Cooler (local) legend than the Mayans: Burro Flats pictographs

Even the Mayans didn't believe the world would end today. But there is a cool semi-ancient, quasi-celestial event that happens around here on the winter solstice. By legend, anyway, today is when the sun lines up with a target-like pictograph in a cave in an area of the Simi Hills called Burro Flats. That's on NASA land within the former Santa Susana Field Lab, west of Chatsworth, where Rocketdyne used to test-fire rocket engines in the 1950s and 60s (and where a partial meltdown of an experimental nuclear reactor in 1959 released radioactive particles in the air and contributed to an environmental mess that's still being cleaned up.)

burro-flats-ruggles1.jpgThe Burro Flats pictographs, Chumash in origin, are considered some of the best preserved Native American art that survives in California. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, without giving away its precise location. The Chumash tribe recently asked for control of the site, but how the rare pictographs will be protected in the future remains in negotiations. The land is closed to the public and neither the Chumash nor NASA, or the lab's current owner Boeing, make it easy to find the site. I've been writing about the pictographs occasionally for about 10 years now, and even if I knew exactly where they are, I wouldn't say. Similar sites in the Chatsworth area, and pretty much everywhere else, have been plundered or destroyed.

The area is pretty interesting, historically. When the first Spaniards dropped into the San Fernando Valley in 1769, the Chumash reportedly had a large settlement beside the creek we call Bell Creek, which flows out of Bell Canyon in the Simi Hills to form the Los Angeles River, under a landmark rock outcropping called El Escorpion by the Spanish and Castle Peak by Valley suburbanites. (Horace Bell, the guy all that is named for, was a pretty colorful early Los Angeles figure.) The Chumash settlement, Hu'wam, was reputed to be in a trading zone between the Chumash, who populated the coast and hills north of there, and the Tongva, who populated the Valley and the Los Angeles basin, along the river that the Spanish called Rio Porciuncula. Burro Flats, located in the hills above Bell Canyon, later was used as a filming location for Hollywood movies, especially westerns.

burro-flats-cave-ruggles.jpgThere are some nice photos of the Burro Flats pictographs taken in 1995 by Clive Ruggles, an emeritus professor of Archaeoastronomy in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom. Edwin Krupp, the director of Griffith Observatory, wrote in his 1983 book, "Echoes of the Ancient Skies: the Astronomy of Lost Civilizations," that the Burro Flats pictographs are reminiscent of the famous Newgrange cave in Ireland that is illuminated by the sun around the winter solstice. Krupp writes that he was present at Burro Flats on the solstice in 1979.

The panel at Burro Flats consists of a complicated collection of images, including a variety of creatures, some with paws like rakes; winged figures with head-dresses; animals -- centipedes, perhaps -- with segmented bodies; chains; handprints with abstract designs on them, and other odd patterns of dots, lines, crosses, circles and concentric rings...

The rock paintings at Burro Flats are unusually well protected from the elements and -- perhaps most important -- from people. Rolling sandstone reefs, carved by water and wind into natural overhands and smooth, rounded piles of rock make the place look like the ideal set for a cowboy movies...Rain cannot reach it and, most of the year, the sandstone canopy shades all the pictographs.


An astronomical element in the paintings at Burro Flats was first noticed in early 1979 by John Romani, a graduate student in archaeology at California State University, Northridge. He thought a natural cut -- a kind of bottomless window -- in the overhang above the western end of the panel paintings looked like it might let sunlight pass through and strike a part of the otherwise shaded panel -- at about the time of the winter solstice.

Indeed, that's what happened, Krupp wrote, although he said the site's alignment with the sun is not precise enough to function as an observatory. Nor was the Burro Flats cave a tomb, Krupp wrote, but he theorized that it served some sort of use for shamans and the tribe's study of astronomy.


Color photos: Clive Ruggles/University of Leicester; movie still from "Iron Mountain Trail," Republic Pictures (1953)

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