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Death Valley’s Other Moving Rocks

A Brief Look at Some Rock Art Boulders
That Have Been Purposely Moved From Their Original Sites


© December 2005
Revised August 2006
Photography by the author unless otherwise credited.



The mysterious moving rocks
of the Racetrack Playa may be a phenomenon no one can satisfactorily explain, but Death Valley has some other rocks that have gotten around a bit, too.  They’re not an attraction visitors come to see and little, if any, attention is paid to them.  Yet, they have a story to tell.   I am referring to a small group of petroglyph boulders on display at several Death Valley locations.  Over the past 50 years, a few of Death Valley’s Indian rock art sites have been negatively impacted by man’s activities.  Petroglyphs and pictographs have been moved or removed – whether out of ignorance, malfeasance or mischief.  Fortunately, in a few instances, we have photographs or other documentation that allows us to trace the lineage of some of these “wanderers.”

Until Native American rock art was finally recognized as legitimate archaeology, decorated boulders or panels were considered merely curiosities.  Accordingly, they were moved from their original sites for decoration or destroyed because they stood in the way of “progress.”  No thought was given to their significance or their sacredness.  The majority of the rocks outlined in this treatise fall into this category.  Even though the original locale of a few of these petroglyph boulders can be determined, their position and relationship to others at the site – or their relationship to the site itself – is unknown.  Archaeoastronomy, the study of rock art as it relates to celestial bodies, believes that the position and orientation of each petroglyph boulder may be key to understanding the meaning and significance of the site itself.  Once boulders are moved, this information is lost forever.

There are at least two rock art boulders that are known to have been removed from the park that are included in this report.  In addition, there are other rocks documented in old photographic records that extensive field searches have failed to re-locate.  Several of these are classified as “pocket rocks,” or petroglyph rocks small enough to be easily carried off.   Such rocks have not been included in this overview.  Presently, the fate of these “missing” petroglyphs is unknown.  While it may be that some have been taken by visitors, it is just as possible that flash flooding or other natural occurrences have displaced or destroyed them.  For example, in 2001 a large site in northern Death Valley was severely impacted by a flash flood, moving or tumbling nearly half of 42 known petroglyph rocks.  Many have still not been relocated.

Pictographs in Death Valley are uncommon.  They are outnumbered by petroglyph sites by nearly ten to one.  Because they are “painted” on stone rather than scratched or chiseled into rock surfaces, they are more sensitive to Death Valley’s environmental extremes.  Their organic pigments make them more fragile – and certainly more temporal that petroglyphs.


Don Martin photo 1960
click photo for larger image

Geron Marcom photo 1990
click photo for larger image

Pictographs are almost always
found in rock shelters or along sheltering cliffs. Thus, they occur on fixed rock walls, not moveable boulders.  Any attempt at removal of the glyphs would prove disastrous to the panel.  Sadly, it has been tried in Death Valley.

The photograph above shows the unaltered condition of a pictograph when photographed by Don Martin in 1960. When the same pictograph was photographed by the author in 1990 its vandalized condition became known. The later dated photograph clearly shows chisel marks indicating someone attempted to remove the pictograph.  Apparently, it quickly became obvious to the perpetrator that all they would come away with was a handful of crumbled sandstone, so they gave up.  Even so, one of the elements, an anthropomorph, lost the top of its head. The chisel scars a few inches to the left are reminders of how close the pictograph came to being completely destroyed.

Visitor Center - Single Boulder

  TOP: Petroglyph rock on Display near the front
           enterance of the Death Valley National
           Park Visitor Center.

RIGHT: Boulder at original site near
            the Grapevine RangerStation.




Photo taken by Don Martin, 1958

Present Location:
On display along sidewalk in front of Death Valley Museum and Visitor Center, Furnace Creek;  part of a collection of geologic examples from the Death Valley region.

Original Location: Near mouth of Grapevine Canyon, adjacent to park residential area.

Site Description: CA-INY-3106.  Formerly many rocks.  One other known boulder has disappeared.  Rocks located on both sides of present roadway.

Reason For Removal: Site bulldozed by Park Service to realign Scotty’s Castle Road (sometimes called “Route 5”).

Furnace Creek Ranch:
Two Petroglyph Boulders

Present Location:
On display at the Borax Museum, Furnace Creek Ranch (owned by Xanterra Corporation).

On March 11, 2005 I went to the Borax Museum to research any information on file regarding the two boulders on display.  I talked to “Bill,” the Xanterra employee on duty at the museum.  He knew nothing about the rocks, but was very helpful in searching through the records.  While we uncovered no specific information on how the museum had acquired the boulders, Bill did find a ledger book containing an inventory of items on display.  The following entry below is from that book.



Borax museum records show these two boulders were already included in the 1969 inventory. There is no indication when they were moved and put on display.  Their value is listed as: $200 (for both).

ITEM:       Two large rocks containing Native American petroglyphs one depicting an animal-like image and the other a collection of symbols. 
          Original Borax Museum Indians

              Display for Native Americans

There was also a separate appraisal list tucked into the back of the ledger under the letterhead:

Thomas Clements Associates, Consulting Geologists
Suite 230 2323 W. Third Street, Los Angeles CA  90057
(213) 389-2898
Thomas Clements, EM,PhD 

This appraisal stated:

Borax Museum --Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA
Reappraisal  October 9 & 10, 1969”
Indian Petroglyphs: (2)    “22”x”13”x”12”
DECLARED VALUE:           $200

There was a further notation in pencil in the top, right-hand corner:

“Museum Revised Inventory, Revised 8/29/94”


Small card partially hidden under one of the rocks.
click photo for larger image


After all this
, I still had no clue where these two petroglyph boulders had been located originally.  As often happens, the best information is also the most obvious.  Barely visible under one of the displayed boulders was a small card.  This little index card provided the best clue so far.  It was mostly informational, describing what petroglyphs are, as well as possible theories as to their meaning.  However it was the last sentence that caught my eye:  “The petroglyphs seen here were found near Greenwater.”  Those few words partially answered my question.  But “Greenwater” what?  There are several Death Valley features named Greenwater.

In 1906-07 a mining camp named Greenwater sprang up on the eastern slopes of the Black Mountains in the Greenwater Valley. This area can be ruled out because there are no other known petroglyph boulders here, nor at Greenwater Spring farther south in the mountains.  This leaves Greenwater Canyon, approximately three miles southeast of the old mining town.  This is the most logical choice.  I believe these two boulders came from here because of other similar petroglyphs in the area.

Original Location: Most likely the Greenwater Canyon area. 

Site Description:  There are several rock art sites scattered intermittently along the length of Greenwater Canyon. A few of these incorporate abstract and geometric patterns similar to those on display at the Borax Museum. Greenwater Canyon has been designated a "Wilderness Area" by the National Park Service and vehicular traffic in no longer allowed into the canyon.

Reason For Removal: Unknown; probably for public display purposes.

Scotty's Castle Yard (CA-INY-3070) Boulder #1 of 4



There are four
(4) petroglyph boulders on display in the Scotty’s Castle yard.  Specific original locations for any of them is unknown.  However, the  free-flowing springs in the canyon were used by Native Americans for centuries.  It is logical to assume these boulders were a few of many found in the vicinity.  There are documented petroglyph sites in Grapevine Canyon, both above and below Scotty’s Castle, as well as to the west.

All four boulders were removed from their original locations to provide landscaping for the Castle.



This photo was taken in 1998.  Periodically, vegetation grows up to obscure the boulder and must be cut back.  However, it is likely that most Castle visitors never notice the petroglyphs as they walk by.

Description:  Large boulder, located on the south side of the small stream that runs between the Guest House and present day snack bar.  This boulder appears in several historic Frasher photos (following pages) taken circa 1930-1931 during Castle construction.  Albert Johnson appears in two of these photos. (Negative numbers DEVA-23093, 23104, 23105 and 23109)

Historic Frasher Fotos

The two Frasher photos shown here, circa 1931, clearly show Boulder #1 after it was placed in the castle yard for landscaping.  At left, Albert Johnson (facing camera) stands in front of the petroglyphs with an unidentified visitor.  It appears the elements have been “chalked” to make them photograph better.

Courtesy, National Park Service,
Death Valley National Park


The post card below is one of millions produced by Burton Frasher for commercial sale.  Boulder #1 is in the lower right corner.

Private Collection

Burton Frasher Sr. (1888-1955) began his commercial photography business in Lordsburg (now La Verne) California in 1914.  In 1920, he moved his studio to PomonaCalifornia, where he began to sell his own increasingly popular picture postcard views of the Southwest.  Frasher's most memorable images were taken in Death Valley, which he visited frequently beginning in 1920.  Frasher's photographs, particularly those he took of "Death Valley Scotty" at his desert "castle", inspired great popular interest in this isolated landscape.

Source: Pomona Public Library

A close up of the petroglyph elements on boulder #1 at Death Valley Ranch, more commonly known as Scotty's Castle. The cryptic images were almost certainly chalked to heighten the contrast.

This is the original photograph used to make the post card pictured above left. During his career, Frasher sold millions of his famous "Wishing You Were Here" post cards.

Albert Johnson points out some of the unusual insect-like petroglyph elements to a Castle visitor.


Above three photographs: Photography by Frasher Fotos. Courtesy, National Park Service, Death Valley National Park

Original photographer unknown.

This "panoramic' image, circa 1930, shows early grading and landscape work. The arrow points to boulder #1, already in place to accent the desert themes of Scotty's Castle. The large building is now the snack bar and gift shop.

Photo by M.R. Thompson. Courtesy National Park Service, Death Valley National Park.

The photograph above left, one of many decorating the walls in the present-day cafeteria at Scotty's Castle, shows workmen getting ready to place a large boulder as part of the landscaping plan.

Although it is difficult to say with one hundred percent certainty, this may well be the large petroglyph boulder described above: it certainly is parked in approximately the right location. Regardless, it is an excellent historical record of how crews managed to haul inn these large rocks from elsewhere in the canyon and place them in the Castle yard.      

Boulder #2 of 4

Photo by Don Martin, mid 1950's
click photo for larger image

Photo by Geron Marcom, 1989
click photo for larger image

Description: Medium size boulder, located on the north side of the small stream that runs between the Guest House and present day snack bar. Damage to the petroglyphs is apparent in the author's photo (above center) taken in 1989. The rock's surface patina is being worn away by visitors walking or standing on the petroglyphs. Today most of the elements are totally obliterated.

Another angle of boulder #2 showing the petroglyph elements on the "back side" of the boulder. Note how the dark brown layer of "desert Varnish" has been abraded off the top surface, destroying the rock art.

Boulder #3 of 4

2006 photograph of Boulder #2, showing its position in relation to the Castle. In the background, by the old gas station, is boulder #4.


Boulder #3 is of medium size and is located to the immediate right (west) of Boulder #2 on the north side of the small stream that runs between the Guest House and the present day snack bar. There is one small, ring-like element with three extended "legs" on this rock. Oddly, this rock was not included in Martin's original documentation. It was noticed by the author and added to the record (1990 photo).


Boulder #4 of 4

The petroglyphs on the boulder
are faint and are more difficult to discern with each passing year. In older photos of this boulder, the design elements show much greater contrast. Undoubtedly, this is due in part to people climbing on the rock and wearing away the natural patina, similar to the situation described above with Castle Boulder #2.

Original Location (for all four Scotty's Castle boulders):
Unknown; probably from nearby Grapevine Canyon.

Reason for Removal:
Landscaping at Death Valley Ranch.

Red Amphitheater (CA-INY-3260

Both of these Don Martin photos were taken in early 1968.  On the left, the boulder was still in place near an old quarry site above Hole-in-the-Wall.  It was moved and put on display at Stovepipe Wells Village shortly thereafter, when the second photo was taken.  Stylistically, the design elements are identical to other boulders found nearby, although Martin indicated this boulder came from around the quarry site. He also took a photograph showing the original site location (see below)

Investigation by the author in 1991 indicated the strong likelihood that the former owner of Stovepipe Wells took this rock with him when he sold out and went to Yellowstone National Park.  In 1997, a personal survey of Hamilton stores in Yellowstone failed to locate the boulder.


This Martin shot shows more abstract petroglyph elements on  the back side of the  rock after it had been put on display at Stovepipe Wells.  Martin noted that the  boulder came from “across wash from Red Amphitheater; {rock} now at Stovepipe Wells Village.”


Martin photo of the boulder’s original location.  His caption reads: “Site of large petroglyph rock at Stovepipe Wells: Overlook Point, Red Amphitheater.”  The man in the photo is unidentified, but the dump truck in the background may have something to do with why the rock was moved from here to Stovepipe Wells Village.  Martin indicated the area was being used as a quarry.

Hanaupah Canyon (CA-INY-1988)

This photo was taken by Park Ranger Ralph Welles, circa 1958. Visible in the lower right corner of the panel is a red anthropomorphic figure, standing to the left of a larger unidentified element.


This photograph taken in 1985 clearly shows that the small block containing the pictograph elements in the lower right corner has been broken off and removed.

Original location: Hanaupah Canyon

Reason for Removal: Vandalism or relic hunting


So, have we learned anything
in the last century? Are the thoughtless mistakes of amateurs and professionals alike a thing of the past? 

To some degree, the answer is “yes.”  The Congress of the United States passed the American Antiquities Act in 1906, which made it a crime to “appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity.”  That included rock art.  Unfortunately, the law only covered “lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.”  Private property was excluded. However, since 1906, numerous States have enacted laws to protect rock art on lands falling outside those defined in the Antiquities Act.


  The author, Geron Marcom, avocational archaeologist and rock art enthusiast, at a  Death Valley petroglyph site, 2000.  

Even so, these laws did little to prevent the Death Valley rocks described in this paper from being “appropriated” for display.  Happily, it would be hard to imagine such abuses taking place today in Death Valley—or any other National Park.  Resource Management divisions zealously safeguard their cultural assets.

The National Park Service is not throwing petroglyph boulders onto flat-bed trailers to decorate visitor centers or museums anymore.  And the once common practices of chalking petroglyphs, taking rubbings or spraying pictographs with water to enhance their color—all have been recognized as damaging and have been universally condemned by archaeologists and rock art enthusiasts alike.  Needless to say, vandalism is a crime wherever it takes place.

A curiously decorated petroglyph boulder on display in a museum (or someone’s front yard) may retain all it’s intrinsic artistic beauty, but something valuable has been lost and can never be regained: context.   Pop the jewels out of the Queen’s crown and you certainly have a handful of beautiful gems, but the cultural context that is greater than the sum of the parts is gone.

This polychrome pictograph depicting a group activity may have been made by the Shoshone people in the1890's. Today, this rock art panel is protected only by it's remote and undisclosed location, but... under what conditions can such a fragile piece of art and history be made accessible to the general public?

Archaeology has come to recognize that rock art must be included as an integral part of understanding the whole.   Piecing together the entire puzzle may be impossible if pieces of that puzzle are missing.  Where a pottery shard, a piece of bone or a decorated boulder is found is often just as important as the fact it was found.

Perhaps the greatest realization of all is that rock art is not just some curious doodling.  To the artist, the act of creating the images held profound ceremonial or spiritual significance.  Today, this sacred heritage is still deep-rooted in the living Native American descendants of these artists.; By our acknowledging this and taking responsibility for its protection, we have taken the first steps toward granting rock art the reverence it deserves.

Geron Marcom


As with most endeavors, whether it is climbing a mountain or writing a simple paper (tasks which seem similar at times), it takes the help of many people to reach the goal.  I would like to thank the following individuals for enabling me put my name on the cover as the author.

Sincere thanks to long-time friend and retired Curator of the Death Valley Museum, Shirley Harding.  She is a deep repository of all things relating to Death Valley lore.   Shirley knows about anyone who was anyone, and anything that was anything in Death Valley.  Her knowledge about places, people and events in the Park over the past 35 years – and beyond – is truly amazing.  Her name is the first that pops into my head when I have a “Death Valley question,” and she was the first to help get the ball rolling when I approached her about this paper.  Shirley is a meticulous historian and, thankfully, for folks like me, has returned, post-retirement, to work in the museum’s Curatorial Department.

The author is indebted to Blair Davenport, Curator of the Death Valley Museum, for all her help in providing digital copies of the historic Burton Frasher photographs.  I appreciate her patience with my many e-mails and am extremely grateful to her for securing permission to reproduce the “Frasher Fotos.”

My thanks to Bill at Xanterra for humoring my odd request about “those rocks in the corner,” and not just dismissing me as some sort of nut.

Finally, none of this would have been possible without the help of three long-time mentors.

Ralph and Florence “Buddy” Welles not only provided photographic material for this little paper, but over the many years of our friendship, provided unfailing and enthusiastic support for my love affair with Death Valley.  It was the Welles’ who introduced me to the man who literally “wrote the book” on Death Valley rock art.

Donald E. Martin was the first person to take an organized interest in Death Valley’s vast inventory of rock art.  As an avocational archaeologist, he spent over 25 years–beginning about 1947–cataloging petroglyph and pictograph sites in Death Valley.  Don was a friend who generously shared the fruits of his many years of research.  Several of the old photographs used in this work were taken by him and provided the necessary clues to trace the “travels” of two separate boulders.

My thanks to you all!

Source Materials

Edberg, Bob; Scotty’s Castle post card, private collection

Marcom, Geron; rock art photographs, author’s personal collection (1975-2006)

Martin, Donald E.; rock art photographs, duplicate slides (1949-1975), author’s collection

National Park Service; Burton Frasher photographs, courtesy Death Valley National Park

Pomona Public Library. 2005. Website: 

Welles, Ralph E. and Florence B.; rock art photograph, 1958; authors collection

Xanterra Corporation, Borax Museum records

shaman petroglyph clock

Petroglyph Clocks
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rattlesnake spiral rock art

Petroglyphs Carved in Stone

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Flower Stones
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© 2006  All rights reserved. This article printed by permission of Geron Marcom author. 
Reproduction, distribution or other use of images or text without permission from the author is prohibited.
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