Petroglyphs: Ancient American History in the American Southwest

One of the greatest untruths about America is that it’s a young nation, that it’s short on history. This is an insult to the cultures that for centuries inhabited this land. While ancient American Indian did not leave behind monuments as ostentatious as the ancient Greeks or Egyptians, they did leave their indelible mark in many ways: ornate pottery, entire cities carved into cliff faces and especially petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are pictures carved into rock, either through scraping or chiseling its outer layer. (They are not to be confused with pictographs, which are pictures drawn or painted on the rock, and are also very cool.)

Unlike the art of other ancient cultures, you won’t find American Indian petroglyphs in air conditioned museums. If you want to see the oldest effusions of American culture, you’ll have to leave the comforts of the city and head outside, probably to the Southwest, whose rocky desert landscape is scarred with them.

What do they mean? This is the first question we ask ourselves when we look at petroglyphs, which in America can be as much as 10,000 years old. I was lucky enough to see a few of them while on a climbing trip in Utah. We would be climbing on red sandstone, and suddenly they would appear: patterns inscribed in the rock that seem too orderly to be natural.

The first one I saw frustrated my modern impulse for order and meaning. There was a squiggly line, which might have been water, or maybe it was some nightmare snake, menacing the people in the picture. But unlike a Western abstract impressionist artist, you never got the sense that they were just messing around with composition.

Rock art experts are just as uncertain about their meaning. No one really knows exactly what these pictures signified to these cultures, whether they served a spiritual purpose, were used to mark territory or were just a way for these people to artistically express themselves. How can we know anything definitive about a people with no recorded history who lived thousands of years before Jesus was born?

After looking at these petroglyphs for a long time, I realized that it didn’t matter too much what they conveyed – the point was that they were conveying, even after thousands of years. These people had something to say, and thought it was important enough to set down for posterity.

In November, modern day grave robbers used ladders, hammers and saws to remove four petroglyph panels from rock walls near Bishop, California. They most likely sold them on the black market. Other petroglyph panels were callously destroyed.

Theft is only one of the dangers that petroglyphs face. Rangers for parks with petroglyphs in them have observed bullet holes near petroglyphs; people had apparently used them for target practice.

Climbers in the past have also damaged petroglyphs by climbing near them, sloughing off the outer layer of the rock in the process.

If you’re ever near petroplyphs, respect these historical artifacts. They aren’t housed in museums, but you should treat them as if they were.

Here are a few notable places in the southwest to check out petroglyphs. There are thousands of other sites to explore, however. Check out this site on petrographs for more information.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
“It is still an outdoor church to the Pueblo people… This is still a spiritually active landscape,” said one rock art expert about Petroglyph National Monument – a 17 mile long stretch of desert in New Mexico, which has over 15,000 petroglyphs strewn among its basalt boulders.

Three River Petroglyph Area, New Mexico
There are over 21,000 petroglyphs in this site near Three Rivers, New Mexico. It’s one of the largest rock art sites in the Southwest, and most of the petroglyphs were carved by the Jordana Mogollon people. “Their rock art seems to reflect a strong supernatural and religious connection with their environment.”

Newspaper Rock National Monument, Utah
Newspaper rock is one of the most amazing collections of rock art in the world – a bustling tableaux of animals and humans. It seems to communicate a vast interconnected natural world. “Tse’ Hone” is what it’s called in Navajo, meaning “rock that tells a story.”

By Sean Sullivan