Rock art reveals desert's mystery
By Ray Patterson
December 24, 2000
BORREGO SPRINGS -- The things that people leave behind
tell who they were and what events shaped their lives.
Anthropologists are still trying to understand the people who
left their marks on the rocks and land in the Anza-Borrego
Desert thousands of years ago.
One person studying the area is Manfred Knaak, who has been
living and working in the Anza-Borrego Desert as an
archaeologist, teacher and author for the last 28 years.
"You kind of have to learn to love a desert," Knaak said.
"Most people don't think the desert is an environment you
instantly love, like mountains, beaches, and meadows, because
it is so different."
Hired in 1975 by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to document
American Indian sites, Knaak has surveyed the three art forms
left by early inhabitants: petroglyphs, pictographs, and
intaglios. Petroglyphs are images engraved into the surface of
the rock. Pictographs are images made from colored minerals
mixed with a binder and painted on the rock's surface.
Intaglios or ground figures are large-scale images made by
scraping the earth clear of rocks and pebbles and leaving an
imprint. Their purpose is still being debated.
But Knaak, author of "The Forgotten Artist, Indians of
Anza-Borrego Desert and Their Rock Art," notes that many of
the images painted onto or cut into rocks in the desert are
geometric designs. He believes some of the designs were used
for astronomical observations such as the summer and winter
"Rock art was most often very magical, personal, and used for
rites of passage for boys and girls," he said.
Cheryl Jeffrey, curator of the Barona Cultural Center and
Museum, is also interested in the area. She has been studying
American Indians of the desert from Palm Springs to
Anza-Borrego for the last 20 years. She said that it is difficult
to discern exactly what the rock art represents. The more
obvious connections to astronomical events or rites of
passage are clear, and the interpretation can be inferred.
"We usually think of art as the finished product," Jeffrey said.
"In rock art, a great part of the meaning in it is the ritual itself
that took place as the art was made. This art was placed here
for people in the future, or during that time period, to know
something about their environment."
Anthropologists do not agree on when the images were made.
"We think they were from within the last thousand years, but
we don't know that for certain," Jeffrey said.
Although more people can observe a piece of rock art after it
has been removed and placed in a museum, Jeffrey thinks that
rock art belongs in its original context. "Where it is in space
and time makes it important," she said. "It's not just the piece
that is on the rock; it's what you are seeing all around you."
Naturalist and photographer Paul Johnson has lived in the
Anza-Borrego Desert since 1973. Since 1981, he has been
leading desert tours, some of which include visits to rock-art
sites. He said that preservation of the sites is a major concern.
"The (state) park has a very staunch policy of not revealing the
locations," Johnson said. "There are only two sites in the park
that are public out of over 50."
The closest known petroglyph to Borrego Springs is in Little
Blair Valley. There's an interpretive panel there, with a trail that
leads to the site.
Johnson will lead two tours for the Anza-Borrego Desert
Natural History Association in January to rock-art sites outside
the Anza-Borrego area on Bureau of Land Management
property. The Jan. 6 guided tour of roughly 200 miles will
include a visit to the Yuha Intaglios, and the Jan. 13 tour of
250 miles will include a visit to Corn Springs and roughly 600
Ray Patterson is a free-lance writer who lives in Valley
Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.