By Nicholas Stanley Price
Deep in the mountains and precipitous canyons of the Sierra de San Francisco of the Baja California peninsula in northwest Mexico lies some of the world's most spectacular rock art.
Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and today the destination of an increasing number of visitors, the rock art sites of Baja California remained for many years little known, even after news of them had traveled beyond the Sierra. Jesuit missionaries who entered Baja California in the 18th century were the first to report on their existence. The Jesuits also provided firsthand information on the local Cochimí Indian population, but the Cochimí did not lay claim to the paintings, ascribing them instead to a race of giants that had entered the peninsula from the north.
The Jesuits recorded their observations on the paintings in a dispassionate style, proposing rational explanations for their creation. A more excited response to discovering the painted rock shelters in this remote and rugged land is that of a recent author, Harry Crosby, who did much to publicize the Great Mural sites, as he called them, through his explorations of the Sierra in the 1970s:
Over the slit-like opening of a long shallow cave was a vast expanse of fairly smooth rock surface. On that was painted a tumultuous cavalcade of human and animal figures far greater than life size. All the beasts seemed to press forward in movement from right to left; huge red and black deer and equally immense red mountain sheep dominated the surge. The figures were all executed in a strange sort of partial superimposition that gave a powerful sense of motion. Each animal seemed to be in mad flight treading on the heels of those ahead and straining to free himself from the crush behind. Scattered among the creatures of this bustling frieze were a variety of strangely static humans. Whereas the hurrying animals moved in profile across the stony canvas, the men faced us, frozen into identical erect postures with their arms upraised.
I was astonished and overwhelmed. The impact of that vast canvas is impossible to describe.
Few outsiders had preceded Mr. Crosby in documenting the Sierra de San Francisco's rock art. For nearly 200 years after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Baja California in 1768, there was little investigation of the paintings. One of the few reports was that of Líon Diguet, an engineer employed by the French mining company at Santa Rosalía, on the east coast of the peninsula; he explored a number of sites and in 1895 published descriptions of their paintings in the French academic literature. In 1951 a team from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) explored a site in the Sierra de Guadalupe, south of the Sierra de San Francisco. Neither report, however, led to systematic exploration.
It was not until the 1960s that the rock paintings were widely popularized, the result of their "discovery" from a helicopter by the well-known mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Local ranchers of the Sierra had, of course, long been aware of the sites, many of them encountered during searches for lost livestock along the steep canyon walls.
Today the ranchers play a key role, acting as guides to visitors, but they claim no cultural affinity with the painting tradition, being for the most part descendants of the Hispanic population that accompanied the first Jesuit expeditions into the Sierra.
The Paintings in Context
As Harry Crosby's description suggests, the paintings are notable for often being much greater than life size and for their vivid depictions of animals in movement and humans in formalized, static positions. Hundreds of sites with paintings have been recorded in the sierras of the central Baja peninsula, an arid region receiving less than 100 millimeters of rainfall a year. Despite the apparently inhospitable nature of the area, the paintings depict a wide variety of animal species: among them are mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, and rabbit; there are also birds and marine animalsfish, sea turtle, and stingray.
Red, black, white, and (rarely) yellow are the principal colors used, derived from local mineral sources. Figures are often outlined in white and infilled with either solid color or stripes. Many human and animal figures are impaled by arrows or spears.
The paintingsand the many petroglyphs, or rock engravings, found in the Sierraare the work of the prehistoric population that inhabited the Baja California peninsula. The archaeology of this area is now much better known thanks to a project carried out and directed by María de la Luz Gutiérrez of INAH and Justin Hyland of the University of California, Berkeley, between 1992 and 1994. Systematic surveying and selected excavation of rock-shelter and open-air sites have helped establish the cultural context of the remarkable paintings and their creators. Radiocarbon dating suggests that most sites flourished between 1500 and 500 years ago, though there is evidence of human presence in the area as early as 9000 B.C.E.
In addition to the large scale of many of the paintings, two aspects that impress those lucky enough to see them are the astonishing preservation of their strong colors and the fact that many motifs are painted far out of reach of present-day visitors. The Jesuits speculated that the paintingsin places nine meters or more above ground levelmight have been executed using scaffolding, "unless we imagine extremely long paint brushes in their hands!"
The preservation of the colors was noted by Father Joseph Mariano Rothea, who lived at the local mission of San Ignacio until the Jesuit expulsion: "The durability of these colors seemed notable to me; being there on the exposed rock in the inclemencies of sun and water where they are no doubt struck by rain, strong wind or water that filters through these same rocks from the hill above, with all this, after much time, they remain highly visible."
Such testimony can serve as a baseline condition report from more than two centuries ago. Present-day observations of the rock shelters in which the paintings are found unfortunately indicate cause for concern. The shelters are formed where water and wind erosion create shallow overhangs. At times, large blocks of the volcanic conglomerate collapse when the eroding strata beneath can no longer support them. In other words, the very process that created the shelters carries with it the seeds of the shelters' destruction. One of the tasks of the modern conservator is to determine the rate of deterioration of the shelters and to take measures to slow it down.
Conservation of the Great Murals
In 1994 the Getty Conservation Institute launched the first field campaign of a project designed to assess the conservation needs of the rock art sites of the Sierra de San Francisco.
The project was established as a collaboration with INAH; the Governor of the State of Baja California Sur; and Amisud, a nonprofit association devoted to the conservation of Baja California's natural and cultural heritage. The President of Amisud, Enrique Hambleton, has been exploring and photographing the mural sites for some 25 years, having accompanied Harry Crosby on several of his trips during the 1970s.
The Institute's involvement in the area began in 1989. At the initiative of GCI Director Miguel Angel Corzothen President of the Friends of the Arts of Mexico Foundationthe Institute, the Foundation, and Mexican partners organized a visit to sites in the Sierra de San Francisco, followed by a symposium to analyze conservation and management needs. Alejandro Martínez, INAH's Coordinator of Archaeology, participated in the trip and the discussions that followed. "I was impressed with the sites and the work Enrique Hambleton and others were doing," he says. As a result, he directed INAH's attention toward promoting the rock art of the region, an effort that culminated in the archaeology and management project that it undertook in the early 1990s, and in the nomination of the rock paintings as a World Heritage site.
Continuing discussions between the GCI and Mexican authorities in the years following the 1989 site visit ultimately led to the conservation project initiated in 1994, which chose the Cueva de El Ratón as a pilot site. The project has four main aims: to document the extent and condition of the paintings at that location, to determine how best to preserve them, to help establish a management plan for the Sierra's archaeological zone, and to extend the expertise of selected Latin American professionals to include rock art conservation. The project draws upon the GCI's previous experience in organizing training courses in rock art conservation and in the management of sites. The core team members include two graduates and the coordinator of the diploma course in rock art conservation that the GCI coorganized with the University of Canberra in 1989. Of the five participating Latin American professionals, two are conservators from INAH's Restoration Center in Mexico City; the other three come, respectively, from Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
This team has now recorded the paintings at El Ratón in detail and assessed their condition. As a result of the third field campaign, which took place in May 1996, the composition and techniques of the paintings are being analyzed. The team used stereophotogrammetrythe photographing and delineation of a surface so that it can be viewed in three dimensionsin order to provide a baseline record of the rock art; no other technique seemed capable of accurately recording paintings executed on such a heterogeneous substrate of rough conglomerate.
The condition assessment was achieved by the more traditional technique of extremely close observation over several weeks. Nearly 200 separate motifs have been identified and their condition described on a detailed record form and graphically on an acetate overlay on an enlarged photograph of the area under study. A database containing all this information enables the team to ask questions about the co-variation of different variables of technique or condition.
Participating in this process of comprehensive assessment "has changed how I will work in the future," says Valerie Magar, one of the two INAH conservators on the project's team. "I now realize the importance of detailed recording of the condition of sites."
Sustained observation also enables team members to identify clues about the original painting technique, the actual sequence of painting in places where there are multiple superimpositions, and the differential survival of various pigments. Field observations have also guided the scientific sampling of pigments and deterioration phenomena that was carried out this year.
The combination of field observation and scientific analysis should answer questions such as those the Jesuits posed. Were scaffolds or long brushes used? Are the colors as durable as the Jesuits thought? And to what extent can the panels of extensive painting be considered "compositions"? Perhaps, as with much rock art, the act of painting was more important than the aesthetic impact of the finished result.
When the results are synthesized, not only will the Cueva de El Ratón become the first Great Mural site to have its art fully recorded and analyzed, but the project's methodology will be made available for other painted sites in Baja California and elsewhere.
Management of Visitors
In the past, the rock art sites of Baja California were protected by their remoteness. Even today, only a couple of sites are reachable by vehicle along dirt roads. Otherwise, to gain access, visitors must journey many hours on a mule, accompanied by guides from the Sierra's scattered ranches who ensure safe descent through the deep canyons to the cooler streambeds and an overnight campsite.
Until recently, most of the relatively few visitors to the sites have been from the United States. After Erle Stanley Gardner publicized the existence of the paintings in the 1960s, individual researchers and groups were inspired to explore the Sierra, frequently with adverse impact on the sites; every movable object was removed from them, and illicit excavations were made in rock shelter floors. Moreover, the natural environment of the canyons deteriorated as increasing numbers of people camped there.
By the early 1990s, official concern had increased for the preservation of the Sierra's natural and cultural heritage. INAH had already taken a number of measures to control visitors to the area. However, with the frequent flouting of existing regulations and the expected increase in tourism as a result of the World Heritage nomination, a new management plan was urgently needed.
At this point, the site conservation aims of INAH's special archaeological project in the Sierra coincided with the GCI's interest in the development of a management plan. The four partnersINAH, the GCI, the Governor of Baja California Sur, and Amisudworked together closely to implement a new plan. They used a participatory model in which all those affected by the plan, including the local ranchers, were consulted and their interests taken into account. Following two meetings of all the stakeholders in San Ignacio, in November 1994 and April 1995, the new plan was agreed upon and is now in operation.
It is "absolutely essential" for local residents to participate in the creation of the plan, says Enrique Hambleton of Amisud. Without them, he believes, it would fail. "One of the interesting things about this management plan is that it was sort of a historical first in Mexico. Management plans have tended to be pronouncements from the central government, with little or no input from local inhabitants. In this case, the model we used called for participation from everyone with a stake in the area. Some 40 or 50 people sat around a table for four days, hammered out their differences, and came up with a really good document. So everyone feels the plan is theirs. That helps in making it work."
Freddy Taboada, one of the project's conservators who has also worked extensively in the management of Bolivian rock art sites, concurs. He noted how much could be accomplished "when there is respect for the cultural legacy, respect for the biosphere, and when authorities, scientists, and the local community work together solving the problems that arise."
For visitors to INAH's archaeological zone in the Sierra, the most visible results of the new site management measures are the access paths, walkways, and information signs that greet them at these remote places. In order to see the sites, visitors must contact the information center in San Ignacio, acquire authorization, and have their requirements for guides and pack animals ordered in advance by radio transmission to the ranches in the Sierra from which trips depart. Requests for visits are divided into categories ranging from day trips to sites accessible by dirt roads to research visits to parts of the Sierra that otherwise remain closed.
These procedures have helped manage the increasing number of people wanting to see these spectacular sites and the no less spectacular landscape that surrounds them. Along with the facilities now installed at six of the most visited rock shelters, they help convey the image of a well-managed area, thereby favorably influencing visitor behavior.
Installing facilities at the six rock shelter sites was a major logistical challenge. The design of the walkways was inspired by similar ones in place at rock art sites in Kakadu National Park in Australia. However, unlike at Kakadu, helicopters were not available to fly in the large quantities of construction material and field provisions needed for a four-month campaign involving some 30 personnel.
In a remarkable organizational achievement, the INAH teamsupervised by María de la Luz Gutiérrez, the INAH archaeologist responsible for the Sierra de San Franciscotransported in approximately 60 days all the materials and provisions needed using some 40 pack animals. While 20 donkeys were descending loaded into the canyon, 20 other animals without loads were ascending to the top of the mesa, ready to return the following day. The work was carried out against a tight deadline between July and October 1994, during the hottest time of the year.
Alejandro Martínez of INAH is pleased that his efforts and those of others have led to the new attention the rock art sites have received, both nationally and internationally. But he would like to see more done to assist the local residents of the Sierra who are already doing a better job of protecting the sites. "I am convinced that an important element in managing the sites is raising the socioeconomic level of the local population," says Dr. Martínez. "Encouraging controlled, low-impact tourism would provide them with greater income and give them an additional stake in the preservation of the rock art."
The isolation of the Great Mural sites in the Sierra de San Francisco has certainly helped preserve them. But it also creates considerable obstacles to recording the paintings, to assuring their future conservation, to providing visitor facilities, and to monitoring the effectiveness of site management measures.
The application of scientific analyses may modify the Jesuits' impressionshared by manyof the good state of the paintings' preservation. For instance, because some pigments weather faster than others, what we see now may not be as it was originally painted. Certainly an increased understanding of the paintings' techniques and deterioration processes will help in the control of future degradation. The Mexican conservators involved in the project at El Ratón will have an important role to play in future monitoring, as they draw upon their intimate knowledge of the site and the detailed documentation now in hand. Condition analyses so far suggest that close monitoring of the paintings will be essential if their deterioration is not to continue unchecked.
The field of rock art conservation has much less accumulated experience to rely upon than have many other areas of conservation. And the necessity of working in remote areas, such as the Sierra de San Francisco, compounds the problems facing rock art conservators. Nevertheless, because of the sustained, close collaboration between the GCI and its Mexican partners, there are good grounds for believing that this outstanding rock art heritage will remain well managed and an inspiration to visitors for a long time to come.
Nicholas Stanley Price, former Deputy Director of the GCI Training Program, is a consultant leading the GCI team at the Cueva de El Ratón.
Members of the El Ratón Field Team
Nicholas Stanley Price
María de la Luz Gutiérrez
Luz de Lourdes Herbert
Valerie Magar Meurs
Freddy Taboada Tellez
María Isabel Hernández Llosas Archaeologist
Bernardita Ladrón de Guevara Conservator
Jesús Prieto Mendoza
Participants in the Site Management Planning Process
Jorge Amao Manriquez
María de la Luz Gutiérrez
Rubén Cardoza Macías
Fernando Romero Escopinichi
Gilberto Flores Yee
Gilberto Girón Soto
Francisco Miguel de la FuenteMorón
José Lino Fontes Murillo
Nicholas Stanley Price
Javier Arce Arce
Alfredo Ojeda Ojeda
Refugio Antonio Arce Ojeda
Mauricio Zuñiga Arce
Ramón Arce Agundes
José de Jesús Varela Galván
Eduardo Sedano Moya
Humberto Jiménez Michel
Rogelio Aguilar Blez
Aarón Real Villavicencio
Jesús Humberto Alondo Fuente
José Manuel Castor Jordán