Southwestern Rock Art and Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

by Joe Zentner

The meaning of these petroglyphs remains shrouded in history.

The canyons straddling the Colorado/Utah border are as empty a landscape as any on the continent. To the east lies the Colorado National Monument; to the west sits Arches National Park. But in between lies a land as anonymous as a drifter. It is not designated wilderness. It is not parkland or monument. It is just big, empty and quiet.

In places, these canyons seem to whisper, their walls speaking in verse. The canyons are riddled with prehistoric rock art—drawings of snakes, concentric circles, depictions of desert bighorn, elk, and odd, mysterious figures that seem only to inhabit dreams. Silent stories in stone, and we have come here to listen.


Rock art that has been chipped, pecked or etched into a rock surface, into the dark “desert varnish,” or stains, created by runoff of water, is called a “petroglyph.” These were first made using a pecking technique, a series of holes carved into rock and then interconnected. As carving instruments became more sophisticated, a new method of incising – sawing with a stone blade – developed. The desert varnish becomes reestablished with time and, consequently, petroglyphs darken as they age, offering a gross, relative indication of the dates of their creation.

Art that has been painted on a flat rock surface is called a “pictograph.” Mixing natural compounds – hematite or ocher for red, for instance, or kaolin or gypsum for white, charcoal for black – with a base of plant and animal oils, created colored pigments. The paint was then applied with brushes made out of animal hair or yucca leaf fibers, or smeared on with fingers. Because pictographs are extremely fragile, fewer of the prehistoric drawings remain for us to see.

Across the deserts petroglyph sites contain meandering designs.

Whether petroglyphs or pictographs, human-like forms are called “anthropomorphs,” such as the well-known Kokopelli flute players. Animal-like figures are called “zoomorphs.”


Some of the canyon country rock art is thought to be several millennia old, made by people of the so-called Mesquite Flat Culture, who lived from about 3,000 BC until 1 AD. The majority of rock art in the region was created by the people of the Anasazi and Fremont cultures. Through carbon-14 dating techniques and cultural associations, it appears that much of the art was produced from about 600 AD to 1200, although much older examples certainly exist.


Despite volumes of scholarly study, no one can say with certainty what the etchings/paintings meant to the artists and their culture, but, clearly, rock art was not, as some have theorized, mere idle doodling, a kind of prehistoric “tagging.” Rock is not an easy medium to work. The more elaborate petroglyphs took many perfectly placed hits to create and required untold hours to complete. Hunting and gathering societies survived on a fine edge in a difficult landscape. Members of such societies had little time for idle doodling.

Some archaeologists suggest the designs may have supported hunting magic.

Rock art is also not a crude attempt at an alphabet or a universal language. It was not writing in the modern sense of the word. Panels of rock art cannot be read from left to right like the pages of a book.

Still, rock art, like writing, may have served as storytelling symbols. It was a tangible attempt to portray human hopes and fears and beliefs in something more lasting than the spoken word. Each piece of rock art is like a verse in the long poem of our attempt to come to grips with the elements of both the physical and spiritual landscape in which we live. Rock art creates those verses in stone.

The images, like hieroglyphs, may represent interactions with the spirit world, display familiar icons, recount stories, record events, or mark trails, territorial boundaries, or locations where water could be found.

There are an infinite number of things one could think of that the symbols might mean. For example, there are at least five separate interpretations of a circle: That it represents the universe; a shield (the bird of prey was often associated with warrior societies); the sun; nearby water; or an eye (the all-seeing power of the bird-man). We may never learn what the person who carved or applied the paint intended the figures to be, whether a “work of art” in the modern sense, a ceremonial object, or a territorial marker. We have found no Rosetta Stone.

Clearly, however, rock art is an expression of humanity, symbols of a culture that have persisted for millennia. Someone took time from a life that, if it wasn’t nasty, brutish and short (thank you Thomas Hobbes), was unforgiving, to create these images, and that person took pains to make them last.

The symbols have lasted, while the society that made them possible has not. Rock art images transmit the spirit of their creator into an uncomprehending age.

Exploring Rock Art Sites

The most prominent region to see rock art in the United States is the American Southwest. Sandstone and basalt serve as viable media. The dry climate preserves sites, and the lack of vegetation makes the art easier to find. Because the area was for so long deemed worthless and uninhabitable, rock-art sites have not been destroyed by development and vandals as rapidly as elsewhere.

Prehistoric humans in the Death Valley region, for instance, left evidence of their lives in engravings and paintings preserved on rock surfaces. In Greenwater Canyon both petroglyphs and pictographs can be found. Although much of the artwork consists of strange patterns and designs, numerous forms can be recognized, including lizards, snakes, scorpions, deer, bighorn sheep and dancing humans. Within Death Valley National Park, excellent examples of rock art can be seen in Echo Canyon, Cottonwood Canyon and at Klare Spring in Titus Canyon.

In Utah look for rock art in Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park (and other sites near Moab), in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and in Zion National Park. Rock art appears in Colorado in Mesa Verde National Park and Colorado National Monument. In Arizona look for it in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Navajo National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park. And in New Mexico explore Bandelier National Monument, Chaco Canyon National Monument, El Morro National Monument, Petroglyph National Monument and Three Rivers National Monument for examples. In western Texas, visit the Hueco Tanks State Historical Park to see one of the extraordinary pictograph sites in the Southwest.

No matter where they are, the centuries-old petroglyphs and pictographs are oftentimes difficult for untrained eyes to see. They are best spotted during dawn or dusk, when the sun’s rays cast shadows into the shallow indentations. Running a fingertip along a timeworn groove, shining a flashlight across a stone surface or skimming a wet sponge over a dry rock face may help bring an ancient design back to life.

One of the most resilient figures in Southwestern rock art is the human image, even if the body may be represented by no more a stick figure with what appear to be talons in the places of hands and feet. This is an ideogram that has survived for thousands of years.

Then there are the animals. That so many of the figures represent animals is not surprising in cultures where hunting lay at the core of survival, deeply entwined in myth. Close to traditional hunting grounds, the art may have played a part in pre-hunt ceremonies, the drawings being, perhaps, an offering to animals before the kill.

The even more numerous geometric images probably hold meaning only to those who carved or painted them.

Viewing Rock Art

Rock art sites are fragile outdoor museums left by prehistoric man. Because they can be easily damaged:

  • Treat them with respect, like a church or a synagogue. Many Native Americans still consider these places sacred.
  • Do not apply chalk, crayons, ink or paint to make them more visible.
  • Do not deface sites by making new carvings or reworking old ones.
  • Do not make molds or castings using fiberglass, latex, plaster or clay.
  • Do not enter private property without the owner’s permission.

Bring binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens. This will help you get close-up views and photos without having to climb up to precipitous cliff ledges, where many rock art sites are located.

Because the carvings/pictures are shallow, photos are best taken in the late afternoon on a sunny day when the sun is on the horizon, casting shadows that will define images that can scarcely be seen in overhead sunlight or on cloudy days.

Keep in mind that many western rock art sites have rattlesnakes nearby, warming themselves on rocks in the sun in the early morning or late afternoon. Don’t let these “native residents” prevent you from enjoying images from the past, but do be on the alert for them.

Ancient drawings, carvings and paintings on rock provide inspiration for the mind, limited only by the farthest boundaries of our imagination. Rock art is wonder, magic, inspiration, a window on our past and, most of all, a marvelous mystery captured on cliffs and rocks throughout the American Southwest.

You might also like:


Related DesertUSA Pages


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.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms


Enter Email:

Shop desert store

Copyright © 1996- and Digital West Media, Inc. - -