Intaglios are one of the best kept secrets of the southwestern desert. They are geoglyphs created by ancient people by removing the dark stones from the desert pavement to reveal the lighter colored surface below. Sometimes the glyphs are further accentuated by piling the stones around the edges. Intaglios can be found in countries all over the world, but almost all of the intaglios in the United States are located in the desert region along the lower Colorado River. Most of the intaglios are very large and can only be recognized when seen from a plane flying over them, which explains why no one noticed them until Army Air Corps pilot George A. Palmer discovered the Blythe Intaglios in 1931. The Blythe Intaglios consists of several of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric figures, the largest at 170 feet long. A total of six glyphs were found in the Blythe region, and many believe that they tell the story of creation. Jay von Werlhof was one of the principal researchers of the intaglios and of the few who actually discussed the intaglios with the local Native American tribes. He determined that the intaglios are located along a Trail of Dreams, the path a boy would follow during his spiritual Visionquest to become a man. The intaglios are at the locations of important mythical events, and many of the sites have associated rituals.
The art is almost impossible to date and estimates range from 200 to 8000 years old. The Mojave say that the glyphs have been there "forever". Interestingly enough, while it might seem to be common sense to most of us to consult local tribes about art that was created by their ancestors, it has been said that for many years the scientific community ignored Native Americans for much of the 20th century, stating that ethnography was irrelevant to its study. (Jay von Wherlof's Trail of Dreams, Whitely, PCAS Quarterly 50)
Other than as a curiosity, not much attention was given to the intaglios for several decades until National Geographic did an article on the Blythe Intaglios in the 1950s. It wasn't until the 1980s that scientists began to pay serious attention and started to locate and document other geoglyphs along the lower Colorado. Eventually over 300 intaglios were located in the American Southwest and neighboring Mexico, and my research indicates that there may be 600 or more currently documented. The Blythe Intaglios are the best known, the locations of most of the others are kept secret within the scientific community. The Triangles are one of the few whose location is published. I still wasn't able to find any additional information about them other than what is said in the Mojave Road Guide - that they were created by an ancient people who we know nothing about. I was hoping to find some suggested interpretations of what they might signify, but have had absolutely no luck.
Not much has been done in the way of preservation of the intaglios. The head of one of the giant human-like figures near Blythe was destroyed when General Patton was conducting tank training. A nearby spiral or coiled snake was almost obliterated by off road drivers who did not realize they were driving over ancient sacred artwork. The Blythe intaglios were eventually fenced to prevent further damage and vandalism. Nearby another set of geoglyphs was damaged when a road was widened for a solar project, and local tribes are now getting involved fighting to preserve this rarest form of rock art by organizing to file complaints and lawsuits. At least five geoglyphs and cultural resources are within the project boundaries of the solar project at Blythe, and a total of 19 are located on the land immediately surrounding the project site. Other areas of the desert where intaglios are located are being targeted for large scale solar projects and there seems to be very little outside interest for preserving this ancient art, undoubtedly much of that is because the general public isn't even aware of their existance. High Country News has a fantastic article about the fight to preserve the intaglios.
A very small number of the identified intaglio locations have been fenced, according to my research it is approximately only a dozen. The Triangle Intaglios seen here are protected by a post barricade to prevent vehicles from driving over them. Archaeologists are concerned that fencing will create awareness of the location of the remaining hundreds of glyphs. But since most people would not recognize a large intaglio from the ground, people may inadvertently cause damage by driving or walking over them without realizing they are there. It's a Catch-22.
The Triangle Intaglios are easy to recognize from the ground. Located high on top of a mesa, most are only a foot or two across. From up here it's easy to see why this was considered a sacred place.
There are a few located outside the barrier and I assume these are not original, but created by modern day people in attempt to replicate the intaglios.
Likewise with this intaglio in the shape of an arrow, which is behind the barricade. Since there are no other arrows in this location, I assume that someone vandalized one of the triangles to create the shape of an arrow.
Since this type of art is so difficult to date, even for the experts, it can be very frustrating when I find something in a remote location and can't be sure if it is an archaeological site or something created by modern man. One time when exploring a remote location I came across what I believed was some type of ceremonial circle intaglio edged with rocks. It was in the right location, located on a raised point of land overlooking a spectacular desert landscape. It certainly felt like a sacred location to me. But I noticed evidence that someone had recently camped nearby, and it was impossible for a layman with no formal training to tell if this was a sacred site or just a large circle of rocks created by people who had camped here recently. Attempting to research the location on the internet proved futile. I've read countless scientific white papers on California's rock art but have yet to find anything specific to that location.
The plight of the intaglios gives me mixed feelings about the need to keep their locations a secret. While I've seen way too much destruction and vandalism at significant locations across the desert, especially in recent years with the easy access to information on the internet and people's desire to share, if people don't know about such places they won't be aware of how special they are and why they deserve to be protected. Surely something so sacred to our ancestors deserves to at least be protected from destruction by large-scale solar projects.
Have you come across any intaglios in your travels? I'd love to hear about it!
I visited the Triangle Intaglios on a recent adventure along the historic Mojave Road, a 130+ mile trail through the remote Mojave Desert. If you missed it, you can read my three-part series on DrivingLine -
Part 1 - Holiday on the Trails: The Historic Mojave Road
Part II - The Historic Mojave Road: Soda Lake to Marl Springs
Part III - The Historic Mojave Road: Marl Springs to Goffs