Reading Rock Markings

several human-shaped figures in various colors on a rock wall
We can see several layers of rock painting throughout the years on the Courthouse Wash Panel at Arches National Park.

NPS/Chris Wonderly

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.

Many people call it “rock art,” but "art" doesn't adequately define their importance to American Indian tribes. These images are more than mere adornments hung on the landscape. They are communications between people across time, written not with letters but with visceral, vital imagery. They could express anything one human being might want to communicate to another.

pecked depictions of bighorn sheep and riders on horseback
The Wolfe Ranch panel at Arches National Park shows bighorn sheep and riders on horseback. Depictions of horses indicate these rock peckings were made after Spanish explorers arrived in North America.

NPS/Neal Herbert

If we look closely and compare different image panels, themes and characteristics sometimes 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 (spear-throwing device) 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. American Indian tribes today might see different meanings in the same images, all of which are valid. In effect, the odd figures on the rock convey the social, economic, and religious concerns of many different cultures—historic, prehistoric, and contemporary.

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

three people stand in front of a rock wall with white painted figures on it
Viewing rock paintings at Peekaboo in Canyonlands National Park

NPS/Jacob W. Frank

Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument

Last updated: May 13, 2019