Paul Goldsmith has been busy thinking about — and photographing — visual communiques from artists of a bygone time. The artists were Native Americans and their medium is petroglyphs and pictographs carved into rocks in the Coso Range at the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. Paul spent countless hours over a period of years at the site, which is on the China Lake Naval Weapons Range and requires permission from the military, which means that few have seen it. The art was created over the course of centuries and ranges from 800 to 9,000 years old.
About 160 of Paul’s stills form the heart of Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosmos, a book that also includes some of his musings. He has also made a documentary film that aired on PBS.
“As cinematographers, we are practitioners of visual communication,” says Paul. “The location of these prehistoric images would look familiar to us, because rather than hidden away in dark caves, they are on the walls of canyons – the exact place you might choose to project a movie. They were clearly meant for everyone to see. This is the largest concentration in the world — there might be 200,000 images there. And because it’s on a super-secure military base, it’s as protected as anything can be. It’s strange to think that some of the most advanced military technology in the world is tested there, in the same place where you can see representations of ancient, primitive weapons marked into the rocks.
“It’s an interesting spot, and it took me a year to get permission to go there,” he says. “Anthropologists have many elaborate theories about the meaning of these carvings, but they remain mysterious. Psychologists suggest that by putting our fears into representations outside of ourselves, we externalize them and get them under control. Hunters say that the glyphs looks like an account of a hunt. Almost 50,000 of the images are of big-horned sheep, and one theory is that they were hunted out or victims of climate change, and this art is a kind of prayer to bring them back. But everyone I show these images to finds them interesting in one way or another. One possible reason is that our brains have been looking at and reading signs for thousands of years, perhaps even before language, so we developed a fundamental part of the brain that fires up when we see them.
“I write about that in the very end of the book,” he says. “There are other books about rock art, but they tend to be written by anthropologists and Ph.D.s, with hundreds of pages of words with very few pictures. I’ve written a little bit, but I edited myself ruthlessly because I wanted to leave readers to get involved. If you look at the book, you’ll start coming up with your own thoughts and ideas of what was going on there. We can never really know, because we live in such a different world, even though we’re genetically the same.”
I asked Paul if the military resisted the book, thinking that publicity about the existence of the spot would draw the unwanted attention of visitors. “No, they’re proud of what they have up there,” he says. “They’re not endangering it or blowing it up. The reserve is 1.1 million acres — so it’s a lot of land. In order to see these sites, I’d have to cross most of the base. And most of the time, the base is doing something. They would like to share it — it’s just that because of security and logistics, it’s hard to open it to the public. Some of the best wilderness in America is on military installations, and it’s certainly the most protected.
“I had a chance to chat with the commanding officer and found out how much he liked the rock art,” Paul says. “He talked about the possibility of reintroducing big-horned sheep, saying ‘What a victory that would be.’ And were that to happen, in an odd way, I’d be instrumental as a kind of middle-man answering these thousand-year-old prayers to bring back the sheep.”
Published by the University of Utah Press, Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosos is available on amazon.com. The 53-minute documentary film, which has the same title, is being distributed internationally by the Bradshaw Foundation, and in the U.S. by Documentary Educational Resources.
A five-minute preview of the film can be seen here: