Analysis of the Petroglyphs found in the Mopah Mountain Range

by Elizabeth Dorr

Rust-colored hills pierce into a cobalt sky, peaks rising and falling in every direction on the horizon. Tenuously descending a final rocky hill, we emerge into a valley of the Mojave Desert, carefully stepping around the cacti that lie surrounded by sparkling dots of quartz at our feet. We have reached our destination—the valley that contains rocks spotted with petroglyphs probably created by the Chemehueve people at least 200 years ago. Rocks with petroglyphs are scattered throughout the valley, some in groupings that appear aligned with points in the mountainous surroundings, others placed in seemingly random locations.

The designs fit easily into a definition of petroglyphs provided by Tom Getts: rock images "formed by chipping, scraping, or otherwise removing a rock’s surface coating to expose different colored rock underneath the surface. The coating is sometimes known as desert varnish or patina and is commonly composed of iron and manganese oxides that form slowly over geologic time." The designs vary—some are complicated and hard to distinguish, while others seem to be obvious depictions of people or animals. Based on examples of rock art from other indigenous California people, we can pose some possible explanations of the Chemehueve rock art, though definite conclusions may never be achieved, since no one has lived at the site for about 200 years. The following presentation provides our interpretation and understanding of this old yet previously unstudied rock art.

Rock 1:
This large, round stone, colored a rusty rose, lies at the north end of the valley. When an observer faces south, petroglyphs appear on top of the rock, scratched or carved so that designs appear in a lighter color to contrast the background. The petroglyphs on this rock are among the most complicated at the site, but some clear images can be distinguished. In the northeast corner of the rock one finds what appear to be images of people. Their heads are circles, filled in or empty, connected to bodies of lines that resemble stick figures. The design looks like a profile view of one person sitting and holding onto a smaller person, the two facing each other. The profile view is similar to that of Pueblo rock art depicting Kokopeli, a flute player (Williamson 1984). One line connects these people, perhaps a sign of arms holding each other, and extends to encompass the arm of a third person standing behind the smaller one. This petroglyph could depict a family, a mother holding a child on one side and a father standing on the other. A scratched-away blob appears above the head of the standing person. If the people’s images represent someone’s birth, the blob could be a cloud and the other designs on the petroglyph symbols of something that occurred at the time of the child’s birth, a storm or unusual celestial conditions. Similar images of people, from the profile view or connected to a smaller person, appear on other rocks as well. Perhaps the image is a universal sign of values or reminder of parenting roles. Or, the pictures could be simple representations of Chemehueve people in general.

Moving southwest, the top of the rock is filled with connected straight, curved, and divergent lines that cross each other in patterns or abstract arrangements. The series of lines could have several possible meanings. It may be a map of where people in the community lived, with one of the circular areas representing the oasis we discovered before crossing several hills to enter the valley itself. Or the lines could have cosmological significance. Several of the images are crosses or groups of lines that spring from a common center, similar to star motifs that appear on rock art of the Chumash people of Southern California (Hudson & Underhay 1978). At least three such possible star patterns appear on this rock. The Chemehueve rock art could be a map of the sky, with specific stars, constellations, or shooting stars marked. The round portion of the petroglyph, though divided by horizontal lines, could represent the sun or its positions rising and setting in reference to different horizon points throughout the year. Or, the entire group of lines could be entirely abstract, as is some of the rock art created by California’s Tubatulabal people in prehistoric times (Williamson 1984).

Rock 2:
This rock is located immediately south of Rock 1. The petroglyphs may take on different meaning according to the point from which they are viewed. If the observer faces west, the image resembles an animal of sorts, with a round head at the southern end, front legs, hind legs and a protruding tail extending from its back limbs. However, another circle is connected to the front end of the image by a long line, which does not especially fit into the idea of an animal body, unless the entire front arrangement of circles and lines represents antlers or horns of some type.

Viewed facing south, as with Rock 1, the image presents new possibilities. Two parallel lines appear at its base, from which extends a line through the middle to the top of the image, where two more horizontal lines hold circles at their ends. The parallel lines at the base could be two rattlesnakes, which appear in pairs as symbols of good and evil throughout California desert rock art (Scott 1997). But once again, it is difficult to determine an exact explanation of the petroglyphs on the rock.

Rock 3:
Also located towards the northern end of the site, this rock appears to the southwest of the two previously described. Its main features are a complex image of concentric circles and what is probably graffiti from cowboys or soldiers at the turn of the century, the initials "W.H." and the number 90. The complicated nature of the circular design is reminiscent of the patterns that appear on Rock 1. The circles of Rock 3 bear striking similarity to sun motifs of the Chumash people. Some of the Chumash solar designs include concentric circles or those crossed with lines (Hudson & Underhay 1978). Circles divided in the center by lines and enclosed in more round shapes appear above the graffiti on this rock. It may be a solar symbol, an indicator of a direction to look for a specific solar event, or simply a drawing that represents the powerful beauty of the sun. Outside the main circular pattern appears another circle with a cross inside, which could be the sun or another star, maybe even indicating brightness compared to the surrounding celestial objects.

Rock 4:
This rock is located at the southern end of the site, near others that could be sacrificial or ceremonial stones, which will be described in another section. On top of a dark, triangular-shaped stone appear two distinct designs and possibly a cross, which again could represent a star. The other designs are more difficult to interpret. The top design looks like a carved triangle with rounded corners and a crescent shape raised up in the middle, interrupting the top side of the triangle. This raised center segment could serve as a representation of the oasis, with the carved surroundings a general map of the valley’s shape and boundaries. The crescent shape of the center piece could also represent a phase of the moon or Venus, perhaps visible from the location of the rock at a specific time during the year.

Below this shape appears a figure that resembles a backwards s of the English alphabet. This petroglyph could be a map of the path of a celestial object such as the sun through the sky during the year, or a symbol for a season or holy day.

Rock 5:
We discovered this rock as we left the valley, heading back east towards our campsite. It is small, only about twelve inches long, sitting on the ground surrounded by small stones. When an observer faces south and looks down, the right end of the rock points east. On it appear two curved vertical lines that may be natural cracks in the stone.
A more crooked line lies next to these, and four other lines point outwards, diagonally and straight, towards the east. The entire image looks like rays of the sun appearing from one side of the mountains. The center horizontal line points almost directly due east, towards the rock formations and mountains that lie at the valley’s edge. Perhaps the stone is a marker that depicts the sun rising due east over the mountains.

These five rocks are examples of the variety we encountered during our trip, and may bear connections to others throughout the site. Some of the petroglyphs are more clear than others, but close examination facilitates some basic conclusions. Though we cannot determine exactly the purpose or ideas behind the designs, some are probably representations of people, others of celestial objects, others maybe even maps of the surrounding area or sky. Such observations are only the beginning of a process that warrants more detailed historical, astronomical, and archaeological study of the valley’s petroglyphic rock art.


Getts, Tom. Rock Art Gallery.

Hudson, Travis and Ernest Underhay. Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art. Santa Barbara: Ballena Press, 1978.

Scott, Ed. Rock Art Spiritual World.

Williamson, Ray A. Living in the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Further Analysis of the Petroglyphs found in the Mopah Mountain Range

by Maggie Stanislawski

Rock 6:
This rock is located north of rock 3 facing southeast. It is one of the least abstract of the petroglyphs in the area; it clearly depicts two hands beneath an X and a cross. Hands generally denote a holy area; they connote that the area has been touched by a supernatural power. There is a comparable petroglyph in Chaco Canyon with a star, a crescent and a handprint above a sun symbol. Although the precise meaning of this petroglyph is unclear, the fact that the sun and the hands are together suggest that hands have some type of solsticial significance.

The site could have had some type of ceremonial importance perhaps relating to the solstices (see Alignment section), or the importance of the site could conceivably have been due to the proximity of the water source. The hands seem to be in an inverted position (the left hand on the right and the right hand on the left), which could have further supernatural significance, or perhaps the drawing is simply a rather rough depiction of hands. The crosses above the hands could represent stars; in Navajo rock art, large bright stars are represented by a diamond and small feint stars are represented by an equi-armed cross. If the cross shapes in the petroglyph do symbolize stars, that would suggest that this site is indeed important for astronomical or solsticial ceremonies. However, the crosses could also be a map. The Chemehueve people journeyed through this area toward the water source. Thus, one cross could represent the rock art site and the other could represent the water source, in which case the hands would depict that the area was holy due to the proximity of water. The water source is approximately northeast of the rock art site, and the cross on the left is northeast with respect to the other cross, which gives some credence to the map hypothesis.

Rock 7:
This rock faces southeast, a few paces east of rock 6. This petroglyph could represent an animal or a constellation. The drawing resembles a wolf. A drawing of an animal could have been to communicate that there were animals to hunt in the area. However, in the desert climate that is not the most likely possibility and, furthermore, the Chemehueve typically hunted rabbits and lizards rather than larger animals. If this is a wolf, it could be of religious significance. One of the Chemehueve myths involved the wolf Tiwats, who eventually was put in the sky. Thus, this could be either the wolf of the story or a representation of the constellation of the wolf. It could also be another type of constellation; archeoastronomers hypothesize that many of the more abstract petroglyphs are representations of constellations.

Rock 8:
This multi-sided rock had petroglyphs on almost all sides. Facing north, the petroglyphs are so faded that we could not distinguish anything. The other petroglyphs are clearer but all are rather abstract and could represent constellations. Facing northeast there is a clear petroglyph of criss-crossed lines. It could also be some type of map or snakes; there are many snakes in the area, and parallel snakes were often part of southwestern petroglyphs.

Facing southeast there was a petroglyph that looked somewhat like a bird or an unusual perspective of a four-legged mammal. It could also be an insect; there are many dangerous insects and small creatures in the desert that the ancients might have wanted to warn others about.

Facing southwest there were two petroglyphs. The one on the left resembles the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) constellation. The other could likewise be a constellation of some type, an animal or a map. This could also be a representation of a celestial event, such as Northern Lights or a meteor shower. Typically Native Americans of the area did not draw specific events, but occasionally they did. There is a similar petroglyph at a Northern Diegueno site (see, but it has six lines of equal length coming off of the top perpendicular bar rather than five. However, there is apparently not an accepted meaning of this type of petroglyph.

Rock 9:
This large, flat rock seems to be the most significant one at the site. It clearly had ceremonial purposes because it has been lain upon so many times that it is faded everywhere except at the edges. It is covered in numerous, barely distinguishable petroglyphs and has a design at the top (the eastern side) that looks like a headdress. Among the Chemehueve tribes, it was common to have a large stone with a headrest at the top, and perhaps this is such a stone. It could have been a rock used for human sacrifice, but that is unlikely because the Chemehueve were generally peaceful people. It could have been the site of other religious rituals, perhaps relating to the solstice.

Around the edges of the rock are several human-like figures. There are also numerous circles, most of them outlined rather than solid. In the center of the southern side is a line with one curved end and a circle at the other end. It looks like a lizard or a scorpion. It could also be an abstract interpretation of a shaman with a cane wand.

To the east of this figure is a similar drawing. There is a circle from which stems a line that goes away from the first figure. On the southern side of the line are two curves. This could represent another type of desert creature. It could also be a mother bearing child.

North of these two drawings is a line upon which approximately four circles are strung. This could have astronomical significance of some sort or it could represent plants of the area. There could be a plant native to the area, such as datura, that they used in the rituals at this rock.

The other petroglyphs are indistinguishable. They are presumably related to the ritual that occurred at the rock. Perhaps these are drawings of the main plants and animals native to the area, and the area was being worshipped. Or perhaps these are representations of the individuals who had participated in the ceremonies at the rock. Or perhaps the petroglyphs all have astronomical significance and the ritual was related to solstice or a celestial event.

As noted, all of the abstract petroglyphs could represent constellations, but because the Chemehueve also highly valued dreams, they could also be images from dreams. Perhaps the artist had a dream that they believed had significance for others and wanted to share it. Another possibility comes from anthropologist Robert Shiffman who, while working at a Tubatulabal site, hypothesized that abstract images could represent land features which are oriented such that they have importance in solsticial ceremonies. There are numerous possible interpretations of all the petroglyphs, and it is also conceivable that the artist was simply doodling. However, because of the water source in the valley, it is most likely that the petroglyphs were meant to orient traveling Chemehueve and direct them towards the source.


Getts, Tom. Rock Art Gallery.

Hudson, Travis and Ernest Underhay. Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art. Santa Barbara: Ballena Press, 1978.

Scott, Ed. Rock Art Spiritual World.

Stecker, Matthias. Rock Art of Mexico and Central Latin America. Los Angeles: University Press, 1979.

Williamson, Ray A. Living in the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.