Thursday, July 21, 2005

How the Devil guards his treasures

I've been using my new scanner to digitize slides and negatives I haven't looked at in years. Mostly we took slides of prehistoric rock art. So I have been going through lots of those. I have no hope of scanning them all--I have several thousand. I don't know why we took so many rock art photos. Kay and I hooked up with other people interested in recording this stuff, mostly members of the El Paso Archeological Society. Sometimes a bunch of us would organize expeditions to go out and try to photograph large sites fairly completely.

I think the underlying motivation was a feeling that all of it was bound to be bulldozed, vandalized, stolen, or otherwise destroyed, and we wanted to see it before that happened, and for what it was worth maybe document what was being lost.

Ours was a minority viewpoint. We were not always welcomed by the people who lived near the rock art sites.

One time--probably around 1975--we went to record the rock art near Stahmann Farms, New Mexico. The figures on the rock were the crudest I had seen, in terms of technique, circles and zigzag lines and dots pecked into the jumble of black basalt rocks that flank the upper western terraces of the Rio Grande halfway between Las Cruces and El Paso.

The boulders were full of rock squirrels, which plunder the adjacent pecan orchards along the Rio Grande which were owned by a wealthy New Mexico family, one of whose sons had guided us to the site. The son was interested in the rock art, but he was also interested in killing the squirrels. "Little thieving rodents," he said, thinking of the inroads they were making into the family fortune, "we've never been able to get rid of them."

This family had some political clout and had gotten a law passed in DoƱa Ana County making it illegal to stop a car or walk anywhere along the highway where it ran through the orchard. This was so no one could park and pick up pecans that fell on the road. The squirrels, unlike pedestrians, could not be deterred by any law, and they grew fat and prospered in the rocks, despite the fact that the company pickup trucks on the farm came equipped with .22 rifles to shoot at them.

The young man who had led us to the rocks decided not to shoot squirrels that day because several of the women in the rock art group had objected. He showed us around a little, and told us not to go beyond a certain point on the rocks.

"There's more rock art back down the river on the rocks behind our neighbor's land, but I wouldn't go there. The old man thinks he owns those rocks. Actually the bluff with the Indian stuff on it belongs to the state, but he doesn't know it or doesn't care. Hates archaeologists. Gets mad as hell when an archaeologist tries to look at the rock art."

He went away and eventually, later in the morning, our group had carelessly drifted past the forbidden line. We were clambering across the rocks like a troop of baboons, noisy, searching competitively, waving to each other and hollering to come over here and take pictures, as we worked through the boulders finding the faded Indian symbols.

We saw this old Mexican man with a shotgun standing below the rocks. He was shouting. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I went down with a couple of the other guys. Our group's leader tried to explain what we were doing and why. The old man didn't want to hear it.

"You people are trespassin' on my land. I want you off them damn rocks now."

No one wanted to argue with a man with a gun, and the leader of our expedition shouted to everybody to come down off the rocks and go back to other side of the boundary that had been pointed out to us. People started to come down, reluctantly, and in the meantime I tried to engage the old man in small talk.

"How come you don't like folks looking at that rock art?"

"All these damn people talkin' about art and Indians and crap come in here and tear down my fences and trample my crops."

I looked out across his fields, which had not been plowed or cultivated in several years, or so it appeared. Drifts of dry tumbleweed had piled up against the side of his eroding adobe house.

"What do you grow?" I asked.

"Everything" he said. "Alfalfa. Chiles. Onions."

"OK" I said, "what would you say to letting some of us in some day when you're home, a small group of us, and you can watch and make sure nobody goes where they shouldn't?"

He eyed me with contempt. "Hijueputa! " he said, either of me or the proposal. "I'm always home," he said, "but I ain't lettin' nobody in. And as for that damn so-called art," he said, and spat, "them signs on the rock was put there for bad luck." He paused. "Signs of the Devil, to guard what's there. You know, some people think part of Montezuma's royal treasure is buried back in those rocks. I'm too old to find it. But I ain't lettin' no treasure hunters or for that matter no bunch of so-called archaeologists hunt around. In fact you're lucky I didn't call the sheriff. Just last year a had a couple of foreigners arrested. Man and a woman. Claimed they come all the way from France to take pictures of those goddamn bad-luck signs on the rock, but there ain't nobody in his right mind would believe a story like that. They must have thought I was some kind of fool."

Far as I know nobody ever got to take pictures of the old man's bad luck signs.

signs of the Devil
Kay drawing some hard-to-see signs of the Devil. Often the eye can see them more clearly than a camera can.

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