These field images taken within the Sierra Nevada showcase some of the rock art carvings & etchings located in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, & Sierra counties of Northern California. Many of these were created between 2000 BC and 500 AD by the Martis Complex, who are considered to be the ancestors of the Washoe tribe, and may also be linked with the Maidu.
El Dorado County
This is the only site on this section of our website not associated with the Martis Complex. Its cultural affiliation is not known to us, but the rock art appears to be pretty old. In the 1990s FSRA was very involved in working with local Native Americans, the landowner, and the county to protect these petroglyphs when they were threatened by development. Careful study of the site by a student working on her masters theses revealed its ancient use as a celestial observatory.
Nevada County, Site 1
This Martis Complex site (2000 BC – 500 AD) is not far from two rivers and in an area where game would have been abundant. Its images are cruder than those at other Martis sites and you can see individual peck marks in some cases. Bears paw images, which are evident, are common at this culture’s sites.
Nevada County, Site 2
This Martis site (2000 BC – 500 AD) is on an outcrop that borders the Yuba River. Human figures called Anthropomorphs were not common among Martis images. When they were created, they tended to be like the ‘stick figure’ seen in the photographs.
Nevada County, Site 3
This site (Martis Complex, 2000 BC – 500 AD) is located on a ridge top with a nice view. It has a number of bear paw images as well as the human form (Anthropomorph) in one of the photographs. The images are gradually disappearing due to the growth of lichen.
Nevada County, Site 4
This Martis (2000 BC – 500 AD) site near Donner Summit is one of the few sites that is made available to the public. Most site locations are kept confidential due to the possibility of vandalism. The Donner site is located near what would have been a trans-Sierra trail going from the east side of the Sierra to the west side. The site overlooks Donner Lake. Notice the signage placed at the site by FSRA and others.
Nevada County, Site 5
This Nevada County site (Martis Complex, 2000 BC – 500 AD) is one of the 3 largest in our region. Like other Martis sites, most of the images are abstract in nature. Located near a recreation lake, this site has been heavily vandalized.
Placer County, Site 1
This site (Martis Complex, 2000 BC – 500 AD) is located on an outcrop in the forest, near a nice view of the area. It was not unusual for other cultures to use Martis sites, and this location shows evidence of use both before and after the time of the Martis.
Placer County, Site 2
This site (Martis Complex, 2000 BC – 500 AD) is on a large outcrop near the American River. With 750 images, it is the largest site in the northern Sierra. The single bear track image in one of the photos, which shows the rear and front pads of the foot, the toes, and an arc for where the claws touch the ground, is unique in regards to how accurate it is. Martis bear paw or bear track images were usually more abstract – as in the photo of the two bear paw or bear track designs that are next to each other. The image in the last photo, of a 6’ headless rattlesnake is also unusual.
Placer County, Site 3
This Martis site (2000 BC – 500 AD) was instrumental to the founding of FSRA (see article about our history on this website). The location features a spectacular view of the American River canyon. The site itself is near the edge of the canyon, with the river 3,000 feet below. One photo shows the small outcrop on which the petroglyphs were made, with trees and mountains in the distance. The silver ammo can in another photo contains site etiquette information and a notebook (shown in a separate photo) in which visitors can write their impressions. The presence of the notebook and site etiquette guidelines are meant to encourage respect for the site and to discourage vandalism.
Placer County, Site 4
Another Martis site (2000 BC – 500 AD). This one is close to the American River on a large outcrop. If you look carefully at four of the photos you will see that natural striations in the rock were used as borders for some of the images.
Two of the photos give a sense of the location related to this site. It is important to consider a site’s location in order to put the site in its context. (The photo with the loan figure pointing with his hiking pole features Hank Meals, a Nevada County archaeologist and historian.) This is one of the 3 largest sites in the northern Sierra. While some of the images were made by the Martis Complex (2000 BC – 500 AD), other cultures made images here also. The big horn sheep image is very unusual for this region. The ‘buffed circle’ image, which does not appear to be real old, is also unusual.
Ancient Petroglyphs of California’s Northern Sierra Nevada
by Bill Drake, Friends of Sierra Rock Art Co-Founder & President
with Nolan Smith, Tahoe National Forest District Archaeologist (Retired)
This 48 minute video presents:
- Who made the ancient images
- Examples of petroglyph images & sites
- Site management & protection
- Possible interpretations of some images and the problems related to rock
art interpretation. The highlighted petroglyphs are on & around the El Dorado, Plumas, and Tahoe National Forests. Most of them were made between 500 CE and 2000 BCE by the Martis Complex, who are considered to be the ancestors of the Washoe tribe. Nine different sites found in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, and Sierra Counties are featured.