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New Book Documents Only Geoglyphs In US

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Pilot and archaeology enthusiast Harry Casey documented the geoglyphs, or ground drawings in southeastern California and southwestern Arizona, with aerial photographs taken over 35 years. These geoglyphs are the only ones in the U.S. and Casey wanted to document them before they disappear.

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Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 And archeological project has been taking place in the California desert and much of the research has been happening in the sky. The researchers are studying geoglyphs huge drawings made on land by the ancient cultures of the desert. Southwest. Joining me is an Morgan coauthor of geoglyphs of the desert, South West earthen art as viewed from above. She is the former head archivist at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum in Oto and, and welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. Can you possibly describe what these geoglyphs look like and, and where you've been finding them? They are, um, figures that are literally, they are in, in the earth. Uh, they've been either raked in with a tool or by hand or they've been tamped down by feet. When you're on the ground looking at them, they look like something, but not necessarily. You don't necessarily know you're looking at when you see them.

Speaker 1: 01:02 Um, but then if you see them from up above their figures, a humanoid figures, there are a couple of animal figures, uh, the size, really various, some of them are maybe 30 feet long. There's one that's a, of a horse, which is a little bit bigger than, than a lifesize horse, but not that much. Um, but then some of the biggest ones are, are easily 200 feet. I mean, they're a huge, most people when they, if they ever think of deal this, they think of the Nazca lines in Peru. So these are, these are our nas Collines, lots of circles to write, lots of circles and those are probably more from, uh, they're, they're called dance circles. Probably most of them are from dances and ceremonies, the visual leftovers sort of the accident, uh, and not necessarily designed, but we can still see them. And that's, that's pretty cool.

Speaker 1: 02:01 You mentioned that the Nazca lines in Peru, and from my understanding, they are still there because there's not a lot of weather in that area and there's a, and they've just basically stayed in the earth. Is that the same, uh, those, the same conditions that you find in the desert southwest where you're locating these geoglyphs? Not all of them here. Uh, they're more endangered, partly from wind erosion. A lot of them are done right on the edge of of cliffs or Mesas. And so as the sides are roading, we're losing those. Uh, but also out here there's a lot of of off road vehicles and hikers and you can see a lot of tracks from motorcycles. Some of them have been very damaged from motorcycles because you don't always see. So there's a lot of, uh, I hope, I hope unintended, uh, destruction. But so here they're, they're much more endangered than the Peru.

Speaker 1: 03:05 The Nazca lines. Now in your book, we see these lines from above the, the photographs are taken from a plane. Yes. Where would a member of an ancient culture observe these lines or these drawings in, in their entirety? The ones that were most likely viewed, done to be seen by other people. You would see them. Um, if you are maybe on a higher, uh, Mesa, you'd look looking out and over. Most of them are done along a body of water, a Colorado River, the, the healer river. So they were designed that you'd see them not quite the impressive angle that we see them from a, from up above, but you, you would definitely be looking down on them. Others maybe weren't designed actually to be seen, but they were designed to sort of be guarding a trail or, or protecting people walking on a trail.

Speaker 1: 04:04 So the, the point may not have even been to see them at this stage. It's not really known for some of them. Do we know which ancient American culture's created these geoglyphs in this region. It's, um, we've had people living here for over 10,000 years. The, the Cuny I the catch on the cook upon Cooya, there was a lot of migration, a lot of, of crossover for thousands of years. So more than one culture could probably claim that they had been doing them. You mentioned that some of these images may have been protecting a trail and weren't meant to be seen. What are some of the other reasons? Do we know some of the other reasons why these were created? A lot of the, the cultural stories, the ethnographic stories, um, have been lost. But not all of them. Some of the ones that we know suggest that these figures were either commemorating or I'm marking a special historical moment or a special story.

Speaker 1: 05:13 My personal favorite are the blight geog lifts, which are the really famous ones. When everybody thinks if they know of the ones around here, they think of the blight geoglyphs can you describe them a bit? They're a, there are these five different, five or six different, huge, huge, almost 200 feet for some of them figures. Two of them are of humans. And the story for that is that there was an evil giant who was her harming the people. And so they built this, this massive figure and danced around it for three days, which is why when you're looking, you see the dance circle around it. Uh, and so for three days and three, they danced around the figure to gather up their courage to kill the giant. And the other version of that story, which I like even better, is that they, um, they prayed to the gods to send something to take care of this giant, uh, and the Sea God sent an octopus up the Colorado river and to the octopus and the giant had a big fight and the octopus dragged the giant off of the cliff and into the water, uh, and killed him and brought him back down to the Gulf.

Speaker 1: 06:31 And every once in a while would hold up the body to show the people that he had successfully won. So all along the Colorado River, you see, uh, these kind of zigzag drag marks and you see these humanoid figures, which are always pointing feet first, like they're going into the river. And so the story that's been passed down is that that is remembering and, and kind of honoring this octopus for getting rid of the giant by dragging him into the water. That's wonderful. Tell us a little bit about, uh, the effort. It really, the race to save these images. The, uh, this really started more than 35 years ago. Harry Casey was taking photographs back in the early seventies and took them for a up through the 90s he was flying. He photograph the same places over and over so that they could, they could really see the changes over time.

Speaker 1: 07:31 And the bureau of land management and the archeologists in the area have been working with the tribes in a lot of cases to fence in and protect a lot of the ones that are more vulnerable. I mean there, there are some out in the, you high desert in imperial county that has been damaged by, by motorcycles and offroad vehicles, cause nobody knew they were there. They lose, have been fenced off. So now they're not, hopefully he going to be run over and damaged more that way. I've been speaking with Ann Morgan, she's Co author of geoglyphs of the desert southwest. And thank you. Thank you. And Morgan will be speaking about the book at the Colorado Desert Archeology Society this Friday.

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KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.