CAL FIRE Archaeology Program: Abstract-Representational Petroglyphs of The Northern Sierra Nevada, California

Daniel G. Foster
Senior State Archaeologist
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
March 12, 1999

This paper is an abbreviated and modified version of paper written by Daniel G. Foster, John Betts, and Linda C. Sandelin entitled The Association of Style 7 Rock Art and the Martis Complex in the Northern Sierra Nevada of California that has been submitted for publication. This version was prepared for a broader audience, to be posted on CAL FIREs Archaeology Program Web Site. Locational information for these sites is deliberately kept vague to avoid increasing site visitation. Some readers may ask why. The harsh environmental conditions of the High Sierra have often left the rock surfaces containing the petroglyphs in an extremely fragile condition. Rock surface deterioration in the form of exfoliation and block fracturing has severely damaged many of the panels. The location of the petroglyphs on horizontal, ground-level outcrops leaves these fragile panels vulnerable to damage from foot traffic. Vandalism has also been encountered at these sites with alarming regularity. Damage from graffiti scraped onto rock art panels, spray paint, chalking of petroglyphs, campfires, illicit removal of artifacts, and the complete removal of rock sections containing petroglyphs are just some of the forms of defacement that have been encountered. Many of these sites are in remote areas, are completely unprotected, and site location information must be kept confidential to avoid unsupervised casual visits by the public. Our intent is to disseminate the results of our research without incurring additional visitations – such visits could lead to detrimental impacts at these highly sensitive and significant sites. The map showing the distribution of Style 7 rock art sites was prepared in small scale to prevent relocating individual sites. Site names such as "Devils Peak" and "Lacey Valley" were used in this report, and these names refer to actual High-Sierran locations, but we do not believe site relocation is possible from this limited disclosure.

In 1966, Louis A Payen completed a comprehensive inventory and analysis of prehistoric rock art in California's northern Sierra Nevada. This outstanding study identified 133 rock art sites, classified into two major groupings or traditions, Pit-Groove and Abstract-Representational. The two groups were further subdivided into seven separate categories or styles - each defined by a group of attributes and associations. These stylistic divisions were based on recognition of similar characteristics including form, method of manufacture, rock selection, archaeological associations, and distribution. The seven rock art styles numbered, named, and defined by Payen are as follows:

Style 1 (Pitted Boulders) This style consists of the use of cup-shaped pits on rounded boulders. The pits are randomly placed on boulder surfaces, with most examples found in association with large occupation sites and/or bedrock mortar areas. Pitted boulders have been found over much of the northern Sierra Nevada, with notable concentrations in the Truckee basin and along the foothills.

Style 2 (Pit and Groove) These sites are characterized by the nearly exclusive use of pits and grooves. The pits and grooves are found in clusters, in random patterns, and linear arrangements such as rows of dots or grooves in series, or pit and groove combinations. Pit and groove art panels are found on boulders in open areas, or occasionally, on boulders inside caves, usually in association with sizable village sites and always near bedrock mortars. With one exception, pit and groove sites are found in the lower Sierra foothills north of the Cosumnes River.

Style 3 (Complex Pit and Groove) These sites also contain pits and grooves but in more complex arrangements including pits inside circles, pits connected by grooves, and a variety of elements composed of pits and grooves which are thought to be representations of female genitalia. The pits are often conical in shape as if drilled into the surface. The panels are positioned on the walls of caves, usually adjacent to midden deposits and bedrock mortars. All sites are located in the Sierra foothills south of the Cosumnes River, with most sites in the Mokelumne and Stanislaus River drainages.

Style 4 (Simple Abstract Monochrome) These rock art sites contain pictograph panels painted in a single color. Black is the most common color employed although red and white pigments were also used independently of each other. Design elements are almost exclusively linear, consisting of simple grids, hatches, line series, or random lines. They are found on the walls and ceilings of caves, usually in close proximity to evidence of occupation, in the foothills south of the Cosumnes River.

Style 5 (Abstract Polychrome) These rock art sites contain pictograph panels painted in multiple colors. Red is the dominant color although black and white pigments are also used. Common design elements include wavy lines, wavy lines terminated with a dot, simple circles, line series, line designs, and dots. Style 5 elements are found on cave walls and protected rock faces, usually adjacent to village sites or with evidence of occupation in the cave. These sites are distributed in two concentrations: one in the Sierran foothills along the Mokelumne, the other in the Yosemite region.

Style 6 (Valley-Sierran Abstract) These are abstract petroglyphs on boulders or rock outcroppings, with many design elements containing a variety of forms based on the circle. Elements are often large and outstanding with the entire rock surface decorated, occasionally carved in bas relief. Some Style 6 sites are located on hilltops with a commanding view of surrounding terrain. These are isolated locations with no apparent cultural features nearby. Other sites occur in close proximity or in direct association with evidence of occupation.

Style 7 (High Sierra Abstract-Representational) These are distinctive petroglyph panels on bedrock surfaces in the higher elevations of the northern Sierra Nevada. Style 7 rock art panels are more complex and contain a greater variety of design elements than any other prehistoric rock art style in the northern Sierra Nevada region, and although considerable variation exists in design elements, there is also an underlying rigidity. Common designs include concentric circles, simple circles elaborated by line elements, wavy lines of varying complexity, tracks, and anthropomorphic-zoomorphic representations. Payen defined Style 7 rock art using a sample of 13 sites, and described it as the most distinctive style of the seven. He suggested that the track element may be diagnostic for Style 7, occurring at 11 of his 15 sites. The remainder of this paper discusses the results of our inventory and analysis of Style 7 petroglyphs.

CAL FIRE has been conducting an ongoing inventory of Style 7 sites in order to ensure their protection during logging operations in the northern Sierra Nevada region. Rock art sites are not usually susceptible to damage from logging operations in California since most are located in desert regions, in caves or rockshelters, or on boulders in open, non-forested settings. Style 7 sites are quite different. These sites are located in forested settings, never in rock shelters, and the petroglyphs occur on ground-level, horizontal rock formations. Style 7 panels can be destroyed if the outcrops containing them are crossed by bulldozers, and many sites contain associated archaeological deposits that require protection from ground-disturbing activities associated with commercial timber operations. CAL FIRE's goal for the Style 7 inventory project is to formally record or re-record all known Style 7 sites, continue the search for undiscovered sites, compile a database of information to protect the sites from logging, and to facilitate ongoing studies. Our inventory presently stands at 92 confirmed Style 7 site locations. We are grateful for the assistance we received from other public agencies, archaeologists, rock art enthusiasts, and Registered Professional Foresters. CAL FIRE has supported surveys and site recording on privately owned forestlands as part of its responsibility as Lead Agency under CEQA for environmental review of Timber Harvesting Plans, and the Tahoe National Forest has been conducting surveys for Style 7 sites within public lands on the National Forest. The late Willis A. Gortner made an enormous contribution to our inventory. He spent 20 consecutive summers at "The Cedars", a resort community in the upper reaches of the American River, in the heart of our study area, searching for and documenting petroglyph sites. He discovered more than 50 previously unreported rock art sites, and eagerly shared his findings with CAL FIRE.

Using our sample of 92 sites we conducted an analysis of selected environmental attributes, archaeological associations, and petroglyph attributes in order to further refine characteristics of this rock art style. Environmental attributes examined include elevation, watershed, and association to ponds and waterfalls. Archaeological associations examined include bedrock mortars, milling slicks, and lithic scatters. Petroglyph attributes we examined include: total number of elements present, the occurrence of bear track and anthropomorphic elements, and the incorporation of natural rock features into petroglyph designs.

Style 7 sites are distributed across four California counties, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, and Sierra, and range in elevation from 4620 to 7640 feet. All but two are located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada crest. Two sites on the east slope, Donner Pass and Lacey Valley, are very close to the divide. The sites are distributed within the Feather, Yuba, Bear, American, and Truckee River drainages. All of the petroglyphs included in the current study are situated on horizontal or sloping glaciated bedrock. No Style 7 petroglyphs have been located on cliff faces or boulders, even though these types of rock surfaces are common in the study area. A variety of rock types were utilized. Payen noted the selection of reddish or other dark colored rock surfaces for the placement of elements, and Gortner observed that many elements were on a pinkish-colored rock surface. While this remains a typical selection pattern, it was not employed exclusively. Light colored rock surfaces were occasionally utilized. The overall common denominator in rock surface selection appears to be the utilization of glacially-polished bedrock outcrops. The topographic setting for Style 7 petroglyphs is variable. Sites are located along streams, in canyons, on midslope benches, ridge tops, domes and rocky promontories, and occasionally near mountain passes and at the base of peaks. One attribute we observed is the association with small glacial ponds. Thirteen sites were found to be in close proximity to one or more small lakes, ponds or glacial tarns. While this represents only 14% of the total, certain characteristics suggest the association may have more significance than can be statistically demonstrated. Another attribute that may have similar implications is an association with waterfalls. Eleven sites (12%) were observed to have some locational relationship with falling water. In several cases this association is direct and unambiguous.

The majority of Style 7 petroglyph elements are abstract, consisting of circles, wavy lines, zigzags, and arrangements of these elements into complex designs. We analyzed two of the more naturalistic and readily recognizable petroglyph elements, the bear track, and the anthropomorph. As a result of our analysis, bear tracks have been identified at 51 sites with approximately 381 total elements. Bear tracks are absent at 41 sites. While the bear track element is a common, distinctive, and widespread element, it can not be considered diagnostic for Style 7 as it is absent at many Style 7 sites. Payen noted the occasional occurrence of the anthropomorphic form. Our analysis has identified 42 examples present at 23 sites. Eighteen of these 23 sites contain only a single example.

The quantity of petroglyph elements at each site is variable, but three major categories were recognized. The four largest sites, Hawley Lake, Soda Springs, Meadow Lake, and Lakes Basin each have more than 500 elements. A second group of six sites, including Long Lake, have approximately 200 elements. Most of the remaining sites have less than 100 elements each, with some sites containing only a single example. The significance of these groupings has yet to be determined. A total of 5,253 elements has been tabulated as a result of this analysis, but this does not represent a complete accounting of Style 7 petroglyphs, for several of the most extensive sites have not yet been fully recorded.

All of the petroglyphs observed during this research project appear to have been manufactured by pecking, with both direct and indirect percussion methods utilized in different instances. Peck marks are clearly visible on some rock surfaces, particularly metamorphic and metasedimentary outcrops. On outcrops of granite, the coarse grained structure of the rock makes individual peck marks more difficult to recognize.

Another attribute we analyzed is the incorporation of natural rock features into petroglyph designs. This practice was observed at 17 separate sites and includes several different phenomenon. At sites such as Soda Springs and Donner Pass, dark mafic inclusions in the granite matrix are decorated, encircled, or incorporated into design elements. At other sites, similar dark inclusions have been selected as the background on which groups of elements have been placed. Other natural rock features such as white siliceous veins were also utilized. A particularly distinctive practice is found at sites along the Middle Fork of the American River. The metasedimentary rock formations in this region display pronounced geologic stratification and these natural rock layers are utilized as borders for elaborate series of parallel lines and enclosures for other complex designs.

Gortner noted that Style 7 petroglyphs often feature prominent views of surrounding mountain peaks. While this attribute was not subjected to the same level of analysis in the current report, some general observations can be made. This pattern was first recognized for sites in the North Fork of the American River drainage where, in fact, many of the sites do have spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. At Wabena, perhaps the most dramatic of all of these locations, the major peaks of the region are visible in a 360 panorama. This pattern of major peaks in view from Style 7 sites has been observed to hold true for sites on the Middle Fork of the American River and on the South Yuba River drainages. The relationship is less clearly evident for the sites in the North Yuba River and South Fork of the Feather River drainages.

We have elected to exclude three of Payen's original 15 Style 7 sites from our inventory. These three sites, Horseshoe Bend, Volcano, and Bidwell, are all located in the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada and constitute the only exceptions from two of the most characteristic traits used to define Style 7, placement on glaciated bedrock, and location at high elevation near the Sierra crest. Since Payen's pioneering work, additional rock art sites have come to light in the lower foothill regions of the Sierra Nevada that have similarities to Style 7. Examples include Foreman Creek, Table Mountain, Mountain Springs School, and Church Rock near Redding. We believe, however, that when these sites are subjected to a detailed analysis, a separate stylistic designation for these examples will be possible. There is a pronounced discontinuity in the distribution of abstract style rock art from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the higher elevations of the range, and a nearly complete absence of sites in the middle slope elevation range from 2500 to 4500 feet. Payen suggested that this lack may be a result of environmental and cultural factors, or of the absence of surveys in the area. After more than 30 years of archaeological investigations, this discontinuity remains, which indicates that the survey coverage is not the explanation. Rock outcrops are plentiful throughout this zone, leaving cultural factors as the most likely possibility. The environmental attributes that have been discussed in the current analysis, elevation range, associations with glacial ponds and waterfalls, and views of mountain peaks, suggests that Style 7 rock art was created with relationship to cultural activities that were specific to these restricted high elevation environments.

Our study revealed that 47 Style 7 sites (51%) have archaeological features or artifacts in direct association, typically in the form of surface deposits of chipped-stone lithics found along the margins of the outcrops containing petroglyphs. Archaeological surface evidence indicative of substantial occupation, such as midden or housepits, is not often found at this elevation. Only the Lakes Basin site contains a recognizable midden deposit. Of the 92 sites examined, 43 (47%) have associated lithic materials. Eight sites contain bedrock mortars and ten contain bedrock milling slicks. Several previous researchers including Payen, Gortner, Michael Claytor, and others, have noted the possible association of Style 7 rock art to Martis Complex artifacts found at or near the petroglyph sites, and we observed similar findings. Three principal lines of evidence indicate an association between Style 7 rock art and the Martis Archaeological Complex. These include Martis artifact assemblages at or near the Style 7 petroglyph sites, a near complete absence of Late Prehistoric artifacts at or near these rock art sites, and the overall distribution of the Style 7 rock art sites themselves.

Several Style 7 sites recently subjected to careful survey and recording have produced artifact assemblages that provide temporal and functional clues for interpretation. An artifact assemblage we documented from the Snow Mountain site includes eight basalt projectile point fragments, a basalt drill, and a basalt scraper, typical examples of Martis Complex artifacts. At Lots-O-Granite, the USFS documented 20 basalt projectile points adjacent to Style 7 petroglyphs, including several Martis-series types. Three basalt projectile point fragments were recently documented from Old Baldy Crest including a corner notched base fragment and a nearly complete contracting stem point. A variety of artifacts have been collected from the Palisade Creek site including basalt flakes, formed tool fragments, and two basalt contracting stem projectile points. The base of a basalt side notched projectile point was also found at the Miller Meadows site and a complete Martis projectile point was found at Wabena. These types of projectile points were used as dart tips, pre-date the arrival of the bow and arrow in California, and offer clues to date the petroglyphs.

Another line of evidence suggesting an association between Style 7 rock art and the Martis Complex is the overall distribution pattern of the rock art sites throughout the region. All of the Style 7 sites included in the current study are located within the nuclear territory of the Martis Complex area as defined by Elsasser in 1960. The rock art sites are concentrated in the upper watersheds of the Yuba and American River drainages, with five sites extending north into the Feather River drainage. The absence of known Style 7 rock art sites beyond the area containing Martis sites suggests an association. The northern and southern boundaries of both Martis and Style 7 are remarkably consistent. The Style 7 sites included in the current study only extend as far south as the Rubicon River. Moving south from this area, archaeological assemblages are known to change, exhibiting fewer of the characteristics typically associated with the Martis Complex. A similar change occurs at the North Fork of the Feather River. Glaciated rock outcroppings are abundant along the Sierra crest south of the proposed Style 7 boundary depicted herein which suggests the absence of Style 7 sites is influenced by cultural not environmental factors. The east-west boundaries of Style 7 and Martis exhibit less of a correspondence. Martis sites are found in lower elevations to the west and extending into Nevada on the east with no Style 7 petroglyphs in association. This site distribution pattern suggests that the petroglyphs were associated with activities conducted in the higher elevations of the range.

One rock art panel at the Spaulding Ridge site provides additional support to suggest that Style 7 rock art is associated to the Martis Archaeological Complex. This panel depicts a small stick-figure anthropomorph in association with a variety of other elements. This distinctive human form appears to be hurling a spear with an atlatl, a scene consistent with the temporal implications derived from associated projectile points.

In conclusion, the growing body of data on northern Sierra Nevada rock art has provided information to reaffirm Payen's designation of a unique petroglyph style in this region. Evidence found during the recording of these sites continues to support the hypothesis of an association between these sites and the Martis Archaeological Complex. This evidence is fairly pervasive and argues for the placement of this style of rock art firmly within the Middle Archaic time period, from 4,000 to 1,500 B.P. which has been equated with the Martis Complex. This paper is not intended as a complete discussion of all aspects of Style 7 rock art research for many additional avenues of investigation remain to be explored. In the future, we hope to expand our analysis to include additional environmental attributes and a more detailed petroglyph element inventory. A region reported by Alfred Kroeber in 1925 to be "sparsely endowed with rock art", or, according to Julian Steward in 1929 as a "barrier to the westward spread of petroglyphs" has instead proven to be remarkably rich in this form of cultural expression. Additional discoveries will undoubtedly continue, as CAL FIRE, the USFS, and Registered Professional Foresters are making surveys in preparation of timber harvesting projects. As this ongoing inventory and rock art research continues we hope to contribute more articles on this extraordinary group of petroglyph sites.

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Linked-diamonds, circles, and complex circle-and-line elements at Style 7 site CA-NEV-5

Rock surface deterioration of Style 7 site CA-PLA-827. This outstanding petroglyph panel contains a bear track, circles, lines, and numerous abstract designs, but is being destroyed through natural exfoliation.

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Typical setting of a Style 7 petroglyph site. The rock art panels occur on horizontal, ground-level outcrops within the coniferous forest.
Dan Foster mapping petroglyphs at Soda Springs, site CA-PLA-26. Style 7 panels occur on glacially-polished bedrock outcroppings but boulder surfaces were not utilized.
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John Betts at the Devils Peak Style 7 petroglyph site. Note the placement of petroglyphs on dark colored rock surface.
Concentric circles at Donner Pass, site CA-NEV-5.
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Zigzag lines in parallel series, simple crosses, and circle and line elements at Spaulding Ridge, site CA-NEV-426.
Wavy lines, clustered circles, bear tracks, and ocmplex circle and line elements at Hawley Lake, site CA-SIE-1.
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Complex arrangements of circle and line elements at Wabena, site CA-PLA-591. Illustration by John Betts.
An outstanding pair of bear track elements at the Spaulding Ridge site.
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A stick-figure anthropomorph and complex arrangements of circles and lines at Lakes Basin, site CA-PLU-88.
Individual peck marks can be recognized at some Style 7 Petroglyph panels, such as Bear Valley, site CA-PLA-504.
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Dark mafic inclusion incorporated into petroglyph design at the Donner Pass site.
Natural rock veins used as borders for elaborate series of parallel lines at the Willis Gortner Site, site number CA-PLA-551.
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The spectacular setting at Wabena where the major peaks of the region are visible in every direction.
Distribution of the 15 petroglyph sites listed by Louis A. Payen in his original definition of the High Sierra Abstract-Representational Style (Style 7).
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Artifacts are found at about half the known Style 7 sites, usually along the margins of the outcrop containing the petroglyphs.
Diagnostic artifacts recovered at Palisade Creek, site CA-PLA-823. Illustrations by John Betts.
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Diagnostic artifacts recovered at Miller Meadows (site CA-PLA-826) and Wabena (site CA-PLA-591). Illustrations by John Betts.
Stick-figure anthropomorph, bear track, and circle and line elements at Spaulding Ridge. This distinctive human figure appears to be throwing a spear with an atlatl (spear thrower) which siggests that the petroglyphs were made during the Middle Archaic period, approximately 4000 to 1500 years ago.
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Petroglyph panel at Devils Peak, site of CA-PLA-822, recorded in 1997 by John Betts during CAL FIRE's Style 7 inventory.
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Distribution of known Style 7 petroglyph sites within the northern Sierra Nevada and location of the Martis Archaeolgoical Complex area.
PDF Version
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Diagnostic artifacts recovered at Snow Mountain, site CA-PLA-825. Illustrations by John Betts.
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Diagnostic artifacts recovered at Old Baldy Crest, site CA-PLA-821. Illustrations by John Betts.

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