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Light and shadows

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 our ancestors?

Philip Coppens


Rock 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.

When 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 to decipher.
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.

Apart 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.

Apart 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.
Either way, 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.

Dozens 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.