Desert Petroglyphs: Ikons to the Ancient Ones

November 2022. Dense, frigid air seeps into the car as I drive east on Highway 136 toward Death Valley. The road ahead will be blocked because of torrential monsoonal rains in August that wiped out most of the highways within Death Valley National Park. A winter storm hit the Eastern Sierra with snow, rain, and strong winds yesterday. A brilliant orange sun rising out of Death Valley rests on the highway directly in front of me, making for difficult driving.

Swansea Petroglyph Panel

I am searching for the Swansea Petroglyphs, named for the 1880s silver-smelting town on the northern edge of Owens Lake. I have tried to find this site during several previous visits, but no luck. Directions from research sources have been intentionally vague to protect the site from vandals.

There was some mention of an old marble quarry at the base of the Inyo Mountains. Ahead of me, on the left side of the highway, is a partially excavated ridge. Parking at a turn-out, I walk across the road for a closer look. I see huge chunks of marble rock, exposing a high, sheer cliff. Yes, these rocks have been manually chiseled and cut loose. The marble is laced with purple and black veins of mineral. Where would the petroglyphs be? I study the smooth face of the cliff for figures and geometric shapes pecked into the marble. Nothing.

Holding a photograph of a panel of ancient petroglyphs that are supposed to be at the Swansea site, I persist in this search, matching the image with landmarks on the brown, barren slopes of the Inyo Mountains. The photo was taken from a higher elevation. Maybe if I climb up behind the ridge, I can orient myself and the landscape to this photograph.

Walking around the quarry to the other side, I climb the steep slope of a prominent ridge. Ascent is difficult because of loose rocks and gravel. I catch my breath and look back at Owens Lake, which used to be filled with melting glacier water from overflowing lakes to the north and was once 600 feet deep. Since 1913, Los Angeles Water and Power (LADWP) has diverted the streams and rivers that once fed the lake into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The lake dried up into arid acres of playa and toxic dust.

View of dry Owens Lake with Sierra Nevada Mountains

As I climb higher up the ridge, clusters of highly polished gravel appear before me. This looks familiar. It reminds me of the stones pounded by waves at the Pacific Ocean beaches of Dana Point, California, near our family home. Fifteen-thousand years ago, this outcropping was on the shores of Owens Lake. Rolling waves polished these stones. Flat rocks nearby are pock-marked with erosion from the waves.

Ancient Wave Markings

Clusters of boulders appear on my left. I see faint etchings in the marble rock. A patina of mineralization over the aged “desert varnish” coats these rocks. The petroglyphs were pecked through this coating to reveal the white dolomite marble underneath. The images and designs have deeply worn grooves I can trace with my fingers. This is unusual. Owens Valley has thousands of ancient petroglyphs dispersed over the landscape. They are all pecked into volcanic basalt rock. I climb carefully over the unstable boulders, comforted knowing that the snakes who must live here are hibernating.

Ancient Beach of Lakes Owens

I walk around the corner of an immense boulder, venturing toward a precarious drop off. Surprise! The flat panel of dozens of petroglyphs appears, as in the photograph. This is what I was searching for. As I approach the marble rock precipice, I recognize two commonly seen images from anthropological papers on the Swansea site: a circle with a line through it and six bold straight lines. I have identified the first image as an atlatl, a spear-like hunting tool, predating the bow and arrow. This dates this site to 2,000 years ago, before bow and arrow use began in North America. The other image of six straight lines is said to be an Equinox sign. These markers carved into the marble allow people to predict the equinox relative to sunset within three hours even today.

Atlatl Image c. 100 AD
Equinox Marker

Archaeologist Alan Gillespie reveals the high degree of calendrical sophistication:

“The bars mimic the shape of the edge of a shadow cast by a nearby boulder. The edge sweeps across the petroglyph as the sun sets. A radiocarbon age of minus 2060 years may be a minimum age for the Equinox marker”.[1]

 At the Swansea Archaeological Site INYO 272, one can find several solar petroglyphs which function as a solar observatory:

  1. One-hundred feet NW of the six-bar petroglyph is a sun symbol facing east.
  2. Fifty feet W from the six-bar petroglyph is a bull’s eye. Close to the solstice, a wedge of light will point to the bull’s eye at sunset, accurate to four days.
  3. The six-bar petroglyph works at sunset, described in this way:

“Within three days of the Equinox, and only then, the sun setting behind the Sierra Nevada casts a shadow from the north of the rocks onto the petroglyph. The shape of the shadow coincides closely with the inner vertical bars of the petroglyph. The shadow moves south one bar per day at the vernal equinox and north at the autumnal.”[2]

Sunburst Equinox Marker

Is there a connection with this solar calendrical observatory to similar indigenous sites?  Gillespie responds:

Another Equinox Marker

The petroglyphs at INY272 are a solar calendar, with patterns marking the times of summer solstice, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. These patterns create unique light and shadow effects at sunrise and sunset. Some of these patterns are reminiscent of those reported at Chaco Canyon and elsewhere in the American Southwest.”[3]

Archaeologist Don Laylander asks: What was the source of their knowledge? He suggests:

“It is reasonable to speculate that some of this knowledge could have diffused widely from the great astronomical centers of pre-Columbian Meso-America. Hopi and Pima/Papago oral traditions, for example, maintain that their ancestors migrated south through Mexico and then returned to New Mexico and Arizona.”[4]


I sit on a flat slab of rock, which is hidden within an alcove of boulders, and contemplate the panel of petroglyphs to my right. I observe the landscape hundreds of feet below me, which was filled with the waters of Pleistocene Lake Owens 15,000 years ago. I see the shapes of three bighorn sheep, a stick figure of a human, a cross, a snake, and other mysterious symbols. Some suggest the sheep images are hunting magic, marking a migration path for the animals, which were a food staple for the First People. According to David Whitley, a professor at UCLA, Paiute shamans created petroglyphs as spiritual notebooks after taking hallucinogenic substances like jimson weed.

Meditation View of Ancient Lakebed

I imagine water once again flooding the empty landscape below me, filling the basin with churning, foaming water. Waves crash on rocks around me, coating my face with briny spray from the turbulent movements of a blue, green lake. Lightning flashes in the distance. The calming rhythm of the waves rolling toward me sparks a memory of Psalm 65, which I prayed today from the Breviary:

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds,
    God our Savior,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
    and of the farthest seas,
who formed the mountains by your power,
    having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas,
    the roaring of their waves,
    and the turmoil of the nations.
The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
    where morning dawns, where evening fades,
    you call forth songs of joy.[5]

Closing my eyes, I heard ancient waves crashing and receding, creating a soothing rhythm. I open my eyes, imagining the waves constantly changing, yet always the same. Each wave is unique, with its own shape, size, and speed. Each wave is part of the ancient lake, a vast and powerful force of nature. I imagine how my mind is like the movements of this ancient lake; my thoughts are like the waves; some are small and quiet. Some are pleasant, some are unpleasant. They are all part of my mind, a vast and powerful force of awareness. I observe thoughts passing through, without judging them or being attached to them. I let these thoughts flow through me like the waves of the ancient lake. When my mind wanders, I bring my attention back to the sound of the waves. I sense the connection between my mind and the ancient lake, between my thoughts and the waves. I am not these thoughts; I am the awareness behind them. I am the ancient lake, not the waves. I stay within these feelings of spaciousness and calm, as they awaken a deeper awareness that the Creator is very close, embracing me in love and consolation.

Sometimes I return to this memory of meditating within this alcove of sheltering boulders hovering over the ancient lake. It helps me to be aware of the Lord’s presence with me, here and now.

As a Christian, my experience of contemplating in nature is different from using mind-altering substances like datura.. Spiritual writer Father William Johnston SJ counsels:

“Meditation is also a human and natural way of opening the filters, welcoming the inflow of reality, and expanding the mind. It is a gradual process, a daily practice in which the filters or barriers are slowly lifted to allow and almost imperceptible inflow of grater reality into the intuitive consciousness—though this unhurried process may at time, give way to a sudden collapse of barriers that cause massive enlightenment or mystical experience. In all of this, meditation is safer than drugs because the meditator, if properly instructed and guided, can integrate the new knowledge and preserve his equilibrium.”[6]

I sense the presence of shaman spirits in this place of petroglyphs, their spiritual notebook, coming from dreams and hallucinogenic visions.

What was happening within their consciousness, in their intense inner journeys? David Whitley has explored the connection between shamanism and rock art in the Owens Valley.

What is the experience of the Paiute Shaman taking datura? During a vision quest with datura, the Shaman goes into a trance and receives supernatural power from a spirit helper such as a grizzly bear or rattlesnake.. He becomes one with that spirit helper. His power came as a vision. “In Western neuropsychological terms, the shaman’s trance was an altered state of consciousness in which he experienced aural, bodily and visual hallucinations.”[7]


“Immediately following a vision quest, the shaman would pray and concentrate on the visions he had received. When morning came, he would paint or engrave his visions on rocks at this vision quest site…The art created by a shaman preserved his visionary images for posterity; if a shaman forgot his vision, it was believed he would sicken or die. Shamans go back to where they first had their vision quest to remember it, become more powerful, and gain more spirit helpers.”[8]

Thus, the shaman and I share a numinous site, a mystical gateway to the Sacred.

Neuropsychological and Rock Art

Lewis, Williams, and Dawson studied trance states and developed a model of mental images that can help us interpret the rock art of the shamans:

For example, zig zag images are common.

Shaman’s Spiritual Notebook

“The neuropsychic model by Lewis, Williams, and Dawson explains why geometric motifs are common in art. Swansea has a mix of motifs, including geometrics, entoptic, and simple figures.The different motifs may be the art of a single shaman, depicting the visions he experiences during different stages of the same trance.”[9]

As I return to my car, I gaze up toward the cluster of boulders hiding the petroglyphs, the site of the shaman’s vision quest. We both found a numinous site, a thin place between this world and an unseen world of spiritual powers. Even now, as I write this memory to share with you, God is very close.

View of Sierra Nevada from Petroglyph Site


“Notes on Lewis-Williams and Dowson’s Neuropsychological in Prehistoric Art Analysis.”
Journal article in Humaniora, by Daud Aris Tanudirjo, Vol 16.

Heizer, Robert P. and Baumhoff, Martin A. 1962. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA

Likes, R.C. 1975. From this Mountain. Chalfant Press, Bishop, CA

Steward, Julian. 1929. University of California Publications in Archaeology and Ethnology. Volume 24.

Von Werlhof, Jac C. 1986. Rock Art of the Owens Valley. Reports of the University of California. Archaeological Surgery, no. 65.

Yoder, Vincent. 1985. Equinox Site at Swansea. Dawson Collection (Unpublished Paper)

Whitley, David S. A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1996.

[1] “A Precise Petroglyph Equinox Marker in Eastern California, Alan Gillespie.

[2] Gillespie, ibid.

[3] The Megalithic Portal.

[4] Laylander, Don. The Swansea Site and the Equinox Question: Issues of Plausibility and Proof.”

[5] Psa;, 65:5-8, New International Version.

[6] Johnston SJ, William. Silent Music, p. 56-57.

[7] Whitley, David S. A Guide to Rock Arts Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada. P 8.

[8] Whitley, p. 16.

[9] Whitley, p. 10-11.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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3 Responses to Desert Petroglyphs: Ikons to the Ancient Ones

  1. Jeff H says:

    Wonderful experience and commentary!

  2. Sandy Gilman says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Father Brad.

  3. Nerice Kaufman says:

    So glad you persisted! Your description made them leap off the rock. Your meditation was powerful… the waves… so visceral. It encouraged me to flow more freely and deeply in meditation. The mention of hallucinogens in early ritual was a reminder that with or without we are Gods chemistry set and pretty amazing! Thank you🙏

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