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Petroglyphs, Graffiti, and the inscrutability of public art

Donner Pass, a few miles west of Truckee, California, contains an area of well-preserved Indian petroglyphs.  Petroglyphs are carved art created by cutting into the surface of rock.  Archaeologists have found petroglyphs in many remote areas of the Sierra, often in places like the flat granite at Donner summit.  This pass has been a trade route for a long time; the petroglyphs are thought to be two to three thousand years old. 
The marker at the Donner petroglyphs is titled, “Sacred Symbols from Ancient Times,” but I’m not sure what evidence we have that the carvings were sacred beyond modern interpretation.  We know very little about the context of these artworks.  Were they trailside art that early people walked past as they followed a track over the mountain? Or were they carved in a special place, off the main trail?

Back in the day, the petroglyphs may have been painted or enhanced to be more visible.

A few hundred yards uphill you can see the tunnels that carried the first tran…

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