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Blood work

The Chumash painted creatures on rocks centuries ago, but why?

August 10, 2004|Keith David Hamm | Special to The Times

Deep in the Topatopa Mountains above Ojai, a red snake slithers across a sandstone outcrop. The reptile hasn't moved from the rock where a Chumash Indian painted it centuries ago. Now a quartet of researchers is working to ensure the snake image never leaves.

The Santa Barbara-based Rock Art Documentation Group calls the site Serpent Cave. The group has made it one of the field laboratories at which it practices the art and science of protecting the Central Coast's abundant Native American pictographs and petroglyphs from erosion, over-eager explorers with oily fingers and outright vandalism. The 20,000 or so Chumash who lived from Morro Bay to Malibu and on the northern Channel Islands produced some of the most interesting rock art in the nation. They were prolific painters and chiselers, and wildfires expose more and more of their work.

Two years ago, a government watchdog group, the Washington D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charged the Los Padres National Forest with neglecting prehistoric artifacts. The U.S. Forest Service disputed the allegation and hired the rock-art group.

One team member, artist Dan Reeves, discovered Serpent Cave after a fire. Using paint, pencils and paper, he measured and sketched the snake image for posterity. Noted rock-art photographer Rick Bury visited Serpent Cave next, lugging 70 pounds of camera gear to capture the red snake. Two weeks ago, conservator Antoinette Padgett and archeologist David Robinson visited the site to assess how rain affects scorched rock and to preserve the snake.

"These paintings are a nonrenewable resource," Reeves says. "Once they're gone, they're gone."

No one knows how old the art is -- one site near Point Conception is believed to be about 3,500 years. No one knows exactly what the images mean. Centipedes, snakes, fish and frogs are obvious, but it's unclear what the Chumash meant by the inscriptions.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Rock Art Archive at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archeology, says rock art is "the single most important element of native culture that can teach us not only what people do but also what they believe."

Federal archeologist Joan Brandoff-Kerr says the work is part of the search for history.

"Ultimately, it comes down to: Who are we [as] human beings and what are we doing here?" Brandoff-Kerr says. "One way to answer that is by looking at people who were here before us."

The rock-art team has discovered how Indian artists worked. Reeves' tests show that the Indians probably used seed oil to fix soft colors, and UCLA art history professor David Scott discovered that human and antelope blood thickened black hues.

Using computers, the researchers learned that some paintings were composed in layers over time. Enhanced computer images can erase distortions on the sandstone substrate so anthropologists can study the art without tramping across the backcountry.

The researchers discovered that Indians used a wide palette -- greens, hematite reds, ocher clay, seashell and diatomaceous whites, charcoal and manganese blacks and azurite and malachite blues.

To protect the artwork, they divert runoff and build barriers to keep out graffiti, cattle and sweaty hands. They installed a stone path and railing at a pictograph site at Vandenberg Air Force Base and planted spiny yuccas at another site to impede access. Chumash descendants, who consider all the sites sacred and use some for solstice ceremonies, help devise protective measures.

"Who knows really what rock art means?" asks Forest Service tribal liaison Pete Zavalla. "But the importance of it is that it's saying, 'Yes, we were here.' And my people left it not only for me but for you. It's yours. Take care of it."

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