Petroglyphs of the Volcanic Tablelands: Bishop,
Story by Jeffrey O'Brien. All comments or questions
Visit the Paiute - Shoshone Indian Cultural Center on
West Line Street in Bishop, California, before you head
off to the sites. The museum offers excellent informative
displays featuring the history of the occupation of
these tribes in the Owens Valley. In 1997, there were
approximately 2,000 Native Americans living on the Bishop
Reservation. Taking a few minutes to learn in more detail
about the creators of these petroglyphs will enhance
your experience in the field.
The local descendants of the
Paiute - Shoshone decline to share detailed information
regarding the meanings or functions of the rock
Sadly, their reluctance to offer
information about the exact location of the various
sites is justified. On some occasions, people
have behaved destructively and disrespectfully.
If you are genuinely interested in rediscovering
the sites, you will find them.
In the spirit of preservation,
a map is not included here.
Respect And Protection
Despite the rugged and timeless appearance of the material,
petroglyphs are delicate and subject to the relentless
onslaught of erosion. These rock art sites are federally
protected. Damaging, defacing, or removing the petroglyphs
in any way is punishable as a felony. The enforcing
officers are quite serious about this; no warnings are
issued. This goes for any related artifacts.
We shouldn't have to say all this, but recent history
teaches us otherwise...
Do not shoot at them. Do not throw anything at them.
Do not litter. Do not park too close. Do not drive off
the road. Do not be disrespectful. Do not disturb the
integrity of the scene. The petroglyphs are unique and
Think. Take pictures. Paint or sketch. Get an eyeful;
if you must, gently place your hand in an ancient outline,
just don't leave any trace of your passing. We all want
to see as pure a glimpse into the past as possible.
There is a quiet and sacred quality here -- don't let
it be compromised.
in the Sierra is as old as 85 - 210 million years.
Some of the sedimentary rocks in the roof pendant
are 600 million years old.
The tablelands are part of a
580 square mile area covered by a series of volcanic
ash flows from the eruption of Long Valley, 760,000
years ago. Composed of several layers of a salmon-colored
pumice known as Bishop tuff, it is up to 600 feet
deep in places, but averages 12 feet thick on
the south-east edges.
The tablelands border the northern
end of Owens Valley, slightly slope to Round Valley,
and reach to Mono Lake. In places where this broad,
arch-shaped flow was subsequently folded and tilted
by faulting, andesite and basalt leaked up through
volcanic vents called fumaroles. The resulting
formations were composed of more erosion resistant
minerals and thus eventually became exposed.
Around 8,800 years ago, a culture inhabited the area
we now know as Owens Valley. Although we are not sure
why, people pecked designs into these darker, exposed
rocks. Petroglyphs differ from pictographs in that they
are chipped with a harder stone into the dark surfaces
of rock, as opposed to being painted on. The exposed
inner rock lacks the darker oxidation of the exterior
and provides the contrast that make the designs visible.
The prevailing styles, as classified by archaeologists,
are Great Basin Curvilinear, and Great Basin Rectilinear.
Petroglyphs like these occur throughout the Southwestern
Great Basin, which extends eastward to Arizona. The
meaning of the symbols is not absolutely clear. Individually,
some objects are recognizable as deer, bighorn sheep,
human figures, and birds. Other symbols include lines,
grids, and concentric circles in different configurations.
There are incomplete efforts, scribblings, and random
peck marks. If there was a purpose to these designs,
it might have been ceremonial, practical, functional,
or even whimsical. There are, as always, a number of
popular theories as to the meaning of the content or
placement of the symbols; use your imagination...
A Brief Site Explanation
The Fish Slough site has a few dozen petroglyphs,
all are entoptic patterns; geometric designs perceived
during the first stage of a shaman's altered state of
conciousness. Bisected circles are common here. They
might portray vulva-form motifs or a schematized drawing
of an atlatl, an accelerating device used to propel
a spear. On some of the horizontal surfaces of the rocks
one can find smoothly polished grinding slicks and holes
once used to prepare food. Their presence suggests the
site was used for diverse purposes.
The Chidago site contains about 100 petroglyphs.
Most are also entoptic patterns, while a few represent
lizards and rattlesnakes. Among the geometric patterns,
there are concentric circles as well as spirals. These
whirlwind patterns have a previously-defined cultural
meaning. At the beginning of a shaman's spiritual journey,
he is supposed to be swept up into the sky by a whirlwind,
which aids him in his quest. The association of these
designs with focused spiritual power implies their creator
used this energy in a healing capacity.
Red Canyon has the usual array of entoptic art
as well as some unique features. There are at least
three human figures, representations of bighorn sheep,
rattlesnakes, and plants. Most interesting is a panel
covered with engraved 6" footprints. "Prints
and tracks are common at sites worldwide...In the Great
Basin, small human footprints were attributed to the
Water Baby, a diminutive human spirit who lived in springs
and pools and served as a particularly potent spirit
helper for shamans." - David S. Whitley, author
of A Guide To Rock Art Sites, Mountain Press Publishing,
400 petroglyphs spread out across a 600' cliff face
at the Chalfant site. The author goes on at length about
the significance of the common motif here. The vertically
bisected circle has to do with a females coming of age.
The name of this chapter in the book is The Power of
the Vulva, so that ought to tell you something. "Theses
patterns symbolize a sexual association with the shaman's
altered-state experiences, equating their entry into
the supernatural withsexual intercourse." -
David S. Whitley, author of A Guide To Rock Art Sites,
Mountain Press Publishing, 1996. Pretty racy for
even thousand year old rock art.
The access roads are all passable with a passenger car.
Avoid ruts, look out for washboard sections and stray
boulders. Make sure the spare tire is ready. Obviously,
have enough fuel for getting lost, and take water for
you and your car. Lunch helps if you're out for a while.
Even though you are only a couple of miles from 2 major
highways at all times, you are in the desert. It would
be a long walk to get help.
The elevation is about 4,500 feet, which is low enough
for rattlesnakes to be warming in the sun. Tell someone
where you're going and when you expect to be back. In
the summer it can be very hot and sunny, prepare with
SPF, a hat, and a cooler full of iced drinks. It's not
a great place for dogs, as it's a lot of time in the
bumpy, dusty car, punctuated by stops at the sites where
dogs shouldn't go. There are cacti, sharp edged lava
rocks, steep drops, and cracks in the ground. In fact,
watch where you walk. Use common sense, and be
considerate. The petroglyphs of the volcanic tablelands
provide a potentially rewarding experience.
Pass lightly in order to preserve the beauty of these
sites for others to appreciate.
Need more information? Contact:
U.S. Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
351 Pacu Ln, Suite 100
Bishop Ca. 93514
760-872-5000 or 760-872-4881
USFS, White Mountain Ranger Station
798 North Main St, Bishop