Monday, May 28, 2012

Rock art rocks -- and that's not all there is to it!

I've just returned from travels in the southwestern United States, where the opportunities to be inspired by, and learn from, the "things left behind" by peoples living in the area long ago are exceptional. As have peoples around the world ever since man became a tool-user, the early occupants of Arizona and New Mexico (and Utah, and Wyoming, and, and, and!) left their marks, literally, on the hard rock surfaces (that I imagine they trusted would be permanent) abundantly supplied by Mother Nature. They never fail to make me wonder: What is being depicted? What is its significance, its purpose? Whose privilege or duty, glory or penance, was it to make these marks? Were they intended to be things of beauty, or was that outcome just incidental, or are they simply meant to communicate the news (quite a few are now called "newspaper" rocks) in a pre-literate world? Maybe, most disappointingly, they are just Graffiti. Students of rock imagery have many hypotheses. Some are relatively easy to demonstrate today, as in the case of this (phenomenal, if you think about it) calendrical marking system found at the V-Bar-V Heritage Site, Coconino National Forest, central Arizona: 
Observations have revealed to the patient and methodical that the circled rocks are wedged into the fissure in such a way that the sun casts shadows onto specific symbols etched into the rock, to the lower left (click photo to enlarge to see the details), to reliably  indicate the time to plant, and the time to harvest each year. The peoples who created this marvel were the Beaver Creek band of the Southern Sinagua (aka, Sinawa, as the Spanish concatenation of the words for "without" and "water" is typically pronounced), who occupied the region between about 1150 and 1400 A.D..
They used this same sheltered red rock face to depict other aspects of their world as well:

I'm not sure that its known what, or who, the splay-fingered, pointy-eared, long-torso'd figure represents. Fortunately, some images are more specifically grounded in a reality that we easily share today. This is a mountain lion, indicated by the long, curled tail, attacking the back of a deer or elk:
Rather than being pecked into the rock (which was surely tedious work) some images from related peoples of the same region were painted, most often with clay-based paints. These are referred to as pictographs:
This image of a deer or elk is preserved at nearby Palatki Heritage Site, also managed by the Coconino National Forest. Some of the other markings around it were left by previous and subsequent waves of residents and visitors. Palatki has one particular special panel of images, also originally white-clay wash, but blackened by the smoke from the agave roasting pit on the floor below the cliff overhang: 
This panel includes at least one human figure. The docent at Palatki said it is believed to be a female giving birth, perhaps to the array of animals around her. In the lower left of another Palatki panel is this awesome figure:
My traveling companion posited the hypothesis that this is a shaman with power to hear things others cannot. My theory is that it is an ancestress of the modern Hopi peoples of Northern Arizona, whose dramatic, scalp-ripping traditional hair style for maidens is this:
Adam Clark Vroman photograph, Hopi Maiden, 1901
The Sinawa are, in fact, believed to be the ancestors of the modern Hopi people. 
Even within small regions, styles seem to be particular to sites. This is another archaeological ruin within the Coconino National Forest, the Honanki Heritage Site.  Honanki was also occupied by successions of people, so these particular images may not be contemporaneous with those at V-Bar-V and Palatki; they do look a little different. My impression is that the image below is a sun or moon, perhaps carefully positioned to mark a lunar or solar event. Whoever made it knew well how to create a good round circle, in any case.
Of all these sites, Honanki is the most hard to access, thus offering the most privacy for vandals, I'm sorry to report. There's plenty of evidence they've taken advantage of the remoteness of the site. The compulsion to add one's own undistinguished mark over these irreplaceable images of the past is far beyond my comprehension, particularly using one's actual name!
Below is another example, from V-Bar-V site, but at least it has the cachet of being fairly old; it probably dates to the era when the V-Bar-V was a working ranch. 
Petroglyphs and pictographs face natural threats as well. For example, changes in sun and shade patterns caused by the growth or removal of shade trees allows the appearance of destructive mosses and rock-eating lichen. Who knows how much has disappeared below that fluorescence of very recent vintage? 
From the V-Bar-V Heritage Site
This is not a new problem, of course. It's even evident at some of these central Arizonan sites that successive waves of occupants altered what had been scratched, pecked, or painted before them. 

Efforts at remediation are tricky. Sometimes the most that can be done is obliteration of modern man's efforts to compete for attention with the ancients. And we're getting better at that. In the insert photo below, which dates from about 1954, you can see above and to the left of the child's head, a clumsy effort to make something on this Newspaper Rock (in the Petrified Forest-Badlands National Park) disappear. In the contemporary photo (2011), two important things are evident: successful cosmetic surgery has been performed to repair the damage done by early efforts to remove damage, and, it is no longer possible to easily approach the rock face. 
Please click photo to enlarge for detail
And by the way, if you guessed the identity of the little girl and that she grew up to take the 2011 photo with a long telephoto lens from a viewing promontory high above and a couple of hundred horizontal feet away from Newspaper Rock, yes, it is me. 


  1. I read your post with fascination. And envy - how I would love to see some of the places you mention! However your photos and descriptions give us wonderful picture.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! I've got a ton more interesting material from that trip, and a subsequent trip to Cincinnati (and, if all goes well, an upcoming trip west) but posting may have to be spread out over the coming weeks. How did I get so busy all of a sudden?

  3. Well done. Very informative. I especially enjoyed the photo of the little girl...the photos she's taken later in life are very nice, too.