BRAWLEY — When Harry Casey took over the family farm, he committed himself to a life ruled strictly by the sun and seasons. For occasional escape from this routine, Casey pursued hobbies such as flying and photography.
It was while he was taking pictures of wildflowers in the desert that the alfalfa farmer noticed circles and other shapes that appeared to have been deliberately scratched into the earth. Casey wondered who put the pictures there, how long ago and why.
The answers came in a night class in archeology at Imperial Valley College in the late '70s. Casey, now 55, learned that the deserts of California, Arizona, Nevada and northern Mexico are dotted with geoglyphs, large-scale ground drawings of humans, mazes, waterways, snakes and other symbolic figures that were made by people who lived from 500 to 10,000 years ago.
The instructor was Jay von Werlhoff. Where Casey is methodical, Von Werlhoff is intuitive. The archeologist has flowing white hair; the farmer keeps his own locks trimmed and tucked under a baseball cap. Von Werlhoff has been married for 15 years and has two grown sons by an earlier marriage. Casey is single.
The two men were very different, yet, in Casey, Jay von Werlhoff found an accomplice for his work. And Casey found a passion. Using Casey's skills as a pilot and photographer, the two set out to document every known geoglyph--as well as new ones they discovered--throughout the Southwest.
"Each of them contributes their different talents to the operation," said Boma Johnson, a Yuma, Ariz.-based U.S. Bureau of Land Management archeologist who also studies geoglyphs. "Jay is the one that comes up with the interpretation and Harry comes up with the photos."
Though archeologists have studied individual groups of geoglyphs in the past, no one has previously attempted a study of this scope. There are famous geoglyphs in Nazca, Peru, which have been well-documented, but the collections in Australia and the United States have not attracted much attention from scientists, according to Von Werlhoff, 63.
San Diego-area archeologist Emma Lou Davis pointed out the need for documentation of the ancient earth drawings when she wrote of one figure in a 1983 paper: "It is as sacred as Westminster Abbey and as complex as Stonehenge. It is equally in need of respectful study and preservation."
One morning recently, Harry Casey and Jay von Werlhoff towed Casey's Beechcraft Debonair out of a private hangar at the Brawley airport. Casey uses the Beechcraft for long-range exploration. For slower, lower geoglyph scouting, he pilots a Piper Cub. At his own expense, Casey has flown more than 600 miles over the last seven years in pursuit of geoglyphs.
Once they were in the air, Casey and Von Werlhoff looked down on a desert scarred with modern earth etchings. There were irrigation ditches, geometric farm plots, circular targets on a WWII bombing range, dirt roads and off-road vehicle tracks.
All these random designs made the appearance of the first recognizable geoglyph that much more startling. Tucked between two dry hills, far from a town or major road, it was a smiling face, 100 feet in diameter. The face was brought to the attention of the researchers by a flying mortician. Many geoglyphs have been discovered accidentally by miners, rock hounds and outdoor recreationists, said Von Werlhoff; and one major find was made by a border patrol pilot on duty.
The smiling-face geoglyph, however, is a fake, Von Werlhoff said as Casey expertly circled the site.
There is no precise method to date geoglyphs. So in some cases archeologists must rely on clues such as climatic and geological changes, figure content and tools and pottery found nearby to determine whether the find is authentic. The modern content made it immediately clear to Casey and Von Werlhoff that the grinning face had not been designed by ancient people.
Casey does most of his work in the air, flying overlapping circles and spirals above sectors of the desert in search of geoglyphs. Because of their scale--they range in size from 25 feet to 475 feet--the figures are difficult to spot initially from the ground. Once Casey discovers a geoglyph, Von Werlhoff returns to the site by car. He measures and studies the geoglyph, making sketches of it in his field book.
Floods, droughts, erosion and the passage of time haven't seemed to harm the figures, which were made by scraping away darker stones on the surface of the earth, revealing lighter soil beneath. (Rock alignments, another sort of ancient earth drawing also found in the Southwest, are figures outlined in rock.)