We are in the Nevada desert now, enjoying some sightseeing and fishing. We have visited the Grimes Point Petroglyph site, just east of the town of Fallon. Grimes point and the surrounding caves were formed along the border of the regressing, ancient Lake Lahontan at the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago. The caves were inhabited as early as 9,500 years ago, based on the date established for the burial of “Spirit Cave Man”, and were returned to as the level of the associated marshes left by the ancient lake fluctuated. The caves were used for storage, living, and burial.
Archaeologists S. M. and Georgia Wheeler unearthed “Spirit Cave Man”, the oldest mummy in North America from one of these caves in the 1940’s. It was confirmed through testing in the late 1990’s that the mummy dates back nearly 9,500 years. The mummy was a male, in his 40’s, and was buried with woven clothing, moccasins, a rabbit skin blanket, and other grave goods.
The oldest petroglyphs associated with the caves are in the Pit and Groove style. The name is derived from the many “pits”, resembling the small mortars ground into sandstone surfaces across the southwest, that are ground into the faces of rocks. Often found accompanying them are elongated “grooves” that are usually across an angular edge of a rock. The exact use or significance of the pits and grooves has not been established, although it is believed that they did not serve a utilitarian purpose.
The Great Basin Pecked style is the next found in the sequence, dating from 3000 to 500 years ago. The earliest figures in this style are represented by circular or wavy lines, the later figures by straighter, more angular lines. These are distinctly different from the Pit and Groove style and begin to show possibly anthropomorphic forms, as well as forms of local fauna. Some of the petroglyphs in this style are believed to have had religious significance, possibly having to do with abundance in hunting.
We have also visited Salt Cave, located across the valley from Grimes Point. Not much is known about Salt Cave- there is a brief reference to the cave in Rock Art of Nevada, noting only that it is a registered site and including drawings of a number of its pictographs. There are actually two caves, about 25 meters apart, found right at the margin of the valley floor. The southern-most cave has fewer pictographs and many of these are dust covered. The northern-most cave has, if you count each dot or line or blotch of pigment as unique, possibly thousands of paintings. The walls of this cave are cleaner and the rock art is more visible. The roof of this cave is blackened from fires and was obviously well used.
One of the signs letting you know you are driving through the middle of a bombing range, on the way to Salt Cave.
Dots make up the predominant element in the cave, typically measuring about 1 centimeter in diameter. These are found on the lobes of tufa, covering each lobe’s natural shape in many cases, but also in horizontal lines around the cave at about eye level. In some locations it appears that a hand may have been dipped in pigment and wiped across a lobe of tufa, covering it almost entirely. There are straight and wavy lines, resembling the “power lines” found at Puebloan sites, arcs, sets of lines made by pigmented fingers, figures of lizards, possibly a scorpian, and a single handprint. There is a very interesting “sunburst” where the artist took advantage of a knob on a lobe of tufa. The knob of tufa may have been modified by smoothing. All of the pictographs are in the same red pigment.
The “sunburst” element from Salt Cave.
Salt Cave is definitely worth the visit if you are interested in rock art and are traveling through the Lahontan Valley. I will research the site further once I return to Colorado, and write a more comprehensive summary of this site, as well as Grimes Point and post them on the Desert Explorer website.