The Writing On The Wall

The Southwest: Mysterious and beautiful, the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs etched on canyons throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada speak to the eye and the soul.

July 25, 1999|By Linda DuVal | Linda DuVal,knight ridder/tribune

In the shade of a canyon wall, etched into the rock, is the unmistakable figure of a pronghorn antelope, frozen in time. A lizard, eternally crawling up the wall. And a hunter, arrow notched into his bow, forever ready to let it fly but never quite letting go. The centuries-old rock-art drawings across the Southwest are more than just prehistoric graffiti, archaeologists believe: They tell us stories and reveal the religious beliefs, history, fears and triumphs of the people who incised them. Pecked in stone, these images intrigue, fascinate and often mystify us.

Many of the petroglyphs and pictographs spattered on sheltered canyon walls throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada are easily accessible to the traveler with a fondness for history spiced with mystery. Petroglyphs, the more common rock art found in this part of the country, are pictures scratched or chipped into rock. They stand out in red, gray or white stone covered with a naturally occurring dark patina that's often called "desert varnish." Pictograph is the broader term for all rock art, and more specifically for painted images, says Sabra Moore, an artist and author of "Petroglyphs: Ancient Language/Sacred Art." Moore traveled all over the Southwest to view the most significant rock-art sites for her book.

Rock art may be too dismissive a term, says Will Morris, a site interpreter at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. "It's art, but it's not really art as we think of it today. It isn't just there for decoration," he says.

Most archaeologists believe the purpose of rock art was not decorative, but informative (marking trails, showing where to find water, or as calendars), religious (honoring sacred spots, offering prayers) and territorial (no trespassing).

Most of the petroglyphs throughout the Southwest were done by ancestral Pueblo people (formerly called Anasazi) and other Southwestern tribal groups; in northern Colorado, they were done by the prehistoric Fremont people.

"They're all over the place, and you can walk right past them without seeing them," says Meg Van Ness, an archaeologist with the Colorado Historical Society. "It depends on the time of day, and how the light hits them. They can appear or disappear."

Common images on Southwestern petroglyphs include animals, from snakes and lizards to bighorn sheep and deer.

The most common figure found from Mesa Verde to southern Arizona is Kokopelli, sometimes playing a flute, sometimes humpbacked as if carrying a pack. Most anthropologists think he represents the traveling trader, says Tammy Stone, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of a new book, "The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas."

Stone says there are marked similarities among the petroglyphs of the Southwest, and marked differences with those found farther north, which differ in style and subject matter. The northern Fremont petroglyphs tend to be realistic; the Southwestern images include more abstract shapes, with some mythical and anthropomorphic figures.

But all tend to convey the culture of the times. Some are decidedly connected to specific events -- few scientists doubt that the huge sunburst in Chaco Canyon represents anything but the supernova (a rare, extremely bright star activity easily seen from Earth) that happened in 1054, Moore says in her book. Snakes, found all over this arid land, represent where to find water, says Moore. Horned snakes are water gods. Birds flying into the sky, often into clouds, may represent prayers for rain. Moore doesn't think the images represent writing. "That's an assumption made by a literate culture about a nonliterate one," she says. Although they are not writing, they are intended as communication. Some petroglyphs are undoubtedly of a sacred nature.

But not all are serious.

One only has to view the goofy grin on the face of Kokopelli in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico to know that, says Van Ness. "You just know they were having some fun there," she says. When viewing rock art, don't just look at the drawings themselves, Moore suggests. "Go with open eyes and take time to see where they are ... and ask, what is this image trying to tell me about this place? The site is part of the art, part of the meaning."

Visitors often ask park rangers and site interpreters who among the ancient tribes created the petroglyphs. Guesses range from holy men to common folk to storytellers.

And then there's the theory espoused by a ranger at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. She was pretty sure, from the graphic sexuality and from the location, that they were done by teen-age boys who got bored while standing lookout. "She's probably right!" Van Ness says, laughing.

How'd they do that?

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