Ancient Rock Art Is Still a Mystery
Text and Photos by Catt Foy
You see them everywhere across the Southwest, symbols from an ancient and mysterious race -- spirals, zigzag lines, strange stick figures, a hump-backed flute player. They appear on signs and billboards, fashionable furniture and tee shirts.
These images were originally discovered etched in the rocks of canyons and mountains from deep in Mexico to the northern Rockies, from the Pacific to the yawning grasslands of the American prairie. They are most highly concentrated in the American Southwest -- Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Texas and California -- but have been found from coast to coast within the United States. There are thousands of these rock art sites throughout the Southwest; more than 7,000 have been cataloged in Utah alone.
Archaeologists tell us that they know little about these prehistoric images pecked onto rock surfaces known as "petroglyphs." Deciphering and understanding their meaning has been elusive. Dating petroglyphs is uncertain at best, since carbon-dating techniques aren't effective on rock. Some images can be dated approximately according to their content -- one panel of rock art in Canyon de Chelly depicts men on horseback and, therefore, must have been etched sometime after the arrival of the Spaniards and their horses.
Another method of dating petroglyphs is by determining the age of the desert varnish glaze on the rock surface. According to the experts at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, most petroglyphs date from AD 1300-1650, although some may be as much as 3,000 years old. Petroglyphs in Wyoming's Legend Rock have been dated to at least 5,700 years of age.
Petroglyphs are associated primarily with the Puebloan cultures of both the present and the past, including an ancient people known as the Anasazi, credited with building the immense cliff-dwellings which pepper the Southwestern landscape. Once thought to have mysteriously "disappeared," around AD 1500, the Anasazi are now believed to be the ancestors of the present Pueblo Indians. Other authors of the petroglyphs include the Hohokam, another highly developed and possibly related civilization who inhabited southern Arizona, around Phoenix.
While the meaning of some petroglyph images is obvious -- a hunter spearing a deer, for example -- the meaning of many others remain elusive. John Kantner, author of the Sipapu website states, "There are many theories. Some scholars believe that they convey important information regarding village boundaries, farming field ownership, and other basic messages... Other scholars argue that they are symbols that were pecked or carved into rock faces during important rituals. And still other archaeologists believe that they are just 'doodles.'"
Many symbols have been determined to be clan or tribal symbols and are, therefore associated with territory. Others indicate the presence of game, shelter and water, but the more esoteric symbols such as zigzags, spirals, dots, concentric circles and others are less easy to define and have most often been relegated to the category of religious symbols. Archeoastronomers have also found that a number of the rock images are celestial in nature, indicating solstices and planetary movements, and certain sites have been found to be astronomical observatories similar in function to Stonehenge.
Erik Von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods, speculated that certain images are pictures of extraterrestrial visitors. Other images appear to represent elephants, dinosaurs and ibex -- creatures that seem out of place in time and location. There is also speculation that the images of the petroglyphs are related to other images visible only from the air -- the giant effigies of the American Southwest known as Intaglios.
Any visit to the American Southwestern deserts should include petroglyph viewing. Too numerous to list, you can find these sites by consulting travel guides, local chambers of commerce and museums, or by checking with the National Park Service.
When visiting rock art sites, please take only photographs and leave no marks of your own. It is strongly recommended that rock art not be touched or walked on in order to preserve it for future generations. Human hands leave behind oils that may interfere with any scientific examination or attempt to date the site. Vandals and others attempting to add their own marks have damaged many sites. Others have been rifled by treasure hunters. All are currently protected under state and federal laws.
Petroglyphs appear all over the world in one form or another; it seems to be an inherent drive in humans to leave their mark upon rock faces -- to tell a story, to mark a spot, commemorate a spiritual experience or simply as an attempt at physical immortality.
Related DesertUSA Pages
- How to Turn Your Smartphone into a Survival Tool
- 26 Tips for Surviving in the Desert
- Death by GPS
- 7 Smartphone Apps to Improve Your Camping Experience
- Maps Parks and More
- Desert Survival Skills
- How to Keep Ice Cold in the Desert
- Desert Rocks, Minerals & Geology Index
- Preparing an Emergency Survival Kit
- Get the Best Hotel and Motel Rates
Share this page on Facebook:
DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)