Petroglyphs of the American Southwest
Loren J. Howell
All photos on this page were taken by the author
Figure 1, Perry Mesa ruins,
form of prehistoric rock art can be found on every inhabited continent, from
the carvings and cave paintings of
In the southwestern United States, there are tens of thousands of sites with a style of rock art commonly known by the name Petroglyphs, a word coined in the late 1800’s by German scholar Richard Andrée, from the Greek petro for “rock” or “stone” and glyph meaning “carve” or “engrave.” This ancient art form takes advantage of the slow formation of a dark “desert varnish” on the surface of exposed rocks in dry environments, with the dark layer being chipped away exposing the lighter stone beneath. Because of prevailing arid conditions over centuries, the effects of erosion have been minimized to wind and sand abrasion, and the slow regrowth of the varnish layer. This incidentally serves as some clue to the age of individual glyphs in relation to others nearby, giving scholars a rough timeline for a site.
Several cultures known to have carved these enigmatic designs over the past few millennia in Arizona and New Mexico were the ancestors of modern indigenous people, and are generally referred to by the names Sinagua, meaning “Without water,” the Mogollon people, and Hohokam, meaning “Those who are gone.” Environmental and social changes in the region caused migrations of entire social groups at many times in the past, with wars and droughts seeming to be obvious explanations for the abandonment of permanent settlements and the sudden appearance of large groups of people in previously uninhabited areas. Some scholars theorize that many petroglyphs were left as signposts or markers for fellow travelers, indicating where food and water may be found nearby. The depiction of local animals is the most common of all themes, and the dragonfly is a worldwide symbol for water. Carved into a desert boulder, its orientation to the surrounding landscape sometimes points the direction to what may be the only water source for many days journey, vital information to a traveler in unfamiliar territory.
Many petroglyphs are of simple animal designs, like the antelope shown in fig.1, with a crude outline for a body (or sometimes filled in) and short lines for legs and other details. Others are simple geometric shapes and designs, such as the spiral, one of the more common subjects of all sites. The generally accepted meaning of the spiral varies from “origin of all life” to “great journey,” and some, like the famous Sun Dagger in the Four Corners region and the spiral in fig.2 near Tucson, Arizona have been shown to be a form of ancient sundial, marking solstices and equinoxes with the rays of the sun forming shapes that illuminate certain petroglyphs at these times of the year.
Figure 2, Signal Hill petroglyph site, Saguaro National Monument NW of Tucson, AZ
A study by the late Nile
Root, photographer and teacher, extensively analyzed the petroglyphs at
Signal Hill near
Other petroglyphs are of strange beings, many referred to as “Kachinas,” and we can only speculate about the function of such art. The best-known and most easily recognizable of these is Kokopelli, the nearly-universal symbol of fertility and good times, and many more are thought to be represented by the strangely human-yet-not-quite-human designs like figs. 3 and 4.
Carvings like these bring us to the subject of
“Teaching Rocks,” in the form of illustrations for oral history lessons. A sandstone cliff near Second Mesa in the Hopi
ancestral homeland, commonly known as Hopi Prophecy Rock shows a
puzzling scene which, when explained by Hopi Elders,
shows the creation of all men, the diaspora of separate tribes, world wars, and future events. Other inexplicable scenes, such as the panels
in fig.5, may have had similar illustrative functions, or may be just graffiti
or decorative scenes. Panels near Canyon
de Chelly in northern
Figure 5, Three Rivers
petroglyph site, south central
Another very common theory about petroglyphs is that many of the animal motifs were part of ritual hunting magic, to solicit spiritual aid in the activities necessary for survival. The subject of fig. 6 is obvious, a bighorn sheep pierced by three arrows. The only question remains whether it was carved as a prayer for sustenance, or a monument etched in stone as a testament of gratitude for a successful kill, or perhaps as a sign for others indicating what may be hunted nearby.
Figure 6, Three Rivers petroglyph site, NM
There are many petroglyphs of strange symbols, some of which look startlingly familiar. The outlined or box cross symbol is common (fig. 7), as well as the circled cross in fig. 8.
Figure 7, Perry Mesa Ruins, AZ
Figure 8, Three Rivers petroglyph site, NM
These shapes have been used by many cultures throughout history as symbols for planets in celestial scenes, and may represent the brighter heavenly bodies to the ancient indigenous cultures as well. There are several sites in the southwest that resemble our modern planetariums, where cave ceilings have been smoked until dark, then decorated with celestial patterns with comets and oddly familiar symbols.
are, of course, many petroglyphs which were made much more recently, often
interspersed with ancient carvings. One example is Newspaper Rock
Nineteenth century, possibly
by agents of the Perralta family who had a working gold mine somewhere nearby
when the Superstitions were still part of
Figure 9, Black Top Mesa,
Whether hoax or hunting magic, graffiti or signpost,
comparing ancient petroglyphs to modern analogues only reminds us that we need
to keep an open mind when we see them.
This is an art form which may well embody the only remaining legacy of
some cultures, and they need to be preserved. Fortunately, many of these sites
are so remote that most people won’t walk that far through unpaved countryside,
and there is little threat from vandals.
casual hikers don’t even recognize the real treasure upon which they tread. This site was a sacred place; there is usually a pool of runoff from the mountains, and metates have been worn into the stone for grinding seeds and beans. The petroglyphs here may have been sacred teaching pictures, hunting magic, graffiti made by bored children, or any combination. Whatever the original intention, they are enigmatic messages from people long passed, with special meanings for everyone who sees them.