White Cliffs Petroglyphs (Death Valley National Park)

In Saline Valley, along a canyon of white volcanic tuff, known as pozzolan, there are hundreds of designs pecked into the soft stone. The pozzolan is a result of a massive ash fall, from volcanic activity some 10.5 – 11.5 million years ago. The carvings however, otherwise known as petroglyphs are not near as old as the rock that they were so carefully pecked or carved into. While I am not familiar with any formal dating of the White Cliffs Petroglyphs, I have heard that some of the designs are thought to be several thousand years old.

Saline Valley was the home of the Ko’onzi Indians (now known as the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe) since at least last prehistoric times, and into the 1950’s. They had several village sites within the valley, with Ko’onzi Village, their main village site, located along the mouth of Hunter Canyon. Other known villages, and inhabitation sites were situated near the hot springs (now a popular recreation spot). The petroglyphs at White Cliffs, are likely attributed to the Ko’onzi, however the style and designs differ vastly from anything else found in the region.

I accessed the canyon via a two-mile hike across the basalt strung valley from Warm Springs Rd. / Steel Pass Road.  There was not much of a trail to follow, so it was essentially a cross-country hike across the unspoiled desert.  I was surprised when I came across several nicely sized petrified wood samples in a singular concentrated area. Once I neared the mouth of the canyon, I drop into the wash. Normally washes are sandy, but this wash was different, covered in small pebbles of the pozzolan stone, which makes up the cliff sides. With each step the pozzolan crunched under my feet.

 

Approaching the White Cliffs Canyon

Approaching the White Cliffs Canyon

 

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood

 

I wasn’t sure where to begin my search, as I wasn’t even positive that I was in the right place.  I had put the pieces together based on a few hints, and a lot of studying satellite imagery via Google Earth. I just walked, and kept my eyes open and looking in every direction. I was in the canyon for only a few short minutes when on the northern face, I spotted what I was looking for, confirming that I was indeed accurate in my assumption.

A platform above the wash, plays host to a rock shelter. On the wall around the shelter are over a dozen figures of pregnant women. Each of these figures have large rounded bellies, with a hole drilled meticulously into their nether regions. Several additional elements are also present, but the focus is by far and large on the pregnant female figures.  On the ground below the shelter walls, there are dozens of rocks placed in a circular pattern. I can only assume, but the signs are clearly there that this shelter was utilized as birthing area, or as a place of fertility magic.

 

This shelter is covered in petroglyphs of pregnant woman. I believe that it may have been used as a birthing area, or possibly  for fertility magic.

This shelter is covered in petroglyphs of pregnant woman. I believe that it may have been used as a birthing area, or possibly  for fertility magic.

 

A close up of the above shelter. Note the drill holes in the nether region.

A close up of the above shelter. Note the drill holes in the nether region.

 

After a quick rest, and moment of pondering I continued further up the canyon. From a distance I could see the next panels staring back at me, as I approached them I was entranced in a state of aw.

Birds! Big fucking birds – that was about the extent of what was rushing through my mind as I approached the magnificent wall of petroglyphs. This is what I had come here for. Along the canyon wall, a series of bird designs like I have never seen in the desert regions before.  A significant amount of work went into the detail of these birds, from their long curved beak, to the individual pits on the chest, long wing span, and feathered tails. I believe that these designs had a significant meaning to the person or persons that created them. If the designs had been created by a shaman, this may have been their spirit animal – the animal in which they drew their powers from. The power to heal, the power to see, and the power to lead.

 

The first condor panel, from a distance.

The first condor panel, from a distance.

 

Additional panels, from a distance.

Additional panels, from a distance.

 

Close-up of Condor design.

Close-up of Condor design.

 

These two bird-like designs may represent a different kind of bird, or winged creature.

These two bird-like designs may represent a different kind of bird, or winged creature.

 

I suspect that this design represents a deer.

I suspect that this design represents a deer.

 

So what kind of bird is represented? I believe the most likely candidate is the California Condor. I find the resemblance to be uncanny – from the long wing span, the bald head, the curved beak, and even the tail feathers. I could be totally wrong also, that is one of the things about “rock art,” nobody really knows their meaning, even those that say that they do.

Alongside the giant birds, are several additional designs, including depictions of bighorn sheep and deer. There are also abstract spirals, and meandering lines.

From this panel, there was only one place to go, and that was further up the canyon. I had no idea if there was anything further long, and I was pleasantly surprised when I came upon yet two more walls of petroglyphs. Many of the depictions become more and more abstract, to the point that you feel as if you are looking at just a jumble of lines leading in all directions. Some are straight, some are curved, others have bends, while yet others create enclosed spaces. What do these lines mean? I am as clueless as you likely are. I still enjoy them immensely however, which is surprising since I have little appreciation for modern abstract art.

 

This is a visually stunning canyon.

This is a visually stunning canyon.

 

Very abstract designs.

Very abstract designs.

 

There is a lot going on in this panel. From bighorn sheep to wavy lines. An anthropomorphic figure appears to be present in the middle of the image.

There is a lot going on in this panel. From bighorn sheep to wavy lines. An anthropomorphic figure appears to be present in the middle of the image.

 

Bighorn sheep panels, similar in style to the Coso Range bighorn designs.

Bighorn sheep panels, similar in style to the Coso Range bighorn designs.

 

Digital anthropomorphic figure.

Digital anthropomorphic figure.

 

Tortoise design - lower middle/right.

Tortoise design – lower middle/right.

 

Further down the line and there are yet again depictions of bighorn sheep (in various styles – some closely resembling those of the Coso Range), there is also an incredible tortoise depiction (another one of those rare depictions), anthropomorphic figures (human), and even a nice digital anthropomorphic figure. Even longer meandering lines, and curved lines appear.  There is a lot going on here, more than I could ever care to try to explain.

Looking to the ground, I found an obsidian hand tool directly below one of the extensive panels. A recent rain may have brought it to the surface. I picked it up; it fit perfectly in my hand. Could this tool have been used to create some of the petroglyphs along these walls of volcanic ash? It is very possible. It may have also been used as a scraper, to remove the yucky bits of flesh from an animal hide, or any number of functions. After photographing it, I placed it back on the ground where I had found it, and kicked a little dirt over it for safe keeping. With that said, this is a good opportunity to remind you that removing or defacing archeological sites/material is against the law, and can result in fines, and or imprisonment. As well as being against the law, removing artifacts takes away from the next visitors experience, allow future visitors the same opportunities to discover and see what you experienced.

 

Obsidian tool.

Obsidian tool.

 

Rock circle, along the bank of the wash.

Rock circle, along the bank of the wash.

 

Along the banks of the wash, another stone circle is present – similar to the one found near what I believe to be a birthing area. The panel of petroglyphs above it, further blow my mind – more condors, and even larger than the previous ones! Again proving in my mind that this bird was very symbolic, and very important to the person who created them.

Overall the White Cliffs site is a fascinating site, I reiterate in saying that I have never seen a site like this before in the Mojave Desert region. The closest would be some of the Chumash sites along the Southern California coast.

 

Large condor design.

Large condor design.

 

Birds!

Birds!

 
Secret Places in the Mojave Desert Vol. 7

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

4 Comments

  • Amazing, I had seen photos of these around before and I figured they were either in Saline or somewhere in the Wildrose area.

  • Your sleuthing skills continue to amaze me! Wish I was a bit younger with undamaged legs. I may make it to some of those spots yet! Kudos to you for all your exploring!

  • Hi Jim: While the petroglyphs may be illustrating condors, they’re commonly referred to as “thunderbird” designs. I have been to this site twice since December – it’s incredible.

    I have been enjoying your blog! Thanks for it.

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