clean through art elements here. Many date back to the early 1900's, but there are examples which precede even those. Hundreds of bullet scars pock these walls, each shot having shattered the fragile sandstone on which these pictographs are painted. There are signs of deliberate chiseling, as if to remove a flake of painted rock for one's own keeping. I imagine that in most cases such efforts resulted in a crumbling fragment of painted stone much smaller than initially intended. There are numerous examples of inartfully scratched names and dates, and in an ill considered trend among archaeologists of the 1940's-1950's, many of the paintings have been outlined in white chalk. This practice was done to maintain some semblance of the image as it faded due to natural occurrences such as wind or sun exposure (also, see comments below, where I learn something I didn't know). Sadly, calcium carbonate (chalk) is actually harmful to many of the paints the natives used.

To illustrate what has been lost at this site, compare the black and white photos from a 1929 publication by Julian Steward with the contemporary photos taken by myself and Michael Shields. The comparison is quite sad really.

The same panel as above, seen today.

A different portion of the panel as seen in 1929.

And today.

Campbell Grant's painting of the main panel at the Painted Rock. Click to enlarge

So these images represent a potent example of why I don't share site directions or locations. Some good tips for those beginners seeking out the painted sites would be to approach the art slowly, when inside caves or overhangs be extra careful of where you put you head and butt so you don't bump into any art above or behind you, try to stay at least 3ft away from the art, be careful not to kick up any dust which might adhere to the images, and certainly never touch, cough, sneeze, or breath on the art. In other words, be respectful, use common sense, and maybe ask yourself some of those esoteric questions.

*Thanks to Mike Shields for scrounging up the old photos.


  1. Hi David,
    Great comparison. I've seen those 'before' photos before (or maybe ones ike them) in Myron Angel's 1883 book about PR. The Carrisa is a most unique place, unfortunately what we see today wouldn't compare with before the dry times hit, maybe centuries ago.
    I agree that pecked or chisled damage is permanent, but some modern paint damage can be mitigated. In the late 90's by a group of visiting archies from Australia with a couple CA certified conservators (one lives in SLO Co.). The Aussies had developed a technique to blend modern overpainting with the rock surface, and at the same time saving the original art. They wroked on the long-snouted element everyone calls Coyote. It worked really well, but is very time consuming, thus very expensive. I have before/after photos of their work if you'd like to see.

    PR used to be the Sunday picnic spot for local ranch families. I always heard it was target shooting, the targets being the circled glyphs.
    My first trips to the Carrisa were in the mid-70's when I worked for SLO Co., it was much different before the BLM land transfers, then the Monument designation. I can't say things are all that much better now, just more restrictive and exclusive access for the lettered folks. We first saw PR in the early 80's when you could drive the dirt road right up to the entrance of the horseshoe formation. I'm glad I experienced it before it became a monitored watch-over-your-shoulder timed walk. One of the most interesting things to me is the paths worn into the top of the rock by many hundreds of footsteps. Myron Angel's reprint booklet, updated by Georgia Lee's graphics, is still in print I think (SLOCAS).
    Sorry to go on so long, I have a lot of experience and feeling for Chumash (Yokut?) rock art, and even being part of the steward program in the LP for over 10 years, I still have misgivings about government programs, no matter how well intentioned. Mother Nature will decide when these places are no more, not us.
    best regards, Lee Thurston

  2. Oops, I wanted to mention a couple other things, didn't see the 'edit' feature.
    The chalking was usually done by anyone, not just the archies, taking photos using B&W film, the ements stood out when outlined with what was thought to be a temporary enhancement. Of course it wasn't and seriously damages many elements. Many photographers in the 50's and 60's who were concerned with archival images would use B&W because they didn't yet trust the stability of color emulsions. I know of at least 6 major RA sites that were chalked, some into the 70's.
    Also, Bill Hyder (ARARA) used to have a really nice Flickr web site that had many Carrisa site images, and one group in particular where he photoshop/overlayed the 1920's PR images with his current color ones. It was a pretty amazing result, very similar to your comparisons. How he got the scale right I don't know. He and Mark Oliver were premier RA photogs in the 70-80s, now I'd say that Rick Bury is tops for Chumash RA. Check out the Lompoc Hist. Museum some time.
    lee t.

  3. There it is, I am reminded just how much I don't know about the history and study of these sites. I think I know who this is (Anonymous), and I truly appreciate you having taken the time to chime in (twice). For those of us who haven't had any formal training or teaching in the tight knit world of rock art it seems like there's never a day one can't learn something new.
    Thanks, -DS

  4. David,

    Well done on the side by side. I agree with your emphasis on the "esoteric", if we are out to achieve conservation/preservation this is probably the single greatest catalyst available. A healthy dose of "awe/respect" goes a long way...


    Appreciate the history and additional insight