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Mysterious rock paintings leave many in wonder

Santa Barbara News-Press 20 October 2003

By William Eting

From Point Conception to the Carrizo Plain, from Tepusquet Canyon to Ojai, the enigmatic paintings color secluded sandstone hollows. There are bizarre anthropomorphic spacemen, geometric designs, condors, bears, mandalas, beheaded figures, men on horseback, perhaps eclipses. Mysterious images by the thousands, scattered across hundreds of miles of the Central Coast.

Are they the work of Chumash shamans, idle artistry or historical records? Is this ritual hunting magic, an astrological observatory, a vision quest or a diary? Scholars have debated their meaning for years without consensus. One thing is certain: They are a fascinating glimpse into a lost world.

This Saturday, a door into that lost world will open as Los Padres National Forest archaeologist and longtime Valley resident Joan Brandoff-Kerr leads a short hike in the West Camino Cielo area, which is normally off limits to the public. Ms. Brandoff-Kerr received her bachelor's in anthropology at UCSB in 1973 and master's in archaeology in 1982.

Dan Reeves, an archaeological technician who has worked in the area for 20 years, will help explain the techniques used in creating the art. He has a special interest in the pigments and binders used in rock art. The trip is sponsored by the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society.

Participants will meet at Mattei's Tavern in Los Olivos at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and return by noon. The trip is free for society members and their families, or $15 per person for non-members. Advance reservations are required. They can be made by e-mailing cachuma@silcom.com. For more information, call John Evarts, 688-0413.

The late Campbell Grant's 1965 book "The Rock Paintings of the Chumash" is still the definitive tome on the subject, although traditional Chumash groups hotly contest Mr. Grant's conclusions regarding the destruction of their culture. Large paintings re-created from his book can be found at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The mountains ringing the valley abound in rock art sites. Most locations are carefully guarded secrets because of the fragile nature of the art. As the U.S. Forest Service notes, "One person, in one day; can do more damage than centuries of natural erosion." Dust alone is a threat to the paintings.

The speed of erosion in normal conditions is depressing. Pool Rock is a secluded painting site in the backcountry, shaped like a tooth, 75 feet high and 500 feet around. Two generous depressions on top fill with water in the spring, from which it gets its name. There's a shallow painted cave at the bottom.

I took pictures of Pool Rock in 1975. Comparing them to Campbell Grant's shots of 10 years before, it was clear that paint had flaked from one of the central drawings, revealing an older painting beneath the first. Worse yet, thoughtless campers had recently built a fire in the cave.

Rock art scholars present and future got a huge assist in the 1970s and '80s when William Hyder, formerly of UCSB, and artist Mark Oliver, now of Solvang, extensively documented the fragile artwork. Mr. Hyder went on to become president of the American Rock Art Research Association.

The dedicated duo spent countless hours capturing art in sandstone crevices and hollows, not to mention the travel time to the far flung secret spots, which seem almost invariably to require a lengthy trek through impenetrable chaparral, excruciating even when you're not lugging bulky camera equipment. For years Mr. Oliver and Mr Hyder trekked and snapped, amassing an unparalleled body of art featured in numerous exhibitions.

The best known, most easily accessible site is, off course, Painted Cave. If you haven't visited that magical, spiritual cavern two miles off San Marcos Pass on the Santa Barbara side of the eclectic community of the same name, go now. You will return a wiser, more thoughtful person.

The shallow cave, a state historic park, is marked with a sign and is a few feet up the hill, just off Panted Cave Road. There's a gate to prevent vandalism, but the paintings are easily visible. Take a flashlight to see more details. Look for the black disc with white border, thought by some to depict a solar eclipse that occurred Nov. 24, 1677.