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Reading Rock Art

The Harvest Scene rock art panel in the Maze District
The Harvest Scene rock art panel in the Maze District
NPS Photo by Neal Herbert
 

If you travel the canyons of the American Southwest, you are sure to see figures carved or painted on rock faces. These include abstractions like spirals, dots and geometric patterns, or more recognizable forms like animals, humans and handprints. Whatever they represent, these curious figures provoke within most people the desire to understand.

For lack of a better term, we call it “rock art,” but these images are more than mere adornments hung on the landscape. They are communications between people, written not with letters but with visceral, vital imagery. They could express anything one human being might want to communicate to another. If we look closely and compare different rock art panels, themes and characteristics emerge, as well as something on the edge of comprehension. A figure on horseback suggests a relatively recent date of production. The portrayal of an atlatl recalls a much older archaic cultural period. A line of ghostly figures holding snakes with birds or other animals hovering above them may suggest an otherworldly experience. In effect, the odd figures on the rock convey the social, economic and religious concerns of many different cultures, both historic and prehistoric.

Imagine trying to convey a concept as simple as “food this way” in pictures, or one as complex as your deepest fears and highest aspirations. What symbols would you use? Would a person a thousand years from now understand them? Would they be able to follow your directions to water or understand your place in the cosmos?

Whatever the intent, rock art can be considered a record of the celebrations, maps and practical wisdom left by indigenous people for those who would follow. Through rock art, knowledge could be passed to future generations—including our own. Though we may not understand them, petroglyphs and pictographs often inspire within us a sense of awe and wonder. One translation of these images might very well be: “listen and survive.”

Did You Know?

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