Crow's Nest

Petroglyph Site is one of the largest and most complex rock art sites in the Reno-Sparks area. The site is part of a wider district of prehistoric rock art and settlement that provides a unique perspective on the prehistoric cultural usage of rock art. The urban expansion of Reno-Sparks puts archaeological resources like Crow’s Nest at risk from increased visitation. To support the area’s management plan and ongoing monitoring by volunteer site stewards, NRAF carried out intensive archaeological survey at Crow’s Nest and the adjacent Old Ridge site in spring 2015 to better document the associated archaeology and gather geospatial data using modern technology not available when baseline data was collected a decade ago. The project also sought to assess the effects of changing visitation patterns over the past decade. The project was made possible by a Partnership Grant from the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, the Nara Foundation, and matching gifts from private donors.



Natural setting. Crow’s Nest and the adjacent Old Ridge site are located in an unusually arid upland environment with primarily winter precipitation. Surface water is scarce and short-lived, with only a few seasonal streams and springs limited to lower elevations. Today, the region is dominated by plants of the sagebrush scrub community and by invasive weeds. Native bunchgrasses, which provide seeds for harvest, are found in isolated stands, and the region's soils would have favored carbohydrate-rich root crops, indicating that the prehistoric environment may have been more hospitable than the current one. The prehistoric environment may also have been attractive to large and small game animals, migratory birds, reptiles, and insects, although those populations are much limited today in the arid modern environment that lacks adequate vegetation. Previous archaeological investigations suggest that these plants and animals were important resources for prehistoric populations using the Crow’s Nest area.

Archaeological background. Crow’s Nest is set in a landscape of archaeological features and rock art that attests to repeated episodes of intensive settlement from around 3500 years ago until contact (Middle Archaic through the Late Prehistoric). The area was used seasonally, with small groups of hunter-foragers making logistical forays from larger residential camps elsewhere in the Truckee Meadows area. The economic focus of these forays focused on certain seasonally available seeds and large game that made the arid upland setting economically attractive as conditions permitted despite the constraints of scarce water. Abundant rock art in the area suggests that this upland area may also have had a cultural significance to Archaic and Late Prehistoric hunter-foragers that was an important motivation in its use.

2015 Fieldwork Results. The Crow’s Nest and adjacent Old Ridge site were investigated by NRAF staff ¬†and volunteers who conducted pedestrian survey over an area of 140,000 sq meters to identify archaeological features and establish the boundaries of the two sites. At both sites, rock art and associated archaeological features were recorded through exhaustive photography (using 35mm digital SLR cameras), geospatial data capture (using a Trimble GeoXT capable of submeter accuracy), and detailed archaeological observations.

All identified features and rock art panels were assigned a unique alphanumeric designation to enable the various data gathered to be related to the GIS data collected, enabling the production of accurate site maps showing the relationship of rock art and archaeological features. Using these methods and technology, Crow's Nest was found to cover an area of 51,187 sq meters with 301 rock art panels containing 758 individual designs and associated archaeological features. Old Ridge is much smaller, covering an area of 26,294 sq meters with just 18 rock art panels containing 61 individual designs as well as associated archaeological features. This work significantly added to knowledge of these two sites as their spatial extent and quantity of archaeological features had only been estimated by previous avocational surveys.

At Crow’s Nest, the densest concentration of settlement features is found on and around a high basalt outcrop at the crest of a hill. These features comprise rock alignments and evidence of tool-use, maintenance, and intensive plant processing. One unusual feature is the incorporation of rock art in the walls of several rock alignments. Although rock art was also made on this outcrop, it is most densely concentrated in taluses, particularly just below the crest of the hill. Rock art is predominantly abstract and curvilinear in form. Variants of arcs and circles make up over half of the Crow’s Nest’s motif assemblage. Serpentine lines and circles (with or without external radial lines) are particularly abundant. Rectilinear design types occur much less frequently (13% of the motif assemblage) in about the same proportion as simple linear forms that may be more performative in motivation.

Zoomorphs are rare (only four), seemingly a distinctive stylistic trait of northern Nevada rock art, compared with southeastern Nevada where sites may contain a hundred bighorn sheep figures. Crow’s Nest is a good example that the popular conception of Great Basin rock art being rich in zoomorphic (predominantly bighorn sheep) imagery needs to be qualified to account for significant regional variation.

Anthropomorphs (3.6% of the motif assemblage) occur in numbers generally representative of rock art sites throughout Nevada. Crow's Nest anthropomorphs include one that is portrayed with earrings and headgear, which is very rare for northern Nevada. Also unusual is an arrangement of anthropomorphs apparently holding bows but not depicted in the act of hunting. Lastly, one rock art panel seems to depict a “scene” of two anthropomorphs holding a rectangular grid, interpreted by some as a unique portrayal of the use of nets in hunting.

Old Ridge is 100 meters south of Crow’s Nest, on a saddle and low ridge. Old Ridge’s associated archaeological features are indicative of economic activities similar in character to those at Crow’s Nest. Rock art at Old Ridge is far less abundant, comprising 18 panels and just 61 individual motifs, making it difficult to discern meaningful stylistic patterns. The site’s rock art is almost exclusively abstract, containing only a single zoomorph and no anthropomorphs. Like Crow’s Nest, curvilinear motif types (47% of the motif assemblage) predominate with serpentine lines the most common identifiable motif type.

Overall, these sites heavy emphasis on ambiguous abstract forms implies that the rock art was not intended to be easily or directly apprehended by its audience. Rather, commentary from individuals socially recognized as knowledgeable in rock art’s cultural significance would have been needed to explicate the rock art’s connotations. This suggests that rock art may have played an important social role in the cultures that made and used it, becoming the object of a special knowledge and hence a source of potential social power.

Conclusion. Both Crow’s Nest and Old Ridge are part of a wider district of rock art and settlement in an environment regarded as marginal in economic value to hunter-forager communities. Stays in the area would have been provisioned as it would not possible to stay for long periods by relying only on local resources. Despite the difficulty in sustaining stays in the area, the abundance of rock art and settlement archaeology is evidence of repeated, intensive occupations. The general area appears to have contained important resources that were exploited as conditions permitted. Crow’s Nest adds to a growing picture of a type of rock art and settlement activities in marginal environments that may indicate these were special-use areas visited, despite the cost and difficulty, because their environments contained important economic and cultural resources.