Those interested in the first evidence of art usually focus on sites like Lascaux in France or Altamira in Spain, but for Americans it turns out there is a site in California’s China Lake, near Death Valley, that rivals those or any other rock art locations around the world. David Page managed to visit despite the U.S. Navy declaring the area off limits, for the New York Times:
Ridgecrest, Calif. — We were inside Restricted Area R-505 of the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, rolling in a minivan across the vast salt pan of an extinct Pleistocene lake on our way to see a renowned collection of ancient rock art. On the console between the seats was a long-range two-way radio. It was there so that our escort, a civilian Navy public affairs officer named Peggy Shoaf, could keep abreast of where and when any bombs would be dropped — or launched, or whatever — so that we wouldn’t be there when it happened.
Established in the summer of 1943 in the heat of Allied offensives in the Pacific, China Lake is the Navy’s premier weapons testing range and its largest real estate holding. “Every weapon being used overseas right now was tested here,” Ms. Shoaf said. The property comprises 1.1 million acres of Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles and west of Death Valley, including the Coso Mountain range and an active volcanic field that is one of the largest producers of geothermal electricity in the country.
The base is a haven for wild horses, burros, rattlesnakes and scorpions. It is also home to a complex of remote canyons holding the greatest concentration of ancient rock art in the Western Hemisphere, known as the Coso Petroglyphs.
With us rode David S. Whitley, an archaeologist and expert on prehistoric rock art and iconographic interpretation. Having visited hundreds of sites all over the world, including Lascaux and Chauvet in France and the Côa Valley in Portugal, he believes the Coso Petroglyphs to be one of the most important rock art sites on earth.
Mr. Whitley estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 images carved into the dark volcanic canyons above the China Lake basin, some as old as 12,000 to 16,000 years, others as recent as the mid-20th century…