Rock art is a widespread
phenomenon across the world. But in the deserts of western America,
rock art is almost omnipresent, but at the same time little-understood
and only recently studied. What do these drawings reveal about
art is a worldwide phenomenon: our ancestors used rocks to draw
on, either with paint (pictographs) or by carving (petroglyphs).
The American Southwest, however, has got an extra-ordinary range
of rock art, some of which is directly linked with the ancient
monuments of the Ancestral Puebloans or Hohokam, while some sites
are “just” rock art: cliff faces inscribed with enigmatic
designs and human or animal outlines.
Rock art has only relatively recently received any attention from
archaeologists and scientists, even though it was long believed
to be some secret language or communication system. Sometimes
described as “prehistoric”, i.e. “before writing”,
rock art is nevertheless more writing than art: it was not primarily
meant to be visually pleasing, but to impart information, to be
read by the person visiting it, on par therefore with Egyptian
hieroglyphs. Though now normally seen as a “primitive”
communication system, rock art is actually a very complex system
– which is why we still do not fully understand it. But
what we do understand of it, shows that sociological, but also
scientific – mostly astronomical – information was
imparted to the observer and that the sites in which rock art
can be found are highly significant.
it comes to pictographs, different coloured rocks were ground
up, dissolved in water, and bonded with saliva produced by chewing
seeds. The colour red is hematite, heavy with rust; the white
is gypsum or chalk; the blue came from other rocks, almost always
found in the area where the material was applied. Some figures
were produced with brushes, while others were created by blowing
or flicking paint at a stencil. Figures were often redrawn, if
only because they were affected by the elements and the test of
time. And this means that dating rock art is extremely difficult,
for identifying when the oldest layer was applied, can only ever
be done contextually.
Petroglyphs too have often been recarved, as they too were subject
to decay and are therefore equally difficult to date. A prime
example can be found just south of the city of Phoenix. Arizona’s
capital is framed on the southern border by the South Mountains,
rising to 1500 feet. Here, the petroglyphs are part of a spiritual
landscape – a dream world filled with shrines, vision quest
locations, animated rocks that spoke and immortals turned to stone
and brought to life through the interactions of the shamans. It
was a mythic landscape, in which these shamans between the 8th
and 11th century AD recorded their explorations of this mythic
realm on walls, and which we, hundreds of years later, are trying
There are thousands
of drawings and everything that existed in daily life and in the
natural world seems to have found its way on one rock or another
– whereby even the location of the rock, whether high up
a steep cliff or low in a valley, did not particularly single
out a specific site above another, though it is equally clear
that there was order and logic involved in the distribution and
application of this information.
Insects, geometric shapes, humans, anthropomorphic beings, amphibians,
reptiles, fish, mammals, birds, humans playing the flute or making
love, snakes, people dancing or hunting, humans that appear to
be shamans and wearing masks, one woman who seems to be menstruating,
spirit beings, spirals, all of these things are on display in
the South Mountains.
It is therefore difficult to find meaning, but of the many separate
sites and the more than 6000 signs, at least some have surrendered
their secrets: some sites are linked with astronomical observations.
At Four Pillars Site, it is known that the site was definitely
used for the observation of sunrise locations, e.g. sunrise at
the summer solstice, where the sun can be seen to rise on the
horizon in between two of the peaks of Four Peaks, forty miles
east. On December 21, the winter solstice sunrise is marked over
the sun disk petroglyph with a whirling tail.
The astronomical connotation to rock art has also been established
elsewhere in the region. At Hovenweep, there is a petroglyph on
a boulder forming a roughly east-west line along an edge of Holly
Canyon. The rock panels’ main imagery is two spirals, three
concentric circles with a central dot (widely assumed to be the
symbol for the sun), a wavy line apparently representing a plumed
serpent, and two circles, each with a central dot connected by
a curved line. A rock ledge overhanging the boulders formed a
natural protection. Just after sunrise on the summer solstice,
the sun gleams through two cracks in the boulders that otherwise
shade the one carved with the images, and over a seven-minute
period, two slivers of light, like gleaming serpents, move across
the surface of the boulder containing the petroglyphs. One cuts
through the two spirals while the other sliver slices the sun
symbol. The two streaks of light merge at a point between the
sun symbol and the spirals.
At Fajade Butte, in Chaco Canyon, on a ledge near the top of this
130 metre sandstone outcrop, three great rock slabs lean against
the rock wall. Anna Sofaer discovered that at the summer solstice,
a sliver of light – a sun dagger – projects through
a crack in the slabs onto the shaded rock face behind them. On
this rock face, are carved a large spiral and one smaller one,
and the sun dagger cleaves through the centre of the larger one.
At noon on the winter solstice, two slivers of sunlight project
between the slabs, perfectly framing the large spiral. However,
the ledge is not suitable for year-round solar observations.
Sun daggers can also be seen at the V-Bar-V site, near Sedona.
It is believed that the V-Bar-V site could have been a training
centre for priests and sun watchers. Ken Zoll has done most of
the work on this site and has convincingly identified some of
the rock art as having direct astronomical connotations. This
site is notorious for one “solar panel”, taking up
an entire cliff face, containing 125 petroglyphs, 11 of which
have definitely an astronomical connotation. Here and in some
other sites, a crack in the rock wall and a series of stones –
thought to be natural – cast a “sun dagger”
– shadow and light. At key dates of the year, the location
of this shadow is marked by specific petroglyphs, thus adhering
to a system of “marking” dates that is also present
at other sites in the southwest and underlining that rock art
shares common characteristics between the various sites.
Specifically, Zoll believes that the V-Bar-V site interacts with
other parts of the surrounding landscape. Visiting the highest
mountain points to the East and using the compass for declinations,
he found cairns marking the rising sun aligned with Sacred Mountain,
the key feature of this sacred landscape. He also found cairns
marking the equinox points. From such observations, experts have
been able to identify that the Native Americans – as their
southern neighbours in Mexico – were well versed in astronomy
and had elaborate calendar systems. Indeed, certain groups like
the Hopi even had certain clans – in their case the Water
Clan – that were responsible for sun watching.
from an astronomical link, there is also clear shamanic content
on display in the depictions. Near Blythe, on the border of Arizona
and California, David Whitley has found a petroglyph on a cracked
rock, showing a human figure forming out of a wiggly line which
itself is emerging from the split in the rock. He interprets this
as a rattlesnake shaman turning back into human form on his return
from the spirit world behind the rock surface – cliff walls
were normally seen as gateways into other worlds and any cracks,
if present, as the physical “door”. At Three Rivers,
a petroglyph of a pair of upside down legs seems to portray a
person diving into the earth through an opening between boulders.
This is not a unique case; the shaman is often seen to transform
into a supernatural animal. In these parts, shamans were known
to have taken hallucinogenic substances, including jimsonweed
and native tobacco, to enter the spirit world.
These spirit flights can also explain some of the other rock art
symbols. Some of the lines and geometric patterns are known to
be seen during the various stages of the out of body experiences
and could thus illustrate the shaman’s voyage from this
to the other reality. The connection with the spirit world is
also on display when humans are depicted next to enormous, ghost-like
figures, often using the same technique as used by the ancient
Egyptians, in which deities were depicted much larger than ordinary
human beings. Sometimes, some of the anthropomorphic characters
lack both arms and legs, others might have large eyes or empty
sockets, while some are even draped in what appear to be robes.
These were the mythical beings that provided key information to
the shaman, which he took back to his tribe, and where it was
applied for the greater good of certain individuals or the community
as a whole.
from astronomical and shamanic symbols, it is known that rock
art can also be ceremonial, instructional and commemorative. It
has, in short, a wide range of functions and meanings. But if
one had to summarise them in one statement, it would be that “rock
art” is central to a sacred landscape where ceremonies occurred.
It should therefore not come as a surprise to find them as part
of ceremonial structures. Sometimes, the rock art is part of the
complex, though others sites, such as the so-called Crack-in-Rock
rock art site near Wupatki, is separate from the main ruins…
and actually largely kept secretive, so as to better secure its
preservation. The same physical separation can be seen at Palatki,
near Sedona, where a few hundred yards separate the dwellings
from the cliffs containing the rock art. Here, a crack in the
rock is again interpreted as a potential doorway into the otherworld
and a rock in front could be a seat used by the shaman from which
to enter this other dimension.
the separation between the community buildings and such major
rock art sites might be because of the sacred nature of these
sites, whereby the sacred cliff was kept away from the mundane
activities of the community. In short, the cliff faces containing
rock art might be the most sacred part of these cultures, suggesting
that most visitors to these national monuments have been focusing
on the wrong part of monument during their visits.
At Palatki, there are signs dating to the Archaic Period, some
as old as 8000 years old. Later, the same cliff was held sacred
by the Sinagua culture of the 12th-14th century, and the more
recent Yavapai, who largely used charcoal for their annotations
on the rock. But a site that was once sacred, seems to have remained
sacred, across time and cultures.
symbols have now been identified and parts of the rock art are
slowly revealing their secrets. But there is still a long way
to go. For some sites, it is a race against time to preserve and
record the inscriptions, so that they can provide us with insights
these people possessed merely a few centuries ago. At other sites,
hundreds of panels and symbols remain to be explained. Rock art
as a science might be the new kid on the block, but it is likely
going to be the one that is going to teach us most about the people
and cultures of the American southwest.