Protecting the Past |

Protecting the Past

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer

About 10,000 years ago, Nevadans communicated their culture by carving figures and designs on rocks.

They carved people, sheep and deer; figures of the implements they used to hunt and gather and abstract designs, the meaning of which left the high desert with them.

What they meant when the petroglyphs were carved isn’t known, said Dr. Angus Quinlan, an archaeologist and executive director of the Reno-based Nevada Rock Art Foundation.

“In general, most of the art is abstract and doesn’t necessarily represent an actual item,” he said. “The problem with doing interpretation is you put in your own priorities. It’s like figuring out what the original message of Stonehenge was.

Some is identifiable; such as a net, which Quinlan said was used to hunt rabbits, by chasing them into nets where others would beat them to death with clubs. He said some Washoe Tribe elders have been able to recognize basket designs. But most is beyond our understanding.

In order to interpret the art, we would have to think like people did 10,000 years ago, Quinlan said.

He said it’s difficult to tell the exact age of the Lagomarsino petroglyphs, but some artifacts in the area give an indication.

He looked at the site the same way one looks at an historic Anglo setting.

“Nevada is littered with ghost towns. This is just an early one,” he said.

But it wasn’t quite a town. The early Nevadans were hunter-gatherers, they didn’t settle in once place, though they had regular locations where they camped during various seasons.Photo:18528521,left;

“As soon as people appeared in this part of the world, they started making art,” he said.

Now, that art is at risk, while the Nevada Rock Art Foundation tries to save it at the same time.

The Lagomarsino petroglyphs are listed as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state by Preserve Nevada, a group dedicated to preserving the state’s historic treasurers.

The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and contains about 5,000 panels of rock art, containing about 100,000 motifs, according to Quinlan. That doesn’t count the many other items carved on rock since then, which has damaged the historic petroglyphs.

On one panel, a drawing of what appears to be a bighorn sheep in the lower left corner of a rock is surrounded by a line that Quinlan said was done later, by a vandal using a rock saw to try to remove the section.

“It’s really disturbing,” he said. “Some people have tried using jackhammers and prying panels of boulders in the last 10 or 11 years.

He believes those that put their initials or names on the petroglyphs do so out of ignorance.

“They don’t realize the value of this or what long lasting damage they’re doing,” he said.

The rock art often shows considerable detail. The graffiti artists aren’t so patient, or careful. Much of the damage is scratches of initials and names on petroglyphs.

Most of the graffiti has been made in the last 50 years. Some dates go as far back as 1906 and 1920.

Kitty ’77, Koch 1968, and someone with the initial “K” put it on many rocks, raising the ire of volunteer Bob Taylor, a retired pharmacist from Reno who has been with the foundation since its inception.

“I’d like to run across that K and make some scratches on his behind,” he said.

A circle with a line in it became a peace sign, with someone later putting in the diagonal lines.

Quinlan said he can distinguish the graffiti from the petroglyphs because of the detail and coloring of the original work. Anything added to it, like skis and a penis on one human figure, would be lighter and less well defined. The group has paid for a conservation expert to come to the site and try to camouflage the graffiti.

“If you want to discourage vandalism, you try to disguise its presence,” he said. “If people come up and see it, they think it’s an acceptable thing.”

He said that some graffiti artist compare themselves to the carvers of the petroglyphs, which he finds offensive.

“It can’t compare to aboriginal art,” he said. “It won’t ever be considered historic, it’s not done in the same social context. It is really ugly stereotypical copies of mindless initials.”

To fight that ugliness, the Nevada Rock Art Foundation has begun a thorough documentation that includes gridding the panels, making scale drawings of every panel, every motif, and digitizing them, to use in prosecuting anyone caught damaging the site further.

“Conviction of damage to archaeological resources is difficult,” Quinlan said. “To get it, you really need a good thorough record of the condition of the site. A complete record that will stand up in court when it becomes necessary.”

“No one has attempted to document a site of this scale to the extent that we are. One day people will talk about what an amazing thing we did.”

Quinlan has been working to protect the Lagomarsino petroglyphs since 2003, when he was introduced to it by his late wife Alanah Woody, who was one of the founders of the group. Now he’s carrying on some of her efforts to protect the site.

One of those efforts was to work very closely with Storey County officials, who have installed signs advising visitors of the historic site and assigned volunteers and law enforcement officials to patrol the sites.

“If people think there’s a chance they will be apprehended, they are less likely to do anything,” he said.

Quinlan said the county tried fencing and put a gate on it and people just drove through.

Since so many already know about the site, keeping people out is not an option anymore, he said. Now they try to educate people, and make sure people know they will have the recordings if vandals are caught.

Nine volunteers were out for several weeks, making grids and drawings, packing everything they needed, including an outdoor toilet.

Cheryln Bonnet and husband Ralph patrol the area regularly. As she worked recording her section, she showed some more graffiti on the art.

“They think they’re being cute by doing that, but they change the whole meaning of it,” she said. “So we have to educate people and stop the graffiti.”

– Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or call 881-7351.


To contribute to the preservation effort, or to volunteer, call the Nevada Rock Art Foundation at 323-6723.