About Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli, avid outdoorsman, history buff and archaeology enthusiast, is the author of four books about the Great Basin region. Raised in Sparks, Nevada, Cassinelli developed an interest in Indian artifacts as a young boy working on his family’s ranch. In the early 1990s, he painstakingly identified hundreds of projectile points to create the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection, now located at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada.

Rock art for your yard

IMITATION ROCK ART FOR SALE: $40-$50, depending on size, complexity and quality of design. Local delivery within 30 miles of Carson City, Nevada, for additional $10. Small rocks also available.

IMITATION ROCK ART FOR SALE: $40-$50, depending on size, complexity and quality of design. Local delivery within 30 miles of Carson City, Nevada, for additional $10. Small rocks also available.

For many years, I was a construction inspector for the Nevada Department of Transportation and for several consulting engineering companies providing inspection services on highway construction projects. This vocation took me to nearly every town in Nevada and to the surrounding states as well. Sometimes, out of boredom while waiting for the next load of pavement to arrive, I would gather a few of the chocolate-colored boulders covered with desert varnish that could be found alongside the highway.

With a sharp rock or even a hammer and chisel, I would carve petroglyph designs on the boulders by cutting away the thin layer of desert varnish. This resulted in a sharp image of lighter color just as one would see on a genuine Indian petroglyph. I would leave these works of art in the back of my pickup truck until one or more of the workers on the crew spotted them. The question usually asked was, “Where did you find those petroglyphs?”

Rock Art 1

Rock Art 3

The designs were convincing enough, I could have fooled some of the people they were genuine petroglyphs. I always fessed up that they were of my own creation and more often than not, the guys I showed them to offered to buy them from me. The attraction of owning one of these creations is to set it in a strategic location in your yard where visitors might Rock Art 2think they were the genuine article.

I estimate I have made and sold hundreds of these imitation petroglyphs and given many others to friends and relatives. I never had a craft show, garage sale or yard sale where I did not sell out my entire inventory of rock art.

I have searched the various petroglyph sites to find interesting designs of petroglyphs from many sites around the American West. Some of the designs by the early native Indians were truly works of art. Some may seem crude by modern standards but they reflect the imagination and talents of hunters and craftsmen from hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Rock Art 4In a previous article, I told about the various types of petroglyphs that can be found in the few remaining places where we can still go to see them. In addition to the unexplained images of spirals, parallel lines, zig-zags and curved lines, there are hundreds of other more recognizable images. Some of my favorite subjects are human images of warriors, shamans, and ghost-like semi-human creatures. Rock Art 5Others seem to depict galaxies and even space craft-like conveyances. What inspired the creators of these type of images is anyone’s guess.

Animal figures drawn by the ancient hunters are always interesting topics. I have seen hundreds of images of deer, elk, bison, bears, lizards, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other creatures drawn by the ancient hunters. It seems they liked to display the animals they hunted either as a wish for a successful hunt or as a way of displaying something they had actually taken.

I have considered going into the business of selling my petroglyph art work on a large scale to people who would appreciate an interesting depiction of art from our prehistoric past. A limiting factor to this venture is the logistics and cost of shipping a heavy boulder and still keeping the price within reason. If prehistoric rock art is of interest to you, please contact me using the form below.

American Indian Rock Art

Rock Art 1

American Indian rock art found on boulders covered with desert varnish at the Grimes Point Petroglyph site east of Fallon, Nevada.

Throughout Nevada and other places in the American West, examples of  American Indian rock art, otherwise known as petroglyphs or pictographs, can be found.

Petroglyphs are images that are carved, pecked or scratched into the surface of a suitable stone. This can be as simple as grooves etched or scraped into the rock to create a desired image, or it can be done on rock surfaces covered with a brown or black coating known as “desert varnish.” This method reveals a lighter color of rock beneath the thin coating of the rust-colored desert varnish.

Rock Art 2

Important: Please do not touch petroglyphs or pictographs, as this can cause irreversible damage. Also, be sure to stay on designated trails.

Desert varnish is a complex chemical reaction that occurs over a long period of time when moisture, dust, manganese, iron and other elements stain the surface of stones, boulders and rock cliffs in a desert climate. Most of the petroglyphs found in Nevada have been drawn on surfaces having desert varnish. Modern people have attempted to decipher or speculate on the meaning of these Rock Art 3images. Despite these efforts, the true meaning of most of these remains a mystery.

Another type of rock art is called pictographs. These are created when the artist uses stains of natural materials to paint an image on stone. These are usually found only in caves or sheltered locations where the dye or paint cannot be easily washed away.

There are several types of petroglyphs and pictographs. Those with geometric patterns of wavy lines and circles are called the curvilinear style. Rock art with straight and parallel lines in geometric patterns are called rectilinear style. Both of these can be found at the Grimes Point petroglyph site east of Fallon, Nevada. Rock art representing animals can be found at many sites in and around the Great Basin. These can show bighorn sheep, deer, lizards and other animals. They are called zoomorphic images. Any rock art showing images of human figures, shamans or imaginary human-like creatures are called anthropomorphic images.

The question always arises of how old the rock art images might be. This has been one of the most difficult questions to answer with any accuracy. We do know that images showing the use of the atlatl or throwing stick are likely over 1,500 years old. Representations showing figures using the bow and arrow are more recent and are likely less than 1,500 years old. Occasionally, pictographs with organic binders in the pigments can be dated with the radiocarbon method. Relative age can sometimes be determined by the amount of desert varnish that has covered over the images since they were originally made. Recently, petroglyphs in the Winnemucca Lake area were determined to be about 14,000 years old.

For people on the Comstock, the closest rock art site for them to see is also one of the largest in the state of Nevada. Just a few miles north of Virginia City along the Lousetown Road is the Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site. This can also be reached
from Reno and Sparks from I-80 east at Lockwood and traveling south on Canyon Way.

Another popular site nearby is the Grimes Point Petroglyph site a few miles east of Fallon, Nevada just off US-50. There are petroglyphs in the Peavine Mountain area, Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca Lake and several other scattered locations around western Nevada. It is best to get a map of the area you wish to visit and follow a few basic rules of rock art preservation. I have seen many petroglyphs while on hunting trips around Nevada over a period of many years. One of the sad things about the petroglyph sites available for us to see is the damage that has been done to this valuable prehistoric resource by thieves and vandalism. Please do not even touch the petroglyph images when you visit these sites. People have damaged many of the carvings with spray paint, firearms, chalk, oily hand prints, graffiti and even careless footprints.

The Nevada Rock Art Foundation has taken up the task of helping to preserve the many rock art sites in Nevada. They have stewards who visit the sites on a regular basis and report vandalism and damage to the authorities when it occurs. Several people have been prosecuted for stealing or damaging petroglyphs found on public lands. Feel free to take all the pictures you want, and please stay on the designated trails when visiting a site. It can be an enjoyable experience seeing the amazing art created by the people who inhabited the area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

For those of you who would like to own a sample of rock art legally, I will tell you how this can be done in an upcoming post. (Hint: They’re very modern, and are made by a person with the initials D.C.)

Stay tuned for a surprise!

Truths and myths about Piper’s Opera House

Piper's Opera House is a historical landmark in Virginia City, Nev.

Piper’s Opera House is a famous historical landmark in Virginia City, Nev.

Some time ago, I appeared at a book signing at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno to feature my latest book, Chronicles of the Comstock. The other author featured at the event was Nevada historian and Esmeralda County District Attorney, Patty Cafferata. She was featuring one of her latest creations, The Heyday of Piper’s Opera House. We exchanged signed copies of our books and I eagerly read every page of her very well-researched work with interest.

In her book, Cafferata debunked many myths and misconceptions about Piper’s Opera House and its several reincarnations in Virginia City. As often happens with historical writing, folklore, oral history and the regurgitation of stories written by misinformed writers, sometimes become accepted as fact. After reading Patty’s book, I find I have inadvertently written articles about Piper’s Opera House that contained some of these mythical stories. I would be more concerned about this except I remember that Mark Twain knew that one should never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Not only that, but this article corrects every untruth I ever may have said about Piper’s Opera House.

In a previous article in the Comstock Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia City and outlying areas, I had repeated the claim by other authors that Adelina Patti and Madame Modjeska had performed at Piper’s. According to the research done by Patty Cafferata, there is no documentation to support the claim that either of these performers ever played at Piper’s.

Piper’s Opera House, long accepted as the cultural center of Virginia City, has undergone a complex evolution since its beginning in February of 1867. This was the year John Piper acquired ownership of the four-year-old Maguire’s Opera House at the southeast corner of D and Union Streets. The former owner had become bogged down in lawsuits and judgement debts. Piper submitted the lowest bid at a public auction to acquire the property. He immediately renamed the establishment Piper’s Opera House.

When John Piper purchased the theater, he set about to refurbish the place and book the finest entertainment that could be had in the Old West. Maguire’s had become well known as the entertainment and cultural center of town, and the improvements made by Piper enhanced this image. Unfortunately, on October 26, 1875, the Great Fire swept through Virginia City and burned Piper’s Opera House to the ground. This spelled the end of the first Piper’s Opera House.

Meanwhile, John Piper had already opened a saloon at the northwest corner of B and Union Streets. After the Great Fire when the first opera house burned down, he sought to find property on C street, but decided to build his new opera house on the lot occupied by his saloon just across from the back entrance of the International Hotel. A truly grand structure, the second Piper’s Opera House was completed and opened for business on January 28, 1878. Of the three establishments to bear this name, this one was the most fashionable and elaborate of all. It occupied the same lot as the building known today as Piper’s Opera House.

Little expense was spared in the construction and furnishing of the second establishment. It featured architectural amenities that were “state-of-the-art” for the time. Over 1,000 people could be seated in the mammoth auditorium. Sets of scenery, curtains and stage equipment were brought in from San Francisco. There was an outside balcony and the walls were decorated with paneling and painted frescos.

The expense of constructing and furnishing this grand palace of entertainment left John Piper in financial distress and in July of 1878, he declared bankruptcy. Despite this setback, Piper was able to reorganize and recover from his financial woes. The Comstock was already entering the inevitable decline of a frontier mining camp and the decreased population could not support an entertainment center of such opulence as it once did. John Mackay, one of the Big Four mining kings of the Comstock Era came to the rescue of Piper’s Opera House. John Mackay believed Virginia City should have a place such as Piper’s to be the cultural center of town. He never expected repayment for the financial assistance he provided.

On the morning of March 12, 1883, following a community dance at the ballroom, smoke was seen coming from the opera house. John Piper was rescued from his apartment inside but the magnificent second Piper’s Opera House burned to the ground. Fortunately, John Piper not only escaped unharmed, but since most money in those days was in coin, he recovered enough gold and silver coins from the charred safe to begin construction of the third (and present) Piper’s Opera House.

The opera house we see in Virginia City today was completed and opened on March 6, 1885. Virginia City and the Comstock were well into decline at that time. Unlike the opulent construction that went into the second Piper’s, the third reincarnation was built as cheaply as possible. The local residents still wanted the luxury of having a theater and community center, so they contributed considerable financing to help John Piper to rebuild the third and final Piper’s Opera House.

The third opera house had no fixed seating. Instead, it had chairs and benches that could be moved to provide room on the flat floor for dances and other community events. Since the floor was flat, the designers elevated the back of the stage so the performances could be more easily seen. The population and use of the structure continued to decline in the 1880’s. In 1890, a heavy snow storm caused part of the roof to collapse. John Piper worked tirelessly for 10 days to have the repairs completed in time for a scheduled play.

John Piper passed away in 1897. He would be pleased to know that 125 years after completion of the third Piper’s Opera House, the place is still being used for community events, weddings, meetings and enhancement of tourism. Some of the things claimed to have happened at Piper’s Opera House clearly did not happen in this building, but may have happened in the earlier places of the same name.

The pine nut harvest

Every fall for hundreds of years, the local Indians made their annual trek to the hills in search of the pine nuts that were a necessity for their sustenance. The various tribes, including the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone, set up camps in the areas where the gathering was most productive. For several days each fall, they combed the short, single-leaf pinyon trees (Pinus monophylla) to gather the pitch-covered cones and extract the plump, nutritious nuts.

The traditional way the nuts were prepared by the Indians was to hull them with a flat stone, winnow away the shells and then grind the nuts into a paste, which they used to make a thick soup. They also ate them raw or roasted, which enhanced the delicious flavor. Following the discovery of silver in the Comstock mines and the increased demand for timber and wood products, the stands of native pinyon pine practically disappeared. The Indians soon were without one of the staples of their existence. No longer were they able to gather enough of the rich, nutritious nuts to survive the cold Nevada winters. They became more and more dependent on jobs they found working for the same white men who had destroyed the pinyon forests.

After the Comstock boom entered a decline, the pinyon forests began a gradual natural reforestation. Today, there are many thousands of acres of fine, thick pinyon and juniper forests in the lands where they once grew abundantly. This includes the immediate areas around Geiger Grade, the truck route toward Dayton and the Como hills. The pinyon forests are thriving in all traditional areas except where periodic fires have destroyed them or the Bureau of Land Management practice of “chaining” the forests have destroyed some sections. Chaining is the process of dragging a long section of ship anchor chain between two Caterpillar tractors through a forested area. This is done to tear out the trees to make the land more suitable for livestock. It is highly questionable whether or not this method works at all.

There are many traditional ways of gathering the nuts. Once promising trees are found, gatherers can pick the nuts off the ground if the cones have opened and the nuts are falling out. This can be made easier if long poles are used to knock the cones to shake the nuts loose. Some people spread tarps or blankets under the trees to facilitate picking up the nuts. If the cones have not opened yet, the task is more difficult. The cones must be taken from the tree and pulled apart to reveal the dark brown nuts in pairs beneath the scales of the cones. This method quickly results in pitch-covered hands, fingers and clothing. The pitch can be removed with Crisco, baby oil or turpentine. I carry a small plastic bottle of baby oil and a few rags so I can clean my hands every few minutes.

Sometimes the nuts are small, and other times they are plump. Only the dark brown ones are good to eat. The light tan ones usually are dried out and hollow. They can be separated by floating off the hollow ones in water after you get home. We usually sprinkle salt over the wet nuts and bake them on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. You can tell when they are done by the intense pine smell or when they pop.

In modern times, the white residents of the area have joined the Indians in the annual hunt for the prized pinyon nuts. Not every area will be productive every year. Some years will be more productive than others. Usually, there will be at least one area around the state where pine nuts can be found in a given year. Years ago, I remember gathering the cones from the trees along Geiger Grade and putting them in burlap potato bags. We took them to the then-active steam vents at Steamboat Hot Springs and placed the bags of cones in the hot steam. The steam melted the pitch, roasted the nuts and opened the cones so the nuts could be removed easily. Archaeological evidence shows the Indians of old used similar methods.

At Anchor Storage along U.S. 395 just south of Steamboat, there is a huge boulder the size of a large SUV. You can drive up to the office and look at the boulder. It is the largest Indian artifact I have ever seen in Nevada. The top of the boulder is covered with several smooth metate-shaped indentations where Indians ground their pine nuts for centuries. The people at the storage facility don’t mind if you stop to take a look.

The old Italian families had a favorite pesto recipe for using pine nuts. My wife still makes pesto with fresh basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, salt, olive oil and, of course, pine nuts. This is blended into a paste and used as a pasta sauce or as a spread for pizza or on French bread. It just isn’t pesto without the zesty flavor of pine nuts.

Pine-nut gatherers have a myriad of excuses for unsuccessful trips pine nut hunting, such as the following:

(1.) The weather has been too hot or too cold.
(2.) It is too early or too late in the season.
(3.) The birds, squirrels or chipmunks ate them all.
(4.) There has been too much or not enough rain.
(5.) The Indians beat us to the best areas.
(6.) Or, my favorite: Let’s buy them at Raley’s for $12 per pound, because it will be cheaper in the long run and we won’t get pitch all over everything.

Phallic pestle unearthed in Carson City

Between May 2008 and January 2009, I was working as an inspector on the section of the Carson City Freeway Bypass from US Highway 50 to Fairview Drive. Before the project began, I attended a public open house of the project site to see the archaeological excavations being performed by the Louis Berger Group, Inc., consulting archaeologist hired by the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. It appeared that the project route passed over a known prehistoric site that included a large Indian village that had been occupied for over one thousand years between 425 AD and 1470 AD.

A pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl-shaped piece of stone called a mortar.

A pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl-shaped piece of stone called a mortar.

The Louis Berger archaeologists discovered over 150 prehistoric features such as houses, storage pits, fire hearths, roasting pits and activity areas. The site represents one of the largest prehistoric villages ever discovered in northern Nevada. Thousands of prehistoric artifacts were uncovered during the scientific excavations, indicating the various daily activities which the people living there performed. These artifacts included projectile points, scrapers, manos, metates, mortars and pestles. I submitted a resume of my qualifications to help identify the artifacts but my offer was not accepted.

Several months after the archaeological field work was completed, construction began on the project. I was contacted by PBS&J Consulting Engineers to be an inspector for several phases of the work. I was told that the Louis Berger Group archaeologists had completed their field work and even though there was a possibility some artifacts may still remain undiscovered, they had sufficient material to complete their report. One of my assigned duties was to inspect the installation of highway lighting components along the freeway ramps north of the Fairview interchange. This included grading, trenching and installing conduits and concrete lighting system footings.

Having developed an eye for spotting arrowheads and other traces of ancient habitation, I noticed some charcoal remnants of old fire pits along the west slope of the Fairview exit ramp. As work progressed on the lighting system, I picked up a few broken projectile points and a 4” piece of a stone pestle that appeared to have been broken by excavation equipment. It appeared to have both ends broken off and the breaks seemed to be recently done. I had discovered many fragments such as this in the past and did not consider it of much importance. I put the stone in my toolbox and forgot about it for several days.

A stone pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl shaped piece of stone called a mortar. The Indians used these tools to grind up seeds, cattail roots and other food items they had gathered. These have been found in several different sizes ranging from a few inches to a foot or more in length. After a few days I found another piece of the same pestle near where the first one was found. This one was about 7” in length and fit perfectly onto one end of the first piece.

The amazing thing I noticed about this second piece of the puzzle was the shape of the end, which resembled a male appendage. This surely perked up my interest and I made an all-out effort to find the last piece so I could reassemble the entire artifact. Sure enough, after a few more days of carefully inspecting the slope, I found the third and final piece and was able to connect the three together with stone masons epoxy. The resulting completed artifact was a whopping fifteen and one half inches long and weighed seven pounds.

I looked online and found that such artifacts are very rare and are called “Phallic Pestles.” I found several photos of similar items, but without bragging, I can honestly say that none of those shown were as long as mine. Because I found the pestle on state property, I felt an obligation to take it to Eugene M. Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. Gene was the archaeologist who was called in to excavate the 500 Carson City coin dies I had found at the old mint building back in 1999. He confirmed that the item was a genuine phallic pestle and said that to his knowledge, it was the first one ever reported from Nevada.

I agreed to make a donation of the amazing artifact to the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the museum with the understanding that it would be placed on public display and not hidden away in some storage room where no one would ever see it again. The Museum is expanding their Native American display area and the pestle will be displayed when the expansion is completed.