Petroglyphs: Writing That Rocks

(text originally published in Confetti, Fall 2001)

Before people learned to write with words, they wrote with pictures.  When a man wrote about hunting deer, he drew .  Or, if he wrote about the stars, he would draw .  At this time, writing truly was an art!

Across the world, on every continent, we still find these long ago stories.  Sometimes, they were painted on walls in the rust color of red clay or black color of charcoal.  Painted pictures are called pictographs (picto means “picture,” and graph means “writing”).  Sometimes, the pictures were carved into rock.  These pictures, known as petroglyphs (petro means “rock,” glyph means “letter”), were chipped into the dark outer layer of rock, the design exposing the lighter colored stone beneath the surface.

Near Albuquerque, NM

Near Albuquerque, NM

Today, we still use pictures to tell stories.  Before we learn to read at school, we grab crayons to talk about our families and favorite things on paper.  A lot of books have pictures.  And, if we go to the theater or turn on the television, we see moving pictures!

So, what is so cool about rock pictures?  Would you believe some are thousands of years old?  That’s a long time.  A picture on paper left outside would fall apart in days.

Maui, HI

Maui, HI

The petroglyphs in the southwestern United States are a good example.  For 5,000 years, different people—including Anasazi farmers, Pueblo and Navajo Indians, and Spanish sheep herders—used stone and bone to carve into the red canyon walls and rock formations. They drew people and animals, such as bighorn sheep, snakes, lizards, and some animals that seem imaginary.  They also drew mysterious symbols: circles, spirals, zigzags, and dots.

At Newspaper Rock in Utah, hundreds of such images cover a sandstone wall. Snakes slither, people aim spears and bows, and deer leap across the wall.  The Navajo call the rock Tsé Hané, “rock that tells a story.”

Newspaper Rock, UT

Newspaper Rock, UT

But what story does it tell?  Archaeologists, who study clues from the past, think that petroglyphs may have “said” different things.

For example, they may have indicated the presence of water, of shelter for overnight sleeping, or of animals for hunting.  At Newspaper Rock, there is a nearby stream.  The overhang would protect from rain and snow.  Deer tracks in the soil tell of deer in the area.  Could this be the message of some of the rock’s pictures?

Or, perhaps, the petroglyphs were a sign marking the boundaries of a tribe’s or a family’s land.  Pictures of men are on Newspaper Rock.  Could these be pictures of members of such a tribe or family?  Possibly one of the animalsa turtle, for example—was associated with a group of people and used to say “the Turtle Clan was here.”

Maybe the petroglyphs send a prayer or ask for blessings.  At Newspaper Rock, could the pictures be asking for deer to hunt and eat, rain for plants and drinking water, or better health for a friend?

Another idea is that petroglyphs mark sacred places, kind of like outside churches.  Are the pictures at Newspaper Rock showing ancient gods, spirits, or beings from stories explaining the world, like stained glass pictures in a church?

And, what about the squiggles, criss-crosses, and spiraling circles?  Are they showing the movements of planets in the sky, or tracking the passage of the seasons to show the right time to plant beans?  Or, are they really glyphs (letters) of a writing system of symbols, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics?  Some archaeologists believe the petroglyphs may have been a writing system based on Indian sign language that was used by the tribes to communicate with one another.  Therefore, any tribe could understand the petroglyphs, regardless of what language they spoke.  For example, if one person spoke English, another Spanish, and yet another Chinese, they all would still recognize         as “sun” and even understand that it could represent “day,” “light,” heat,” “bright,” “sky,” or whatever else the sun brings to mind!

Who knows?  Too much time has passed. Modern man has lost this language to the past. The answer may be all these guesses or something totally different. Until the code is cracked—a rosetta stone is found—petroglyphs will remain just pretty rock art.


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