by Bertram Lazarus
Late last spring I had the good fortune of visiting Grimes Point, a small archaeological site situated southeast of the sleepy metropolis of Fallon, Nevada, just off Highway 50. Grimes Point, named for a Nevada rancher who settled in the area during the mid-19th Century, is the location of a group of mysterious petroglyphs etched and pecked into half buried, deeply varnished basalt boulders on an arid ledge of a long-exposed lake shore. The petroglyphs are wavy lines, snake-like figures, spirals, stars, circles, and semi-circles with outward radiating lines. The age of the petroglyphs is estimated to be approximately 6,000 years old, although they could be much older, considering that people lived in and traveled through the area for centuries, perhaps long before someone decided to peck away at the exposed rock.
More mysterious is the purpose —if indeed there is one—of the petroglyphs. What do they mean? What did it mean to the people who carved the figures? What does it mean for us today? It’s all intriguing. What was the collective thought process that preceded the creation of the images and eventually determined the shape, size, and location of the motifs? Did the designs have a strictly practical purpose? Were the etchings associated with spiritual messages received by a medicine man during a dream state? Are the motifs relating the story of creation or the history of the cosmos? Are they the songlines of aboriginal people? Are the designs a map of the local landscape or a star chart? Something remarkable was definitely going on here. Whatever the explanation, the petroglyphs are an astonishing record of human experience.
Apparently, no effort was made by Grimes or the early pioneers to ask the local natives about the petroglyphs. That relationship got off on the wrong foot, to put it mildly, and quickly went downhill. Yet the natives living in the area must have had some idea of the deeper meaning of the images, which are part of their heritage and identity, and a record of their culture, outlook and perceptions. Assuming the petroglyphs were made by the ancestors of today’s Shoshone and Paiute people, their continuous presence in the area stretches back several millennia.
More mysterious is the purpose —if indeed there is one—of the petroglyphs. What do they mean? What did it mean to the people who carved the figures? What does it mean for us today? It’s all intriguing.
The mysterious shapes and figures of petroglyphs ride the waves of the undulating basin and range territory from the Sierra Nevada to Great Basin National Park and beyond. Grimes Point is located on what was once a prominent ledge on the shores of ancient Lake Lahontan. At its peak nearly 13,000 years ago, Lake Lahontan had a surface area of over 8,500 square miles and extended across much of northwestern Nevada and eastern California. Toward the end of the Pleistocene, the lake began to dry and gradually broke apart, much of which rapidly dried into playas, such as the Black Rock Desert, or sinks where the Carson River disappears into the ground, or remnant lakes such as Walker and Pyramid. The Grimes Point site may have been exposed approximately 8,000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence.
During my brief visit to Grimes Point, I was struck by a painful juxtaposition. Since the arrival of Euroman, the site has been used for a variety of purposes that reveal a great deal about how advanced and civilized modern man has demonstrated his respect for history, native people, and the land. Grimes Point was once a rock quarry and was used later as a garbage dump. No telling how many petroglyphs were destroyed in the process. While the site became a protected area in 1978, that a legal institution had to be fashioned to protect such an extraordinary place from wanton destruction says a great deal about the evolution of respect that modern America has accorded to the identity of native people and their relationship to the land.
Regardless of human folly, the intriguing mystery of the petroglyphs and the energy they communicate cannot be diminished, even if the images themselves are broken up and hauled away or covered with refuse. The petroglyphs on the windswept point radiate a message that may be desecrated, but cannot be destroyed, covered up, or denied.