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More petroglyphs — smaller and less sophisticated, but nonetheless work of an ancient artist who shot arrows at scurrying rabbits.

“Every time we go into these canyons, we find more and more of these,” explains Russell L. Kaldenberg, a Navy archaeologist who works permanently at the test site to supervise the historic treasure.

He estimates that 60,000 petroglyphs are scattered across the naval station.

But David S. Whitley, an adjunct professor at Arizona State University and author of about a dozen books on Southwestern Indian rock art, says the number is more likely close to 100,000.

On top of that, there are remnants of ancient villages, ritual sites and obsidian quarries, Mr. Whitley notes.

Historians agree on one thing: The U.S. Navy’s testing range sits right atop the remnants of an ancient civilization created by prehistoric nomads, who are thought to have streamed into North America from Asia across the now submerged Bering land bridge and flourished along the Coso Mountain Range about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago.

The national historic landmark is firmly in the custody of the Navy, which established its presence in the China Lake area in 1943 and for the past four decades has played an atypical role of art curator.

Given the base’s remoteness and the stepped-up post-September 11 security procedures, only about 3,000 visitors a year make it to Little Petroglyph Canyon on closely supervised tours, says Peggy Shoaf, a spokeswoman for the naval station.

That is a modest figure compared with millions of annual pilgrims at other national monuments and parks.

All weapons testing takes place far from the petroglyphs, base officials say. Nevertheless, it sometimes creates scary situations.

In 2005, officials acknowledged, a Sidewinder missile impacting miles away sparked a brush fire that reached Little Petroglyph Canyon and raced through it with untamed fury.

“We were concerned the surface of the rocks would pop off from the heat,” recalls Mr. Stewart. “Luckily, it did not happen. In fact, the fire has revealed even more petroglyphs because it has burned the vegetation that was concealing them.”

There is no guarantee that the outcome will be as benign next time.

These perils notwithstanding, government and independent archaeologists and rock art scholars are unanimous in giving the Navy “excellent” marks for taking care of the national treasure.

The Navy also helps to protect the art from the main threat to historical and environmental preservation: us.

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