On Donner Summit, there are two impressive displays of rock art: ancient petroglyphs and modern graffiti
On a recent Sunday, my wife and I decided to visit the rock art area above Donner Lake. We had never been there despite living in the area for decades. We were surprised to find both ancient and modern examples of graphic expression. Were prehistoric rock carvers the artistic ancestors of modern-day graffiti writers?
Rock art—both petroglyphs, images scratched into rock, and pictographs, painted images—can be found all over the world and date from prehistoric times. Archeologists say the petroglyphs above Donner Lake are unique.
No one can be sure when they were made or who made them, but experts date them from between 1,700 B.C. and 900 B.C., about 3,000 years ago. Ancestors of the Washo, Maidu and Miwok tribes are thought to have created them during summer visits to the High Sierra.
Archeologists say these petroglyphs have a distinct style unlike any other form of rock art. Most other Native American groups used cliff faces and boulders for their art. But the people who created rock art on Donner Summit chose horizontal or gently sloping granite bedrock surfaces, smoothed by passing glaciers.
Unlike other rock art, images of people and animals are almost non-existent on Donner Summit, although images depicting bear paws, deer hooves and snakes have been found. Mostly, these unknown artists chipped abstract shapes into the granite: circles with lines radiating from them, wavy parallel lines descending from straight lines, concentric circles, and circles with wavy tails, to name a few.
These were made through the laborious process of using one stone to hammer another against the granite, so archeologists believe they were not random doodles but had some purpose.
The people who made these were nomadic hunter/gatherers, so some of the images might be maps of hunting trails. Others might be totems for social groups or might have played a ritualistic role to ensure a good hunt. It has also been suggested that women made these when they came of age as a fertility rite.
They may even mean nothing more than, “I was here.”
Whatever they mean will never be known, so they will probably be as inscrutable in a thousand years as they are now.
The easiest-to-find petroglyphs are just down the road from Rainbow Bridge on old Highway 40. There’s parking on the right side and an easy walk of about 100 yards to the granite slab containing the rock art. It’s an extensive site that contains more than 200 rock art elements.
The petroglyphs here are hard to see because of exposure to the harsh Sierra environment and human activities. Boulders have washed down through the area and scarred the surface and exfoliation has peeled away layers of the granite. Vandals and art poachers have also been at work.
Although he’s not a trained archeologist, Alexander Kerekes has spent years studying rock art throughout North America and has written four books and filmed numerous videos on the topic.
Kerekes has identified five geometric shapes that are common in rock art all over the word, but are thought to mean different things to the different cultures that created them. For example, the spiral is found among cave paintings in France and also on Aztec pyramids.
“I realized that all these symbols exist across humanity are because of a common genesis, that all mankind shares a common ancestor who used these symbols and passed them down,” Kerekes says, likening them to the collective subconscious.
The Donner Summit petrogylphs are situated in an important part of the Sierra. It’s a pass used from ancient to modern times. Just above the rock art is the China Wall made by Chinese laborers in constructing the transcontinental railway. Old wagon roads from the westward migration are still visible, as is the course of the Lincoln Highway, which was replaced successively by highways 40 and 80.
Massive wooden sheds were built along the rail line to protect it from the huge snowdrifts that can accumulate there in winter. Some sheds stretch for a mile or more. At some point, these were replaced by concrete sheds and discarded wooden planks still litter the area.
We noticed pedestrians and some vehicles up on the tracks and decided to investigate.
Unknown to us, the rails had been removed because that part of the rail line had been abandoned in 2007 when the railroad opened a new tunnel tall enough for double-stacked cars.
In just a few years, the snow sheds have been transformed by amazing examples of graffiti art—sequences of mostly abstract murals that stretch for hundreds of yards.
Safe inside the sheds, these artists had the time and shelter to create elaborate surrealistic images, few of which have been defaced by other graffiti and most exhibiting a high degree of talent. It’s almost as if a local art class did them during a field trip. Truckee-Tahoe High School fine arts instructor Carolyn Keigley says she’s seen the artworks but has no idea who painted them. Her students have no idea either.
The area is also very popular with local rock climbers who say they admire the art in the tunnels but hate it when someone defaces the rocks they climb. The paint clogs handholds and is very difficult to remove without damaging the rock.
A few people have noticed the paintings and have commented on the internet. One is Arizona landscape photographer D. Boswell who has photographed graffiti all over the world. Although not a fan of most graffiti, he admits the sheds contain amazing pieces of art.
“So where is the line between art and eyesore, relevant commentary and blight on society?” Boswell asks. “Is carving initials into a tree a rite of passage … or a reprehensible act of vandalism on nature?”
Boswell says he’s no longer sure.
As it happens, Kerekes was the chief of police for Monterey, Calif., before he retired and has taught courses on graffiti and its social implications. He has also toured the snow sheds and has come to the conclusion that they contain tomorrow’s rock art.
“These are modern man’s pictographs and the amazing thing is that some of this art resembles art I’ve seen that was created thousands of years ago,” Kerekes says.
Kerekes doesn’t have any idea who created the graffiti art or what much of it means, but theorizes that organized groups of artists came up from Sacramento or the Bay Area. Most of the pieces are unsigned, but Kerekes says one section is claimed by a “crew.”
Although spray paint is more ephemeral than carvings on granite, these murals are sheltered and could last quite a long time. In a few thousand years, someone may come along and wonder who created them and what they mean.
To see them for yourself, climb up to the right of the China Wall and head for the tunnels in either direction. Bring a flashlight and some courage because some of the longer tunnels can be quite dark, cold and creepy. If you want to skip the petroglyphs and you have a rugged car, there’s a road across from Donner Ski Ranch that will take you there.