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Rock Art

Generally, there are four basic types of rock art: Pictographs, which are painted on the rock surface; petroglyphs, which are pecked or incised into the rock; geoglyphs, designs made of rocks arranged on the ground, typically on a very large scale; and also cupules, small holes, often found in clusters. Petroglyphs seem to be the most common type in the Southwest. There, rocks are often covered by a veneer known as ‘desert varnish’. Mineral deposits such as iron oxide adhere to rock surfaces over time and eventually stain the rock. This natural varnish ranges from a rust color to a brown so dark that at first it appears to be black. Almost invariably, it covers a lighter colored rock such as sandstone, which is found throughout the Southwest. By scratching, incising or pecking away at the desert varnish, perhaps with an antler chisel, the artist would reveal the lighter sandstone beneath, thus creating a negative image.

The designs themselves vary, but there are a few general types that are repeatedly found. Aside from the geometric designs, there are typically two others: anthropomorphs, or human images; and zoomorphs, depictions of animals. Sometimes these two motifs are combined, such as humans with animal heads or perhaps vise versa. Also, two different animals may sometimes be combined in a similar manner.

Some scholars now prefer the term ‘rock imagery’ as opposed to rock art to refer to these designs, since they don’t know for certain if it was really intended to be art, per se. However, it is still commonly known as ‘rock art’ to most people. Rock art is sometimes referred to as hieroglyphics, which is actually a form of writing, but the vast majority of researchers agree that the images are not a written language at all.

But if not writing, the question remains as to what their meaning might be. It seems doubtful that people with such an intimate knowledge of the landscape would need rock art maps, as some have speculated, not even outsiders such as traders. Also, considering the amount of effort required to create even the simplest motifs, idle ‘doodling’ seems like a doubtful interpretation too; imagine the difficulty of creating one petroglyph, much less a whole panel. Academic research has revealed evidence that many images are very likely the recording of individuals’ visions, probably most often those of shamans, or medicine men (which in some groups would traditionally be women). But, while this may often be the meaning, some seem to be clan symbols and other designs, left on the rocks as markings made during adulthood initiation ceremonies or as markers to guide the spirits of the deceased back to the underworld. The cupules mentioned above may have also been left as a part of an adulthood ceremony, at least in some cases. Sometimes the images clearly depict historical events, such as the arrival of the Spaniards in the Southwest. Whatever the meaning, the art is sacred to some people, while enriching the lives of many others.