Significance of Rock Art In the Southwest, S Anderson

Tags: rock art panels, rock art, petroglyphs, Schaafsma, religion, American Indian Art, References Alpert, Alpert, Kokopelli, interpretations, Stephen Anderson, religious marriage, anthropomorphs, pictographs, Native American rock art
Content: Significance of Rock Art - In the Southwest
by Stephen Anderson
Native American rock art can be found in many of the canyons of the southwestern states of Utah, Arizona,
New Mexico, Colorado and southwest Texas. The oldest
sites in the United States are dated back to approximately
4,000 B.P. [before present]. However, ancient people
around the world have used rock art as a means of com-
munication for many thousands of years. Although there
are similarities across rock art, most is unique in its style
and substance. The two primary forms of rock art are
petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are either
scratched or pecked into a rock wall or boulder, while pic-
tographs are painted on using various dyes. For many
years now people have attempted to decipher the rock art
in an attempt to better understand how the indigenous
people of North America lived. Ancient people left little evi-
dence for their purpose of rock art, but speculation and
research indicates that there may be historical, functional
or religious significance.
The style of petroglyphs and pictographs is dependent
upon the techniques and materials used to create them.
Petroglyphs, the most common rock art found in the south-
west, are found on hundreds of patinated sandstone cliffs
and boulders. These figures were created directly onto the
rock using a pecking method with a hammer stone. A chisel
was also used for more precise and accurate depiction on
the rock. Another common method of creating petroglyphs
was by incising or scratching designs onto soft sandstone.
In some cases, both the pecking method and incision
method was utilized. On the other hand, pictographs are
usually found on light-colored, protected rock surfaces such
as alcoves and rock shelters. These areas are usually mois-
ture-free and lack patinated surfaces. Pictographs were
often created using a yucca brush and a mixture of clay-
style paints. The most common colors for this style of rock
art were white, black, orange and the most widely used
color of red. Yellow, pink, green and blue have also been
used but are much more rare. The three components of
paint are the coloring agent, the pigment, and the binder,
usually animal or plant oil, used to adhere the paint to the
rock surface. Red is made from hematite or red iron oxide;
yellow is created from limonite; orange combines the red
and yellow; blue is formed from azurite; and green is formed
from malachite. Turquoise-colored paint was also created
from ground turquoise rock mixed with clay. Techniques
for making both pictographs and petroglyphs were consis-
tent throughout the Southwest and are helpful in the inter-
pretation of the resources available and the cultures that
, ,
created the rock art. (Schaafsma, 1980: p.25-32) Some of the earliest rock art in North America was in the form of pictographs. Horseshoe Canyon and Buckhorn
Wash in the San Rafael region of southern Utah are two
places that display some of these early works. Although it
is rare to determine the absolute age of a particular site,
various methods have been used to estimate the age and
time frame of panels. Procedures used to determine the
age of pictographs include 1) optical microscopy, which
confirms original paint layers, 2) scanning electron micros29
copy, which conducts a chemical analysis to view the mi-
dence of their existence. It is important to keep in mind
crostructure of the pigment, and 3) x-ray diffraction, which
that the absolute purpose of rock art is speculative at best.
determines the minerals in the white paint (Chaffee et al,
Some anthropologists believe that rock art panels are a
1994). The All-American Man pictograph of Canyonlands
form of written language, while others believed they ex-
National Park in Utah was examined using the aforemen-
pressed religious beliefs. Still others believe the purpose
tioned methods. It was determined from such procedures
of rock art was to provide historical or geographical evi-
that this pictograph contained a natural layer of pigment
dence of Native American cultures.
from dehydrated gypsum. In addition, carbon dating was
Weaver (1984) suggested that rock art documented
also used to date the age of the blue color containing char-
important events and marked natural events such as the
coal found in the All-American Man. From various dating
summer and winter solstice or astronomical events such
techniques it was estimated that this pictograph figure dated
as the supernova of 1054 A.D. Weaver further suggested
back to around 1260 A.D. ± 46 years (Chaffee et al, 1994).
that rock art facilitated record keeping and marked clan
Another procedure commonly used to date pictographs is
boundaries as well as popular crossroads. A good example
accelerator mass spectrometry, which uses considerably
of a crossroads can be found at the Willow Springs site,
less paint in the analysis of the rock art. Only a pinhead
near Tuba City, AZ, where vertical rows of rock symbols
size amount of paint is needed, which is much less inva-
are found representing some twenty-seven clans. It is
sive and advantageous to the archeological site (Chaffee
thought that this site commemorates the Hopi Indians' pil-
et al, 1994).
grimage to the sacred salt deposits near the confluence of
Although different from pictographs, the relative dat-
the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. During this pilgrim-
ing of petroglyphs can also be determined by examining
age, the Hopi passed through Willow Springs and left a
the amount of patination or desert varnish that has reformed
mark of their participation in the journey (Weaver, 1984).
over the rock art symbols. The darker the patina, the older
Documentation of such journeys as well as a strong oral
the petroglyph. More recent petroglyphs will be lighter in
Hopi tradition has enabled scientists to formulate an inter-
color than the rocks' original patina. Another way to deter-
pretation of this historical event. In addition to pilgrimages,
mine age is to look at superimposition of rock art. Often
ancient rock art is thought to represent migration patterns
newer petroglyphs are drawn on top of older petroglyphs,
because similarities in clan symbols are found in many
with the youngest being the top layer of rock art. Indepen-
locations (Waters 1963: p. 103). As the migration patterns
dent of rock art type (i.e. pictograph or petroglyph), sub-
began to end, rock art was thought to document their trav-
stance and style can also used to determine the general
age of the panels. Examination of the objects associated
Childbirth has also been the subject of many rock art
in the panels is used to determine the age of the art. For
panels. There are several rock art panels that depict ei-
example, the appearance of the bow and arrow replacing
ther pregnant or birthing mothers of both animals and hu-
the atlatl is a determinant of the era between A.D. 200 and
mans. One notable panel is located in southern Utah at
600. Additionally, depiction of the horse indicates a rock
Kane Creek just west of Moab. This panel clearly shows a
art panel is post-Spanish conquest. (Schaafsma, 1980:
mother giving birth to an infant thus symbolizing a new
beginning. Again, much of the interpretation of rock art is
The style of the rock art is suggestive of particular cul-
speculative; however, if a historical approach is taken,
tures of Native Americans and the time and the geographi-
perhaps some information can be deduced as to the sig-
cal location from which they existed. For example, Fre-
nificance of the cultures.
mont rock art typically shows figures as broad-shouldered,
Another interpretation of rock art is that the abstract
trapezoidal torsos with horned or intricate headgear and
lines and spiral circles served functional purposes. The
necklaces. This culture thrived in the Southwest from A.D.
spiral circles are often interpreted as representations of
500­1300. Another determining factor in dating the All-
objects on a map such as springs or wells (Weaver, 1984).
American Man is that this figure was "horned" and there-
Although there are a few rare instances where the art does
fore suggestive of the Fremont culture era (Chaffee et al,
depict maps, this is an unsubstantiated interpretation. The
same is true for the abstract squiggly lines. Some amateur
The Histasinom, on the other hand, had many differ-
archeologists have misinterpreted the lines as possible
ent rock art styles, each indicative of a particular geographi-
roads or paths that may lead to fertile land, cached food,
cal region and chronological era. These representational
or trade locations. The truth is that not even scholars are
styles include the San Juan anthropomorphic figures,
able to interpret these abstract designs (Weaver, 1984).
Chinle, Hidden Valley, Rosa, and Cave Valley to name a
Cole (1985) describes another functional role of rock
few. Many techniques, including scientific analysis as well
art in the San Juan area of southern Utah. Cole examined
as geographical location, style and substances are used
Basketmaker face pictograph representations in rock art
in determining the relative age of rock art. Determining the
and the association of those with masks found in the area.
age of a particular rock art panel plays an important role in
It appears from some of the San Juan panels that the face
interpreting the meaning or purpose behind the art. For
pictographs show similar details, such as a loop handle on
example, panels depicting "rain makers" were perhaps
the top of the head, to the mask artifacts found. The loop
drawn as pleas or prayers during times of drought. Although
was thought to help attach the mask to the face of the
this is just an example, calculating the date of the panels
individual wearing the mask. Thus, it is possible to gain
can provide archeologists with some evidence regarding
some insight as to the function of the rock art symbols and
the culture of the people who left them.
what they possibly represent.
Examination of the rock art panels gives some insight
Animal or hunting scenes are perhaps the single most
about the cultures and may provide some historical evi-
depicted form of rock art and suggestive of the types of
animals present during ancient times. Although, we name
the rock art based on their descriptors, Weaver (1984)
emphasizes that the artist of a particular rock art panel
may have intended to depict a mythical clan ancestor and
not what appears to us as a bighorn sheep. But, the an-
cient Native Americans may have used the rock art as a
means of recording a large successful hunt or as a means
of asking the gods for "hunting magic." Panels all across
the Southwest depict various animals such as big horn
sheep, deer, antelope, elk, bison, eagles and lizards. By
portraying elaborate panels of successful hunts, the panel
creator could be insuring future success in real life hunts.
Therefore, the natives would have invested a great deal of
time in producing panels that showed a multitude of ani-
mals (Weaver 1984). Whatever their meaning or purpose,
it is apparent that the rock art was important to the Native
Who were the
creators of these
rock art master-
pieces? Many ar-
cheologists believe
that shamans cre-
ated rock art either
exclusively or they
supervised highly
skilled artists to do
their work. Studies
have shown that a
continuity of rock art
style has been es-
tablished in small
sectors (Weaver
1984). This would
mean that only
qualified people
would be allowed to
take place in the
creation of such
panels. Shamans
were believed to
"All American Man"
have an ability to be in contact with su-
pernatural beings
through trances and ceremonies. Thus, rock art may be
directly associated with ancient rituals, ceremonies and
visions. Many of the abstract rock art subjects, or
anthropomorphs are disfigured or resemble alien beings
and may have been seen in dreams. Anthropomorphs look
like human beings but often have many significant ameni-
ties such as horned or antennae clad heads, armless or
legless trapezoidal shaped torsos and are disproportion-
ate in size. They may represent a ghost or spirit witnessed
in a religious ritual or in a vision. In addition to the various
anthropomorphs, several zoomorphs are often depicted
accompanying the spirits. Zoomorphs are considered to
be spirits of animals and share similar characteristics of
the anthropomorphs (Hunger 1986). Sego Canyon panel
north of Thompson Springs, Utah depicts many spectacu-
lar specimens of anthropomorphs. Many scientists inter-
pret prehistoric rock art as a way to appease the super-
natural forces in return for prosperity, fertility, health and
success in hunting for either an individual or groups. If the
shamans were the artists of many of the rock art panels, then it could provide evidence for a direct correlation between rock art and religion. The correlation between religion and rock art has been well documented and could be the strongest argument in understanding the cultures of the ancient southwestern people. It was suggested by Hunger (1986) that figures engaged in sexual intercourse, such as the one in Wupatki National Monument in Arizona, are performing a religious marriage ceremony between a man and his female partner. In addition to human figures, there are also animals engaged in similar sexual positions. However, Hunger suggests that indeed these may represent animals, but also may be humans participating in religious marriage ceremonies donned with animal masks. Such rock art was also thought to bring about communication with supernatural powers and animal spirits. Also, Katchina religious associations are often depicted in the rock art of the southwest. Katchinas are supernatural anthropomorphic style religious spirits associated with clouds and rain (Schaafsma and Schaafsma 1974). The origin of Katchina representations on the rocks dates to around 1300 A.D. in the Rio Grande valley. Schaafsma and Schaafsma (1974) suggest the Rio Grande style of rock art came directly from the Katchina cult and is found most elaborately in kiva murals. The Katchinas often illustrate the importance of objects such as corn, the earth, the sun, rain and health. Therefore, insight about the Katchina religion leads interpreters of rock art panels to perhaps understand what the artist was drawing on the rock. Many of the rock art panels and kivas contain elaborately painted Katchina masks and anthropomorphic figures adorned with modern-day sashes and kilts and are suggestive of ceremonial importance within that culture and the clothing worn during these ceremonies. In addition to Katchina figures, other rock art symbols such as horned serpents, birds, badgers, skunks, rabbits and mountain lions can also be found. During this time, important symbols such as rainbows, clouds and the four-pointed star appear. These are symbols that still represent the Katchina religion of the modern puebloans. Information gained from modern Hopi suggest that these ancient rock art symbols were religiously important and began to show up around the beginning of the Katchina religion. The Katchina religion unequivocally is responsible for the change in rock art iconography of this era. Therefore, rock art found prior to the start of Katchina religion could be representative of an older religion of the cultures. Evidence of this is found in the use of older symbols found in the Katchina panels (Schaafsma and Schaafsma 1974). Perhaps the most famous depiction in Katchina rock art is the Kokopelli, the humped back, flute-playing Casanova of the Southwest. "Koko" means "Katchina" in the Zuni language and "pelli" refers to "hemisphere" or "hump" in the Hopi language. This particular symbol can be found on numerous panels across the southwestern United States. The legend of Kokopelli is that he traveled from camp to camp during corn-planting time playing his flute and bringing good fortune wherever he went (Alpert 1991). Alpert (1991) believes that the hump on his back was a bag of songs while others believe it was a grain sack and legend has it that when he left a camp the crops would prosper and there would be a stirring in the belly of 31
the women. It is for this legend that the Kokopelli is known as the fertility god. Another suggestion with possible implications about disease of that time is that the hump on the back was a significant deformity found during that time. It has been interpreted that the deformity could be as a result of tuberculosis of the spine (Alpert 1991). Since rock art rarely depicts normal figures, it could be that the Kokopelli was an actual individual with a significant spinal curvature. Alpert emphasizes that the Kokopelli rock art figure was not merely decorative but important in ceremony and ritual. The early inhabitants of the Southwest did not leave behind written accounts or many other clues as to who they were. One way in which to explore their cultures is by taking a closer look at what they did leave behind. Although we cannot interpret the exact meaning of rock art panels, it appears that it was multifaceted and significant in its own way to each culture. Perhaps, the rock art was meant to record historical events or was suggestive of important ceremonies of the clans. Other interpretations of the rock art indicate that there was a religious importance among all forms of rock art. It is possible that based on information surrounding the Katchina religion that this was actually the main purpose of ancient puebloan rock art symbols. However, in the case of the Kokopelli it appears to represent both a religious and historical significance. We may not be able to properly interpret the purpose behind the rock art symbols, but close examination of rock art panels is helpful in determining the eras of the people who left them. Despite our interpretations and understanding, it is apparent that rock art played an integral part in each of the ancient cultures. References Alpert, Joyce M. (1991). Kokopelli: a new look at the humpback fluteplayer in Anasazi rock art American Indian Art magazine. American Indian Art magazine. 17 pp 4857. Chaffee. SD; M Hyman; M Rowe; N Coulam; A Schroedl; and K Hogue. (1994). Radiocarbon dates on the All-American Man pictograph American Antiquity 59:4 pp 769-81. Cole, Sally J. (1985). Additional information on Basketmaker mask or face representations in rock art of southeastern Utah Southwestern lore. 51 pp14-18. Hunger, Heinz (1986). Ritual coition with and among animals American Indian Rock Art. 10 pp 116-124. Schaafsma, Polly. Indian Rock Art of the Southwest. Sante Fe: School of American Research, 1980. Schaafsma, Polly D. and C Schaafsma (1974). Evidence for the origins of the Pueblo Kachina Cult as suggested by Southwestern Rock Art American Antiquity. 39:4 pp 535-545. Waters, Frank. The first revelation of the Hopi historical and religious world view of life: Book of the Hopi. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1963. Weaver, David E. (1984). Images on stone: the prehistoric rock art of the Colorado Plateau Plateau. 55:2 pp 1-32. 32

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