The Rock Art Mystery

Rancho Bernardo pre-historic mazes

The Hemet Maze Stone, Riverside County. Hedges has identified three styles of rock art in San Diego County: San Luis Rey in North County (characterized by zigzags, chevrons, and diamond chain designs); La Rumorosa, from south of El Cajon extending deep into Mexico; and the unique, mazelike Rancho Bernardo style.
  • The Hemet Maze Stone, Riverside County. Hedges has identified three styles of rock art in San Diego County: San Luis Rey in North County (characterized by zigzags, chevrons, and diamond chain designs); La Rumorosa, from south of El Cajon extending deep into Mexico; and the unique, mazelike Rancho Bernardo style.

A major original artist painted and chipped on granite rocks from El Cajon to Riverside to Palm Springs. Large mazelike designs, most painted in red ochre, and stark, right-angled fret patterns face east, sometimes southeast, possibly toward the sun. Each work is so sure-handed, whoever did them trusted a vision as only great artists can.

The creator(s) crafted rectangles within rectangles, dizzying rows of lines, also linkages of C-shaped blocks within other blocks. Some look like the battlements of a castle wall; others, the spinal column of a giant. The carvings, called petroglyphs, are engraved in the rock; the paintings are called pictographs. Though patterns vary, many lines are half an inch apart.

The mazelike works aren’t mazes, however. There is no way in or out, or even through the interior. The parallel lines tease your eye from spot to spot. Rather than become locked within the labyrinth, bouncing down hallways for eternity, you want to pull back, take in the whole.

On a typical site, in the low foothills of Poway and Rancho Bernardo, many of the bold designs are isolated. If other rock art styles share space, the mazes and frets lie underneath, like ghost images, suggesting an earlier date. Nearby is usually a cave, natural spring, unusual rock formation, or ancient game trail. Often the wind echoes through the area. Stone scrapers, arrowheads, and other primitive implements indicate that some sites may have been ancient settlements. What the designs mean, however, and who the artist (or artists) was, remain mysteries.

“We just don’t know,” says Ken Hedges, a founder of rock art studies and curator of the San Diego Museum of Man. The field, in fact, resembles the Big Bang Theory. The closer you get, the more you probe, the more the actual event recedes.

Hedges has identified three styles of rock art in San Diego County: San Luis Rey in North County (characterized by zigzags, chevrons, and diamond chain designs); La Rumorosa, from south of El Cajon extending deep into Mexico (which takes many, often representational, forms); and the unique, mazelike Rancho Bernardo style, which runs in an L-shaped corridor from El Cajon to Moreno, then to the desert. But did the latter begin in the desert, then head toward Rancho Bernardo, or vice versa? As yet, no one knows.

Current estimates date the art at over 500 years. “Radiocarbon dating has been of little help,” writes Manfred Knaak. “Items such as fossilized vegetation, bone, and charcoal, necessary for this type of analysis, are seldom recovered at sites with petroglyphs and pictographs.”

Who created the art remains as puzzling as when it was created. “One person could have done much of it,” speculates Hedges. “A design a year — for, say, 30 years — could account for most sites. Though the farther away you get, the less the one-person idea becomes tenable.” Just as apprentices aided Michelangelo, the “artist” could have had a family or even generations of helpers. After more than 30 years studying the subject, Hedges is “reticent to pin anything down.”

About the only certainty: the creator of the Rancho Bernardo style never considered him- or herself an artist in the traditional sense. The designs — so abstract, schematic, intricate — look like nothing in nature. This has led to several theories about what they might signify.

The simplest they express a profound sense of order. In a world where life, death, and the unknown were far more everyday, focusing on a pattern could have had a centering effect on observers: chaos does not reign; things have an appropriate place, are possibly interrelated.

Other theories look into the design. “The uniformity of their outline,” writes H.H. Dunn, “and the persistent selection of an eastward-facing boulder near a spring indicate some religious significance.”

That many face the “ceremonial" direction suggests the designs could be ornamental. Ancient religions in the Poway/Rancho Bernardo area believed spirits of the dead flew off to the east. Designs could commemorate that journey.

In primordial times, according to ancient beliefs, earth and heaven were connected. The first people moved back | and forth at will. Then a “sin” occurred— it differs from culture to culture—and the road became blocked to the living.

The dead could cross over. And, risking their lives on the “dangerous bridge," so could shamans. A successful journey momentarily reconnected heaven and earth. It could predict the future, give shamans visions, knowledge, spirit or “dream” helpers, and sacred “power.”

Ancient religions also believe that power exists in netlike grids throughout the world. It accumulates in caves, fissures of rock, springs, waterfalls, or geological formations that sculpt “wind shadows” — where the air vibrates like a Buddhist chant. Each could be “a place of power.”

And rock art could be its marker. Shamans entered the other side through portals — fissures in a rock, water, cave — or by floating upward. Hedges suggests another possibility: “The artist could return to the rock and re-enter his vision.” But was the site a portal, or the art, or both?

Jungians would call the mazelike grids an archetypal descent into a dreamer’s unconscious. The maze blocks wishes and desires from coming into the light. Thus a shaman would paint a maze at his portal to thwart unwanted spirit helpers and demons from following him into this world.

The theory is flashy and might be accurate if the designs were indeed mazes in the modern sense. But they aren’t, and Hedges leans away from that theory. Since we have “no truly aboriginal interpretation,” he’s reticent to ascribe literal readings to the mystery.

Approaching designs from an ancient perspective might put us more in touch. Hedges: “I would love to have seen one of the big mazes when it was fresh: a brilliant ochre red, the ten-foot panel five feet across, probably on a speckled granite surface. The lines might have jumped from the rock, wavered, shimmered.” The space between the painting and the observer would have become a numinous vision.

What David S. Whitley says of the Wukchumni holds true for all rock art: “The motifs...are themselves sacred objects in a concrete sense. It is for this reason that the Wukchumni object to calling them ‘art,’ with its primary connotation of aesthetics.” Losing the motifs “would be the loss not simply of a beautiful and scientific record of the people; it would be the loss of sacred objects important for their spiritual survival.”

In Ruth Alters Painted Rocks, when young Cassie asks Tom Quahan, a Native American, if many people know about rock art, he replies, “Probably too many.”

This is a story about Long Ago San Diego, and also about today. Rock art sites lie in peoples back yards and other private property. The last public Rancho Bernardo-style site was closed not long ago because vandals continually sprayed graffiti on the rocks — and because visitors couldn’t keep from touching the designs. (The Hemet Maze petroglyph is open to the public; for directions call Riverside County Parks at 909-275-4310.)

Johnny Bear Contreras is the unofficial liaison for the San Pasqual Band of Indians. He’s also a sculptor of growing renown who did the Native American Monument for Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. His concern: preservation of a sacred legacy.

“People ask: ‘Know any shamans?’ Or, ‘Where’s your most sacred thing?’ But I wouldn’t ask that in your church. And anyway, even tribal people don’t know everything that’s out there.

“Rock art should be for everyone. What’s needed, first, is to bring appreciation of the sites to a tribal level.” This includes educating those “you’d think wouldn’t need it.

“People should have a feeling for what’s around them. My ancestors spent their time working, raising their kids, laughing, and dying in a natural rhythm. Certain areas attracted or detracted from aspects of their lives. I believe that after hundreds or thousands of years they were able to say, ‘This area makes me feel this way.’”

Contreras also cautions about narrowing down the meaning of rock art designs. “They are tributes, recognitions of natural instinctive things for different individuals.” Among his duties, Contreras works with the county on pre-excavation agreements and mitigation plans for rock art sites. Once, when realigning a trail, someone asked where it should go: over there, up this hill, past that tree? “Where don't you want it?” “They were trying to find a little sacred spot,” says Contreras. “But the whole area is sacred!


  1. Dunn, H.H.,“The Prehistoric Painter of Poway,” Touring Topics (1930)
  2. Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton University, 1964)
  3. Hedges, Ken, “Rock Art Styles in Southern California,” American Indian Rock Art, vol. 28, pp. 25-40; “An Analysis of Diegueno Pictographs,”masters thesis, SDSU (1970); interview
  4. Hultkrantz, Ake, Native Religions of North America: The Power of Visions and Fertility (Harper and Row, 1987)
  5. Knaak, Manfred, The Forgotten Artist: Indians of Anza-Borrego and Their Rock Art (Anza-Borrego Natural History Association, 1988)
  6. White, John Manchip, Everyday Life of the North American Indian (Barnes 8c Noble, 1993)
  7. Whitley, David S., The Art of the Shaman: Rock Art of California (University of Utah Press, 2000); A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada (Mountain Press, 1996)

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