Preserving Chumash Rock Art

Teaching future generations about California’s rich and diverse cultural heritage and legacy

by Jennifer Miller
May 29, 2015
CyArk had a great opportunity to work on a second project with our technology center partner at Santa Ynez High School. Chip Fenenga teaches a unique class called EAST or Environmental and Spatial Technology. This class offers high school students a chance to work with a range of digital technologies, including 3D laser scanning. After our first successful project at Mission Santa Ines, EAST students have scanned other cultural resources in their area, including a wonderful collection of old western carriages, wagons and saddles. We are thrilled to be back with a new generation of EAST students to document the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park in Santa Barbara, California. We were grateful to also collaborate with California State Park’s Associate Archaeologist, Barbara Tajada, and Chumash elder Ernestine Ygnacio-DeStoto.

Arriving at the site

Approaching the site requires driving up the narrow and winding road of Highway 154. Being one of the smallest State Parks in California (little more than seven acres), it’s easy to miss, if not for the giant State Park sign. As soon as everyone arrived, we went straight to work. And it was freezing! Well, freezing for us Californian natives. All of us had expected it to be hot and sunny; instead, we were bracing ourselves against the brisk wind!

Entering the cave

As the new curator for CyArk, my role was to document the…documentation. While Alex worked with the three students from Santa Ynez High School, I filmed and photographed the process.

There was a moment as I photographed Alex working on the laptop with the hand scanner, when I had to pause. Putting down the camera for a moment, I looked up. Within inches of my head were these hand painted drawings of fantastical images. Stars? Comets? Priestly figures? All traced with pigment covered fingers. What ceremonies took place where I sat? What words were spoken here? My imagination was lit.

Unfortunately, only conjecture can tell what these symbols mean. We know they were important and likely religious in nature. Some speculations say they are related to astrological events and Chumash cosmology but all we have is speculation. The cultural knowledge in the living Chumash descendants has been lost through a history of aggressive colonization.

The threat

There are two threats to this site: humans and geology. Blocking the cave entrance is a massive iron gate. Its purpose is clear when you take a closer look— covering the surface of the sandstone wall outside are the carved initials of hundreds of past visitors. I shudder at the thought of the condition of the cave had the iron gate not been there—a sentiment repeated that day.

The second threat is the very nature of the cave itself. Made of fine sandstone, the ceiling has slowly crumbled creating a fairly large blank gap in what was once a ceiling covered in paintings. Over time, this gap will only increase in size eventually removing all traces of the historical events that once took place here.


To preserve the current state of the cave, CyArk and Santa Ynez High School brought two scanners: a Faro and Artec hand scanner. Both were used to scan the inside of the cave while the Faro was used to scan the environment outside the cave.

“It was such an amazing experience to be able to be the first to laser scan the cave paintings and to have the privilege of viewing the rock art up close.”
--Park Grand, Santa Ynez High school

“Walking through those gates and seeing up close what I will be preserving was a resonantly exciting feeling, we were truly blessed with a great teacher who allowed us to find this opportunity.”
--Diego Cash, Santa Ynez High school

These combined scans will offer the most complete and accurate documentation of the paintings to date. This data will allow ongoing research a noninvasive method to study the paintings in its topographical environment; students and visitors will be able to explore and see the paintings in greater detail and within a 3D environment while learning more about the Chumash culture; and to give a point-in-time reference to monitor the condition of the cave for long-term conservation.

State Park sign for Chumash Painted Cave
Faro scanner inside the cave, working away.
The entire group after a successful day of documenting.
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Chumash Painted Cave