Twenty miles west of Lancaster, where the Antelope Valley desert floor slowly ascends into the foothills before rising into full-fledged mountains, archeologist Roger Robinson spots a 4-inch-high red splotch on the side of a nearby rock.
Scurrying down a gully and up the other side to take a better look, Robinson finds it is not a random blob but a crude figure of a man, a pictograph that he conservatively estimates someone drew with red oxide about 3,000 years ago.
Robinson, 47, one of only a few archeologists specializing in the Antelope Valley, is running out of time, the very thing such artifacts are so rich in. The Antelope Valley is enjoying unprecedented population growth, and the archeologically significant sites that remain--no one knows how many have yet to be uncovered--could be lost to development.
During the last 40 years, archeologists have uncovered about 270 such sites in the area, ranging from spots as small as an arrowhead to the giant Fairmont Buttes project that is half a mile wide by 2 1/2 miles long, Robinson said.
Robinson and the students in his field course at Antelope Valley College regularly work Fairmont Buttes, which is perhaps 10 years away from being engulfed by suburban sprawl, Robinson said.
The student archeologists have uncovered and studied part of a Kawaiisu Indian milling area, a large flat rock with numerous soda bottle-size depressions where Indians ground acorns with stones to make mash 500 years ago. Indians--Kawaiisus, Vanyumes and other tribes--flourished in the Antelope Valley from prehistoric times until the 1600s, Robinson said.
"When you stop to consider the juxtaposition of civilization here in the valley and then examine the material remains of cultures which have visited this site for the last 3,000 or 4,000 years, it's quite humbling," said student Dave Burrell, 34.
In 1950, just over 16,000 people inhabited the entire Antelope Valley. By 1989, thanks mainly to available--and affordable--new housing, the number of residents soared past 224,000 with little sign of slowing down.
"It's a natural conflict," said Robinson, who has taught archeology and anthropology at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster since 1967. "Developers are mainly interested in building their houses and making their money. So we have to work at making it work."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that building sites be examined for archeological finds. If such sites are found, an archeologist will explore them and suggest options to the developer.
The first option is to scrap the building project and leave the site alone, something Robinson said is impractical unless it is a large site considered important because of human burials or religious significance. Not one site in the Antelope Valley has fit into this category in the 23 years he has been exploring the desert, Robinson said.
Usually, the building site is excavated and its artifacts collected for examination elsewhere.
Robinson, who picks up about two dozen such jobs a year from developers, says he usually doesn't find anything of archeological significance at such building sites. He said there isn't much in the Antelope Valley that would hold up a developer's plans, except at Fairmont Buttes--and he is negotiating with the landowners to try to preserve that site.
"If the site is a large village where an awful lot of old food processing such as grinding or milling has gone on and there have been campfires for hundreds of years, you may find a soil color change or vegetation change--something obvious," Robinson said.
"But if the site is just a little overnight camp where a bunch of guys stopped one day and whittled arrowheads, the only indication you might have might be some chips of stone on the ground."
Because they are easily preserved, the most common artifacts he and his students find in the Antelope Valley are tools made of stone.
"The Indians were essentially Stone Age people in technology," he said, "so we find a number of different kinds of artifacts made of that material, including projectile points, arrowheads, knives, scrapers, awls, any kind of cutting, scraping, hacking, whacking tools as well as stone bowls and grinding slabs.
"Records indicate they were a variety of fairly small, loosely organized bands of hunters and gatherers that spoke Shoshone Indian dialects. Probably no more than 300 to 400 people." Robinson said the pinnacle of Indian dominance in the region was in about the year 1600 with a variety of base camps, temporary hunting camps and work sites scattered through the valley.
"Excavations in large village areas show us an increase in complexity over many hundreds of years, an increase in population and an increase in wealth. This wealth is measured largely in terms of shell beads that were used as money in one sense, and also as symbols of wealth and success."