National Geographic : 1952 Sep
Seeking the Secret of the Giants A Flying Archeologist Attacks the Mystery of Strange Figures, Visible as a Whole Only from the Air, Outlined on Desert Mesas BY FRANK M. SETZLER Head Curator,Department of Anthropology, U. S. NationalMuseum * With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Richard H. Stewart TWO thoughts were uppermost in my mind as I swung aboard the Catalina amphibian. The first was that arche ology is a terrestrial science; it was surely never meant to be airborne. The second was that, if we succeeded on this mission, we could with confidence take up a career of locating needles in haystacks. Our immediate objective was this: to find, and photograph, in the parched, trackless desert near Blythe, California, crude figures of men and animals reported by airplane pilots (page 389). Later I hoped to solve the mys tery of these immense and lonely figures to arrive at a scientific conclusion as to who made them, when, and why. Taking off from March Air Force Base, just east of Los Angeles, we flew through San Gorgonio Pass, skimmed north of Palm Springs, skirted the date groves of Indio, and rumbled over peaks that had claimed more than one unlucky airliner. Dusty and anonymous, the desert spread out before us. On its barren face we could discern a few trails, faint roads, and the whorls and curlicues scribbled by the steel treads of General Patton's North African tank corps, which took its pre-invasion training here. To the south extended a thin blue streak that was the Salton Sea, 241 feet below sea level. Crossing the town of Blythe, we picked up the Colorado River and the green irrigated fields fanning back from it. As we followed the river's course northward, the cultivated land gave way again to mesas, brown and tan, and to gray, dry creek beds. Giant Figure Basks in Desert Sun From the plastic "blister" on the left side of the fuselage peered photographer Dick Stewart of the National Geographic; I occu pied the bubble on the right. We stared down at the desert floor, searching its every crevice as the big amphibian began to circle and re circle the area. Suddenly and almost simultaneously we spotted our target. On a broad, bare mesa sloping up from the mesquite-dotted plain stretched a gigantic figure, crudely outlined in the dark-brown gravel. It lay upon its back, arms and legs flung out as if sprawled there for some interminable sun-bath (pages 394-395). From our altitude of 1,500 feet, the great effigy seemed about two or three inches long; on the ground, we quickly calculated, it must extend a good 100 feet from head to toe. Wheeling around, we scrutinized the sur rounding territory. In a minute we sighted two other recumbent figures, then a third. One was a misshapen four-legged creature, the others an odd circle and a scraggly ellipse. Impatient to get down to earth at once and examine these weird caricatures, I checked their location as rapidly as possible by refer ence to the river, an adjacent highway, and a line of high-tension wires. Then we flew north along the Colorado, soaring over Parker Dam and its long new reservoir. As the amphibian dipped over the Topock bridge, which carries the Santa Fe tracks across the Colorado, I again scanned the ground carefully, for in this area, too, other effigies had been reported. All at once, on a T-shaped mesa farther west, there loomed up the perfect outline of another grotesque figure. Banking sharply so that Dick could bring his camera to bear on the giant, we feasted our eyes upon it. Pioneers May Have Passed Site What a site the big fellow had chosen! From this vantage point he could have watched the first little bands of Spanish ex plorers, the creaking wagon trains of the pioneers, the coming of the railroad, and finally the flash of the sun on metal wings. When Dick had photographed his fill, we flew northwest, over the Granite Mountains to Crucero. Picking up the twisting silver thread of the Union Pacific tracks, we fol lowed them westward, trying to locate various cairns and gravel mounds described by earlier investigators. Erosion and wind-blown sand, however, seemed to have erased or disguised them effectively. * F. M. Setzler also was Deputy Leader of the Na tional Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution ex pedition to Arnhem Land, Australia, in cooperation with the Australian Government in 1948. See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Exploring Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Charles P. Mountford, De cember, 1949, and "Cruise to Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Howell Walker, September, 1949.