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Maturango Preserves the Indian Legacy

November 21, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

Museums throughout California preserve the history of their localities. In the case of the Maturango Museum of the Indian Wells Valley at Ridgecrest, this is a formidable task. Located 150 miles north of Los Angeles in the high desert country on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, the region is known to have been inhabited by Indians 6,000 years ago and possibly earlier.

At one time, this arid region that encompasses the Coso Range was a fertile plain. In many parts today you will find a heavy cover of sagebrush, creosote and, at higher levels, the Joshua or yucca tree, juniper and pinon. Other specimens that can be found are the deer-horn and barrel cactus. Also native to the region are barn and great-horned owls, red-tail hawks and golden eagles; coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and badgers and desert tortoises make their home in this rugged terrain.

Desert flora and fauna are exhibited throughout Maturango Museum, but interest in the area's earliest inhabitants is what attracts visitors from throughout the nation.

About 3,000 years ago, Indians--using the most primitive tools--chipped a petroglyphic record of their daily struggle for survival into miles of basaltic rock. Among the designs they sketched or in some cases painted, the dominant theme is the hunt. There are depictions of stalkers wielding their primitive spears in pursuit of their principal quarry, the bighorn sheep. Much later, bows and arrows were introduced; the arrow had a greater range, and a group of hunters could discharge them in volleys. The Indians decimated the herds and the bighorn sheep vanished.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy created the Naval Weapons Center--China Lake, a testing ground for rocketry and weapons research that covers nearly 1,200 square miles. The name came from a dry lake bed on the Navy's land, where Chinese workers had gathered borax in the 1870s.

Protected Primitive Art

More than 11,000 petroglyphs have been counted on two sites of the center's north ranges in Renegade and Petroglyph canyons. The Navy's jurisdiction over the area, which has been designated a U.S. Historical Landmark, affords this primitive art lasting protection.

What has puzzled many archeologists is the meaning of the rock art. The Maturango Museum has published a book, "Rock Drawings of the Coso Range," in which the authors advance their theory. Written by Campbell Grant, research associate in archeology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, James W. Baird and J. Kenneth Pringle, scientists associated with the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, the book is based on their collective survey explorations and cave excavations.

On the basis of their studies, they believe the drawings represent some of the earliest rock designs in the country and that they were made over a period of several thousand years.

The authors state that the Coso drawings demonstrate the development of a bighorn sheep cult, which was based on hunting-magic rituals, and that it's possible the drawings were made during ceremonies before an important hunt.

Photographs and descriptive material of the petroglyphs are on display at the museum. The paperback edition of the book is on sale for $12.95 at its gift shop.

There are a limited number of field trips to the petroglyph sites.

The Maturango Museum is at 100 E. Las Flores Ave., Ridgecrest's main thoroughfare. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for ages 6-17, and children under 6 are admitted free. Information: (619) 375-6900.

To reach Ridgecrest, follow the Golden State Freeway to the Antelope Valley Freeway and Palmdale. The Antelope Valley Freeway through Lancaster, Mojave, Red Rock Canyon to the Inyoken turn-off. Turn right and go 12 miles to Ridgecrest.

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