Fort Irwin Rock Art: Geoglyphs Reveal Land's Early History

Article excerpt

AT first glance, California's Mojave Desert might seem barren and devoid of humanity. But look again, and you'll see what Luz Ramirez de Bryson sees.

"The past and present all merge into one," said Ramirez, archaeologist and cultural resources manager for Fort Irwin, Calif. "One can almost see the early people moving through this area," she said.

Where the untrained eye takes in an almost alien landscape of dry shrub and stone, Ramirez points to places where water flowed and the ancient, nomadic Silver Lake people lived their lives some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago.

They were one of many cultures that used the land and left records in the rock. Years ago, archaeologists working on Fort Irwin found petroglyphs, images chipped and scraped into rock formations; and pictographs, paintings on rock. But in the newly acquired areas of Fort Irwin, Ramirez found another form of rock art, one she recognized from her experience studying the high desert of Chile: geoglyphs.

Also known as intaglios, geoglyphs mark the land itself for an artistic purpose. The most famous are the lines in Peru's Nazca desert, where, from the air, one can see monkeys, birds and lines once thought to be landing strips for extraterrestrials. A famous human figure lies in the Mojave near Blythe, Calif., less than two hours south of Fort Irwin.

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The Fort Irwin geoglyphs are abstract alignments of fist-sized rocks covering perhaps a quarter of an acre.

One set is a collection of seemingly random straight lines; another swirls and branches in a deliberate but undecipherable pattern.

Embedded in the sun-darkened crust called desert pavement, the lines are practically invisible until Ramirez begins to describe them. …