If you explore the desert southwest at all, you invariably come upon various forms of petroglyphs, pictographs, or other etchings.
Petroglyphs (carved into the rock) and pictographs (painted on rock) are famously found throughout the Colorado Plateau. A message from the past visible today. Are they idle drawings? Ceremonial? A record of events? Honoring essential people of a given area? Probably that and more. We have good guesses, but we won’t know entirely. We lost the messages to time in some cases.
Invariably someone will ask, sometimes snarky and sometimes not, the difference between these images and modern vandalism?
That’s a good question.
First, I am purposefully not using the term “graffiti.” In the original Italian, graffiti translates to “etched inscriptions,” more or less. More importantly, I think a distinction can and should be made between vandalism and graffiti. Not all graffiti is necessarily vandalism. The graffiti may convey political messages, inspiration, and even art.
In my old stomping grounds of Boulder, CO, a street artist named “SMiLE” arguably adds much enrichment to the community with their murals.
Vandalism is something different. Putting the fox on, say a church, covering up existing messages, and such vile things as racial slurs strike me far differently.
But that is just my opinion.
Speaking of which, here is my second item to bring up:
I am not any archeologist (or any “-ologist” for that matter). And being of European-American background, I am not of the cultural traditions of the people who created these images.
In other words, these are just my thoughts based on what I’ve seen and done. And I don’t claim any expertise. And more importantly, I do not claim my interpretation as absolute.
However, as a backcountry person, I think my knack for travels through these ancient travel paths potentially sees how they fit into the landscape. By walking the routes, paddling the flat water, or performing non-technical scrambles, the terrain gets connected to other places as people have done for generations. When you pass these images, you start to feel for both their potential use and their possible analogs in today’s world.
You’ll note I am using the word “images” rather than “rock art.” Language evolves. And our concepts as well. Calling these 800+-year-old images “rock art” is a concept fading among people from the traditions in many cases. And among people with much more formal education than myself. Why? Because “art” is just one facet of these images. Labeling the images art takes away the complexity and other aspects of these critical parts of an ancient cultural tradition.
Consider the Catholic background of my formative years. And the Sistine Chapel in particular.
Artistic, yes! But inspirational and at the center of one of the most sacred places for people of the Catholic faith. The artistry is just one facet of these religious images.
Similarly, the images round through the American Southwest (and other areas) are more than art, too.
The Painted Cave in New Mexico is still a place of cultural pilgrimage for the original inhabitants’ descendants.
But images can also convey information of the world. It is no surprise to any backcountry traveler that these images often appear at the junction of the canyon, rivers, or where you can ascend to the canyon rim.
The well-known Newspaper Rock seems odd along a paved road heading to Canyonlands National Park to our modern eyes.
The images from Pueblo, Ute, and others seem to convey different information, perhaps some history, and maybe directions and other important parts of both the pre- and post- Columbian world.
If you look at a map, the large panel is not just on the road but also next to where one canyon joins the other one. Even this so-called “off-trail” canyon is a travel path in its own right. And these images are at the end of the canyon.
On a recent trip, Joan and I found a distinctive panel on a non-designated route just below an apparent exit to the mesa top and along the way to the San Juan River. Again, at a prominent place for travelers.
I am not sure what information is getting conveyed, but it seems to be a prominent place to give information. Not too far different from today, perhaps?
And the images often note essential events, including the many archaeoastronomical images found throughout the southwest.
There is the famous Supernova Pictograph in Chaco Canyon:
Or the many images that line up with the solstice or equinox:
Or depicting other astronomical events that I won’t begin to guess:
Other images potentially convey warnings or attempt to dissuade people from going further.
Perhaps not far different from a similar sign in our time.
Another potential facet of these images could be the honoring of people. Extrapolating our cultural biases onto other cultures can be problematic. But portraying important people or events in a society seems a cultural constant through the ages.
There are other potential meanings that people from the cultural traditions also state, such as clan membership, signs of travel and history, water, crops, conflict, etc.
Ultimately, I think these images always tell a story regardless. Some may be art, or religious in nature, perhaps historical, etc.
But the story behind the images and possibly why the people created them echoes through the ages.
And loses none of their power to inspire hundreds or even thousands of years later.
Vandalism is something completely different from these images. These images are part of the cultural landscape as much as a shrine, kiosk, art, or historical record today.
And something I am grateful for the opportunity to appreciate many generations later.