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Day Trip: Strange Messages

Courtesy Wikicommons

A short drive away but a world apart: exploring the mysteries of the ancient Blythe Intaglios

Blame it on the Hardy Boys. The Mystery of the Desert Giant got me interested in massive “geoglyphs,” and specifically the Blythe Intaglios. Carved into the Colorado Desert 16 miles north of Blythe, California, near the junction of Highway 95 and Interstate 10, these colossal cryptic figures fit into the peculiar category of earth art that’s best and sometimes only truly viewed from the air (created before there was air travel). Think of the great Chalk Horses and Giants of England, and, of course, the best-known work, the Nazca Lines in Peru. (Closer to home and in time is the famous Spiral Jetty created by the late Robert Smithson on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. He had these much older and puzzling works in mind as inspirations.)

The Blythe Intaglios can also be considered in the context of Native North American earthworks such as the Plains Indians’ medicine wheels and the Midwestern raised-earth configurations like the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. The riddle, though, is that none of the Colorado River Native Americans have acknowledged construction of the Intaglios. No one has. Radiocarbon dating indicates creation between 900 BCE and 1200 CE, which makes them significantly old in world terms (the Nazca Lines have a similar age). The truth is, we don’t know who made them.

We also don’t know why they were made. As with similar baffling creations around the world, archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, and astronomers have advanced many theories. The principal one is always magical-religious, communications or celebratory “offerings” to sky gods — or the ever-tempting “ancient astronauts.” Getting more down to earth, there’s the hypothesis that these works form some kind of primitive observatories. While there may possibly be some explainable astronomical elements to them, there’s no professional agreement on this point, and still many questions. Why do they take the pictorial forms they do, which need to be seen from the air? Structures such as Stonehenge can be viewed and interacted with at ground level. They have much more obvious potential astronomical utility. How do you “work” a desert giant?

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Other notions focus on geographic use (clues to flows of water, types of soil, navigational aids, etc.) or diagrammatic “theaters” for now lost-in-time ritual practices. The only point at all even remotely agreed upon by the experts is that the ultimate answer may be a convergence of reasons, a mingling of both sacred and highly practical motivations.

Native Americans in the region did know of the forms, but these enormous gravel pictographs were only documented with photos and geological surveys in 1932, when a pilot named George Palmer realized he was flying over something remarkable. He saw three human figures (the largest is over 170 feet long), two four-legged animals, and a spiral shape, which is a widely repeating motif in world mythology and art.

I’ve investigated the Intaglios from both airplane and helicopter, and I’ve made two extended pilgrimages on foot (highly recommended). Although surrounded by chain-link fencing for preservation, I still felt an uncanny psychological sense of presence and intentionality, both inviting and strange. No wonder the Hardys were intrigued. Even if you can’t fully grasp their design at ground level, I think this adds all the more to the magic of the creatures’ meaning and the mystery of their construction.

Complex artistic and practical challenges were overcome. The desert ground can be very hard. The summer temperatures sear, and winter can get raw. Then there’s the matter of materials at hand, the tools needed — and the necessary labor for the scale of endeavor. The great Paleolithic cave art and most of the petroglyphs around the world (including the brilliant examples seen in Utah) could’ve been created by individual artists. Not so with works like the Intaglios. Most importantly, there’s the problem of perspective, which remains a perplexing feat of vision, and highly counterintuitive.

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A key related point that’s often overlooked (as the giant figures themselves were for long years) is that such art inherently required a plan. Even the most luminous of the cathedral cave scenes could’ve unfolded in an improvised, cumulative way. No one digs giant figures into the desert without some kind of pre-construction sketches. Think of the conceptual aspect. Think of the communal agreements needed. As compelling as these figures are in pure visual terms, they represent profound design and engineering capabilities, and are also triumphs of social cooperation and project management over time, a dreamlike construction of some alternative idea of history before there was history.

In this complicated era, when far-ranging travel is tricky, it’s important to remember that curious places aren’t far away. The cultural genius of the unknown creators of the Blythe Intaglios may have been leaving us a very topical message — to seek an aerial view not only of space and earth, but of time.

Kris Saknussemm is the author of the novels Zanesville and Private Midnight, the memoir Sea Monkeys, and the play/short film The Humble Assessment.