Do you know the difference between a petroglyph and a pictograph? Both are forms of rock art, usually prehistoric, that use two different methods of leaving marks on rock. Petroglyphs are carved on or pecked into the rock face using other rocks, whereas pictographs are painted on the rock surface with naturally occurring pigments in a less durable art form. Petroglyphs are found all over the southwest at many famous sites in America, but pictographs less so. However, in the Mojave Desert of California, north of the town of Ridgecrest, you’ll find a pictograph site maintained by the Bureau of Land Management with beautiful examples that may actually have been created in the early 20th century. But despite their newness, they are a fine example of using colored pigment to create designs and patterns on the boulders of the Mojave.
In the Coso Range of southern California, located on the property of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, the greatest concentration of petroglyphs in the United States can be found in several canyons designated as the Coso Rock Art District. Over 20,000 petroglyphs are protected at this National Historic Landmark maintained by the military. At Coso Junction – the intersection of CA Highway 395 and Gill Station Coso Road west of the Coso Rock Art District – you won’t find petroglyphs, but the dirt road will take you first to the entrance of a mine, and then to a small dirt lot with a short trail that leads to Coso pictographs. Red and orange figures populate a large boulder known as Ayers Rock, including humanoid figures, deer, bighorn sheep and possibly a ringtail cat! These pictographs represent the Coso Painted Style and may have been created by the Tubatulabal of the Kern River Valley or the Kawaiisu of the Tehachapi Mountains. It is rumored that they were created in the 20th century by the last Kawaiisu shaman, Bob Rabbit.
Obsidian flakes litter the ground in these parts, and it isn’t difficult to find examples worked into projectile points. The obsidian found here originated at Sugarloaf Mountain, some four miles away from the pictograph site, and has been catalogued at sites reaching all the way to the Pacific coast.