May 26, 2006

In the Desert, Ancient Signs

National Park Service archaeologist David Nichols hikes through the Mojave National Preserve.

New York Times

On the northern border of a vast desert preserve, halfway up a dusty hillside and overlooking a great forest of Joshua trees, David Nichols knelt to brush off a flat gray stone.

"Yep, this is one right here," he said, motioning toward a sheet of exposed bedrock. A group of small, closely spaced stones, like tiny turrets in the sand, formed a vague ring at his feet. "These supposedly kept the rodents out."

Mr. Nichols, one of two full-time research archaeologists employed at Mojave National Preserve, was showing off a recent discovery. On a nondescript hill, a quarter-mile off a four-wheel-drive dirt track, the remnants of a prehistoric way of life lay scattered in the sand.

Throughout Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre park about 140 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the subtle traces of a bygone civilization are all around. Pictographs painted on cave walls, dart tips in the sand, shelters, fire rings and pottery shards are common in the area, where generations of prehistoric people lived and died. Indeed, Mojave National Preserve is an amateur archaeologist's dream, with undocumented sites open year-round for visitors to explore in the empty, undeveloped park.

The Drying Pallet Site, as Mr. Nichols has come to call his new hillside finding, features 21 limestone slabs encircled with rocks that were carefully placed hundreds of years ago. The indigenous people, Mr. Nichols told his small tour group, used the sunny protected rock platforms to prepare Joshua tree blossoms.

"It was dried like beef jerky," he said of the white blossoms, which each spring still daub the land below in one of the world's largest and densest forests of Joshua trees. "Food in the desert was dried for preservation; it was the only way."

Mr. Nichols, a 39-year-old Los Angeles native, has discovered more than 50 significant sites since coming to work for the park in 2001. The Drying Pallet Site was identified just four months ago. Dozens of others, he said, most likely pepper the preserve's hills and canyons.

In recent years, noteworthy findings, including pictograph-packed caves, have been discovered by visiting hikers and amateur archaeologists. But while the park staff encourages people to explore the backcountry, collecting artifacts or disturbing historical sites in any way is forbidden. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, as the axiom goes.

Rangers at Mojave National Preserve do not provide directions to most documented archaeological locations, though some staff members and volunteers, including Mr. Nichols, may give clues. "We call Mojave a 'discovery park,' " Mr. Nichols said of the Delaware-size preserve, which has only 30 miles of established hiking trails. "I might suggest features to look for in the hills, but people are on their own to get off trail and see what they can find."

The official park map is nearly devoid of references to archaeology, as is the park's Web site. Signage is scant. Tours are limited to an occasional offering from California State University, Fullerton, which operates its research-oriented Desert Studies Center in the park.

Mr. Nichols's recent tour was a rare occasion, as he leads fewer than 10 trips a year, primarily to educate fellow park staff members or visiting researchers. His tours are not available to the general public.

Like most activities in Mojave National Preserve, exploring the park for uncharted archaeology is a do-it-yourself adventure. Visitors coming to see petroglyphs and arrowheads need to plan ahead, researching the area's history and culture to become educated on where to start the hunt. Visitors also need to be prepared for an immersion in the desert wilderness — snakes, scorpions, sun, heat and all.

Mojave National Preserve is the meeting place of three great North American deserts: the Great Basin, the Sonoran and its namesake Mojave. The area is a vast hinterland of dunes and cinder cones, tumbleweed plains, mesas and mountain forests. Turquoise deposits brought journeying Anasazi to the area hundreds of years ago.

Temperatures are extreme all year, with cold nights and blazing days. Elevations range from 800 feet to higher than 7,000 feet. It is exceedingly arid, with some parts of the park seeing only three inches of rain in a year.

Yet life thrives, as it has for thousands of years, among the Joshua trees and juniper. Quail, hummingbirds, mule deer, bighorn sheep, roadrunners, coyotes, badgers, rattlers, sidewinders and giant centipedes share a dry, dusty habitat. Sagebrush, creosote and yucca dot the land. Golden eagles and red-tailed hawks swoop above in the desert thermals.

Human habitation is limited to a few park staff members and a handful of land owners whose private ranches were grandfathered in when the preserve was created in October 1994. Mr. Nichols lives in a small green trailer in the middle of the park, Edward Abbey-style, with a water tank on the roof and no indoor plumbing, though with satellite Internet and HBO.

At the second stop of the day, deep in the park's interior and not too far from Mr. Nichols's green trailer, the small tour group walked two miles across the desert. A rocky flat-top ridge was in the distance. Barrel cactuses and yuccas grew sparsely on the red-brown landscape. Rocks and sand stretched to the horizon.

A slight hill dead-ended at a cliff, and Mr. Nichols stopped to look up. The rock wall above, a gray, disintegrating mass, held a mosaic of tiny dancing figures.

"Wow, look at these petroglyphs!" said Mary Ann Guggemos, a 48-year-old park volunteer from Buffalo. Carved in a veneer of rust-brown desert varnish were the depictions of bighorn sheep, masked human figures and male stickpeople with no necks but fingers and small phallic appendages. Concentric circles dotted the stone. Diamonds, ovals, a square, pits, grooves and other abstract images hovered nearby.

The Pinto House Site, as this find has come to be known, was inhabited by ancestral Mojaves or Chemehuevi, according to Mr. Nichols, and they lived and worshiped in the dusty dwelling. Pottery shards mixed with small stones and animal dung in the dirt. A faint ring of rocks encircled a small shrub. Eleven slick metates, worn stone pallets used for grinding piƱon seeds, acorns, juniper berries and other grains, sat under the overhanging rock face. And the assemblage of petroglyphs looked down upon it all.

"The sacred and the mundane were mixed in this culture," Mr. Nichols said, standing beside rock rings and milling stones. He said the etchings above were probably made during a ceremony, perhaps dreams manifested and scratched on a wall. "They didn't go to a church to worship," he said.

A hawk hovered in a wind gust above the cliff face. Petroglyph men stared down four modern-day visitors. The Pinto House Site, a bare forgotten diorama, cradled a human presence once again. Dust kicked up, and a second hawk moved into the updraft, paralleling its mate, two desert beings silhouetted and still on a pale blue sky.