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Summer 2001
Rock Star
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Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg is trying to decipher the marks left by generations of California Indians on the saw tooth ridges overlooking a remote Mojave Desert oasis.

By Lawrence Biemiller
Photography by Lawrence Biemiller

Every so often, Jo Anne Van Tilburg M.Ed. '77, Ph.D. '86 loads up her SUV and heads north out of Los Angeles, past the last mall, the last freeway traffic jam, the last tract-housing development. She drives over the San Gabriel Mountains, turns right at the town of Mojave and crosses miles of scrubland punctuated by sagebrush and Joshua trees. Eventually she leaves behind history as we know it -- industry, mass communication, the relentless advance of science -- and arrives at Little Lake.

Little Lake is a shallow, spring-fed stretch of water beneath an imposing escarpment of black basalt. In its own right it is remarkable, an unspoiled oasis of grasses and ducks in a region where most of the features called "lakes" are just dotted lines on the map, explained by an adjoining "(Dry)." But what makes Little Lake interesting to archaeologists like Van Tilburg are hundreds of drawings made centuries ago by American Indians who either visited or lived by the lake.

The drawings are petroglyphs, made by bruising a rock face with another rock so that a whitish image appears. Some are clearly identifiable -- as mountain sheep, for example, and atlatls (pronounced AT-LAT-uls), which were throwing levers used to launch short spears. Other images are geometric, and still others are open to interpretation.

The mix of subjects and styles here is particularly intriguing, says Van Tilburg. She is well-known in archaeology circles for her research on Easter Island's monoliths, but she is also director of the Rock Art Archive, which is part of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. At Little Lake, she says, drawings apparently made by the Owens Valley Paiute -- whose culture was centered north of here -- appear near artworks in the style of the Coso Shoshone, whose culture arose to the south. Meanwhile, dozens of petroglyphs adorning a cliff at the south end of the site seem to have been done by long-ago travelers.

For years, she says, most archaeologists ignored rock art, here as well as elsewhere, but that has begun to change. While the 25-year-old archive at UCLA -- with its collections of photographs, sketches, videos, maps and other data from some 10,000 sites across the state -- is the world's largest repository of information on California rock art, it is also an organization of volunteers who come to places like Little Lake, armed with digital cameras and laser-measuring devices, to document and create modern databases for scholars. So far the archive has produced searchable CD-ROM databases for three sites. This is vital work because a significant portion of the sites have been damaged or obliterated by vandals, development, earthquake and erosion.


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