Driving along Fish Slough Road in the Volcanic Tablelands outside of the small Eastern Sierra town of Bishop, CA is like driving through an ancient gallery of old messages. Around 8,000 years ago this region was settled by the ancestors of the Bishop Paiute – Shoshone tribe, these are the messages left behind by those people.
Some might call these galleries of petroglyphs, an art gallery, but I’m a big proponent of the idea that “rock art” is the furthest thing from art, but rather a written language. Communication would have been an important function of survival 8,000 years ago, even more so than today.
Think about it, there was no pen and paper, and the written word had yet to be invented, and/or introduced into this part of the world. If there was a message that you needed or wanted to have communicated over a long period of time the only way to do so would be to leave that message carved or painted on the surface of rock. These messages in stone were not just randomly placed. They were placed strategically along travel routes, springs and seeps, hunting grounds, spiritually important places, and village sites.
Fish Slough Road likely follows along an ancient travel route, giving explanation to the large number of petroglyph sites along the now dusty dirt road. Many of these sites are considered “public,” meaning that directions to them are available to those that actively seek them, or drive-by and notice the small BLM signs that explain the importance of preserving our cultural heritage.
As I drove along visiting the many “public” sites, I found myself questioning whether there may be petroglyphs, pictographs or other evidence of past human habitation among the basalt rock ridges that lie out in the valley, and not directly along the well beaten path. I tried keeping an eye out as I passed by, but the weather conditions made it difficult. It had been raining all morning, making the basalt rock shiny, and hard to tell if it had pecked or carved into from a distance.
Eventually something did catch my eye in the distance, a faintly scratched surface on a boulder about a quarter of a mile away. I decided to park, and hike out to it, taking a chance that it might be a petroglyph, and maybe lead me to more. It wasn’t until I was right up on the boulder that I was able to confirm that it was indeed a petroglyph, and then I began to find other individual petroglyphs, along with several larger panels. Most of the panels here face to the north or east, with none facing to the west. The designs here are similar to others in the region, containing a significant amount of geometrical entoptic patterns, and zoomorphic figures like lizards and rattlesnakes.
In all I likely covered a square mile, finding a couple of hundred individual designs. If it had not been raining I would have loved to have covered more ground, searching the outcroppings that lie several miles across the open valley, but there is always next time.