When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I volunteered with the archaeologists at the Presidio of Santa Barbara – an open-air museum that represented the reconstructed remains of the Spanish fort that had been constructed to provide protection to the Mission located nearby. These folks worked not only at the Presidio, but would do other archaeology-related jobs around the county. This included surveys at Mission La Purisima in Lompoc (on the north side of the county), small projects around the county, and work at a rock art site known as the Chumash Painted Cave.
The painted caves appear to have been a ritual site, possibly for a religious elite group known as the ‘Antap Cult that existed within Chumash society prior to the arrival of Europeans. The ‘Antap served a number of purposes, from ritual functions to holders of political power (it appears that you couldn’t become a chief or other elite unless you were a member of the ‘Antap). After the Spanish largely decimated local religion, the ‘Antap began to be viewed differently by most Chumash people - based on Chumash stories gathered during the late 19th and early 20th century, it looks like the ‘Antap had ceased to be seen as ritual and political officers and come to be seen as boogey-man like creatures (a view that may have been fostered by a tendency for the late prehistoric ‘Antap members to encourage a view of themselves as magically powerful and to be feared by the general populace). Therefore, it is no surprise that Painted Cave is sometimes referred to as a place of “death magic”.
Needless to say, I was excited when I was asked to take part in the field work for a project aimed at protecting the rock art in Painted Cave – after all, it’s not everyday that one gets to hang out in a place of powerful death magic.
The purpose of the project was to determine how long the rock art was likely to remain on the stone. The cave was located within a sandstone formation, and the stone within the cave was exfoliating, creating a floor-cover of sand inside of the cave. The exfoliation was degrading the rock art, but was also causing further degradation – when the wind whips up it lifts the sand off of the floor and blows it through the cave, acting as a low-grade sand paper and removing paint from the walls. So, it was important both to remove the existing sand from the floor of the cave, and to measure the rate at which new sand is appearing in the cave. To this end, we opened the gate*and entered the cave. We used shop vacuum that had been fitted with archaeological screens to remove sand and recover any artifacts that might be on the floor of the cave. We also placed small ceramic cylinders at various locations throughout the cave in order to measure the rate of sand accumulation.
While cleaning out the cave, we kept finding “offerings” of plant bundles – primarily sage. While some of these were probably from local Chumash people, based on what we were seeing, I suspect that many of them were left by local New-Age folks who were seeking to commune with nature spirits**. We also were able to get a close look at the 19th century graffiti that had been created inside of the cave (the cave was allegedly used by Pony Express riders, and is known to have been used as a camping location by locals since the mid-19th century). While the rock art was stunning, the 19th century graffiti – comprised primarily of people’s names and the year, references to local events, and the like – was really interesting as well. In both cases, there was this amazing sense that I was seeing something that had been done by people now long dead, and yet their handiwork remained.
I ended up placing a cylinder inside of a crevice in the back of the cave. Not realizing that my arms were longer than everyone else’s, I placed it in an area where I figured that I’d be able to reach in and adjust the cylinder. After I had stopped volunteering, I discovered that the other archaeologists had to buy a toy “robot arm” in order to reach the cylinder. Score one for the tall guy!
After I had placed the cylinder, I got up to leave the cave, slipped on the sand, and nearly bashed my head on a rock overhang. Now, I’ll leave it to others to determine which would have been worse – my bashing my head open and getting my fool self killed, or me hitting sensitive rock art with my head and possibly damaging it. Regardless, I managed to catch myself before I hit the rock, and was spared either problem.
Since then, I have worked on a number of projects in which rock art was present – and while I have seen some cool stuff, I have never seen anything that quite matches the Painted Cave in terms of just plain cool artwork. Here’s a photo:
*There has been a gate, taken from an old bank vault, in front of painted cave since the 1920’s. There are numerous caves with rock art in them in these mountains, and occasionally I will meet someone who swears up and down that they used to hang out inside the cave. As far as I can tell, these folks were in another cave, and are mistaking it for the one actually named Chumash Painted Cave. Of course, you try to tell someone that and they will insist that you don’t know the history of the area, despite the evidence that it is them who is confused.
**No, I’m not making that up or exaggerating. For a variety of reasons, a segment of the New Age movement has adopted a pet belief that the native peoples of the Americas have a super-human tie to nature spirits, and therefore tend to carry out stereotyped behaviors patterned on misunderstandings of some ethnographic-period rituals. In my experience, this tends to really irritate the modern members of the Native American community, who, rightfully, see this is being more about the New Age folks wanting a mystical past culture to look up to rather than them seeing the Native American community as the gathering of people that it really is – and this often makes attempts to get ahead in mundane but important matters very difficult for the Native American community.