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.

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 images. 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.

American Indian petroglyph on a boulder near Grimes Point outside of Fallon Nevada
Important: Please do not touch petroglyphs or pictographs, as this can cause irreversible damage. Also, be sure to stay on designated trails
American Indian petroglyph on a boulder near Grimes Point outside of Fallon Nevada

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.

Learn the Secrets of Lovelock Cave

The docents of the Nevada Historical Society at 1650 North Virginia Street in Reno have invited me to present a talk about one of Nevada’s most significant archaeological discoveries, Lovelock Cave. For two years I have been volunteering as a tour guide at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City where I take tour groups through the “Under One Sky” exhibit that shows how the ancient Indian tribes lived here in the Great Basin for the past 12,000 years. Most of what we know about the prehistoric Indians is from things recovered from places such as Lovelock Cave and Hidden Cave.

Several times during my career with the Nevada Department of Transportation, I was stationed in the town of Lovelock, Nevada. Having not much else to do in my spare time, I explored much of the surrounding desert lands including Lovelock Cave, about 22 miles south of town. In 1911, a mining operation removed several hundred tons of bat guano from the cave to be sold in California as fertilizer.

Within a year, they had to stop the mining operation due to the discovery of hundreds of Indian artifacts, including baskets, tule matting, clothing items and human mummies. Archaeologist Llewellyn Loud from the University of California was sent out to conduct excavations and recover the artifacts before they were all destroyed or taken by looters. He collected 10,000 specimens from the cave that were divided between the University of California and the Nevada Historical Society.

It is known that many priceless artifacts and even some human mummies were taken from the cave by weekend curio hunters during the next several years. In an effort to stop the ransacking of the cave, Archaeologist Mark Harrington arrived at the cave in 1924 along with Mr. Loud and a crew of local Indian assistants and conducted a comprehensive excavation of the cave to recover the remaining artifacts and thoroughly document the material they collected.

Loud and Harrington wrote a book titled “Lovelock Cave” that was published in 1929. I have a reprint copy of the book which contains many photographs and drawings of the artifacts and human remains they had recovered. One of the most amazing artifacts they found was a basket of eleven duck decoys buried in one of the many storage pits inside the dry cave where they were perfectly preserved. Unfortunately for us, many of the artifacts have been taken to museums outside the area. No one knows for sure how much stuff was looted from the cave before archaeologists completed their excavations.

Early reports concerning the items found in the cave included stories of giant skeletons and mummies with red hair. Authors such as Sarah Winnemucca added to the myths by repeating some of the mythical stories. It does not seem possible that these giant skeletons and mummies with red hair were anything more than tall tales in view of the fact that not a single specimen of anything like this still survives today.

I have written about Lovelock Cave in several of my books but I clearly show that the stories of redheaded Indians and giant skeletons are fictional stories unless someone can come forth with some actual specimens. In reading the archaeological information compiled by Loud and Harrington, I have never seen any reference to such items. Had they made such a discovery, it would have been written about just as the discovery of the amazing duck decoys were.

Should any of my readers like to attend the presentation I will be making at the Nevada Historical Society, it will be on June 4th between 10:00 and 11:00 am. I will be signing books and showing pictures of the cave and the things found there. I believe the docents will have some of the actual artifacts out where we can see them.

WHAT: Learn the Secrets of Lovelock Cave

WHERE: Nevada Historical Society, 1650 North Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada

WHEN: 10-11 a.m. Wednesday, June 4

The Stewart Indian School

The Stewart Indian School in 1930. Photo courtesy of the Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection. Click on the photo to view the original image.

The Pyramid Lake Indian war of 1860 marked the beginning of an extremely difficult time for the American Indian population of the Great Basin area. Until this time, the Indians and the European emigrants were able to tolerate each other with just a few exceptions.

When silver was discovered on the Comstock Lode in 1859, there was a sudden increase in the white population of Nevada Territory. With this increase in population came an increase in demand for resources including food, water, land and timber. The white emigrants took over the traditional lands where the Native Americans had hunted and gathered for their subsistence for centuries.

Farms, mines and mills took over the places where Indians had hunted and fished for food. The pine forests were cut for firewood and lumber where the Indians had once gathered pine nuts to help them survive the winters. Since the Native Americans had few skills useful in a more modern world and few could speak English, jobs were near impossible for them to find. Discrimination following the Indian Wars made matters worse. Some Indians camped on the outskirts of Virginia City, Dayton and Carson so they could scavenge for food and clothing and look for menial jobs they could do.

In 1860, California attorney William Stewart arrived in Virginia City at the time when Indian-White Relations were most volatile. In 1865, Stewart became Nevada’s first senator. He was very supportive of Indian education in order to improve their social and economic situation in the state. While in congress, Stewart worked with the Indian Service and served as chairman of the Commission on Indian Affairs. He thought that rather than relying on the reservation system, Indians would be better served with training that would help them to become self sustaining individuals and citizens.

In 1888, Stewart introduced a Senate bill to establish an Indian school in Nevada. With Stewart’s political persuasion, an Indian boarding school was established south of Carson City in 1890 with money and land dedicated by Ormsby County. Senator William Stewart helped obtain funding from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also succeeded in establishing the University of Nevada, first in Elko, then in Reno.

During the early years, the Stewart Indian school was a boarding school for elementary students learning to speak and read English, basic math and some vocational skills. It later had a high school with a graduation program and a first class athletic department. Students at Stewart were required to live on campus and were not allowed to speak their native languages. In addition to the local Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Indians, there were tribes represented from California, Arizona and New Mexico.

The campus grew in size to about 80 buildings. There was a gymnasium, swimming pool, boarding houses, offices and residences for staff members. A railroad spur for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built to bring passenger and freight service to the campus. The campus had a cemetery where Washoe Indian basket maker Dat So la Lee is buried.

Discipline was very strict at the school and the students were required to attend classes for about half of each day, then work in vocational training the other half. The vocational part of the training included work on the campus such as carpentry, masonry and agriculture. The students planted and harvested crops that were used to feed the student body and staff. Farm animals were raised for meat and dairy products. Girl students operated the laundry, performed sewing and dress making. Many worked in the kitchen preparing meals and doing cleanup chores.

If you visit the Stewart campus today, you can still see many of the old colorful stone buildings built by Hopi Indian stone masons from rock they gathered along the Carson River. When I was a child on our family farm in Sparks in the 1940s and 50s busloads of the Steward Indian students came out to pick potatoes each fall during harvest time. This was cheap labor for the farmers and it made extra money for the school. The workers were not paid, since the experience was considered part of their education.

The Stewart Indian School closed in 1980 after 90 years of operation. The campus was taken over by the State of Nevada as an office complex. My landscape company was hired in the 1980s to install sprinkler systems in some of the lawn areas for the State Public Works Dept. For several years, there was a small museum at the Stewart campus. I donated an interesting collection of Indian artifacts to the museum where it was displayed until the museum closed. I then repossessed the collection and re-donated it to the Carson Valley Historical Museum in Gardnerville, where it resides today.