Images carved or scratched on a rock surface, usually with another rock. Petroglyphs are aften attributed to prehistoric humans, but in its broadest sense the term also applies to messages like "Srs '99" or "I (heart) Monica" that apparently have much more recent origin.

Petroglyph National Monument, west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has an amazing concentration of petroglyphs carved over a period of many millenia into basalt. Those as old as 5000 BC are mostly geometric designs; the most recent, from a period between the 1300s and 1600s, depict elaborate human figures, spirit animals, masks, and other images not unlike those appearing in pueblo ceremonial art today.

Petroglyphs are found on all the continents and even on some islands: St. John, the tiniest of the U. S. Virgin Islands, has petroglyphs next to its only fresh-water spring, probably carved by tribespeople from South America that colonized St. John before European explorers arrived. Ancient petroglyphs are not always from indigenous people; the Horse Creek petroglyph in West Virginia appears to be an example of an acient Ogam script used by early Irish and Scottish people, and could have been made as early as 600 or 700 AD.

Native American Rock Art of the Southwestern Desert of the U.S.

There are many examples of Native American petroglyphs in the Southwestern Desert of the U.S., spread throughout the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. They were mostly made by chipping or scraping away the dark layer of rock varnish from desert boulders to reveal the light grey rock underneath. Rock varnish is a very dark outer layer that forms on rocks in dry climates. It is formed when airborne specks of minerals such as manganese and iron oxides settle on the surface of rocks and are cemented on by the action of microscopic bacteria.

Most of these petroglyphs range in age from 600 to 7000 years old. They depict many things: geometric figures such as crosses, spirals, and diamonds; plants, people and animals; activities, such as hunting and dancing; representations of mythical, religious, ceremonial, and spirit figures; and many unrecognizable or extremely ambiguous markings. Some examples share enough features with Inca art to suggest a direct influence.

There is broad agreement that petroglyphs usually served specific purposes, such as: marking something, for instance a trail, or the presence of water, or a territorial claim; commemorating or recording momentous events, such as a mass migration of a clan, or a very successful hunt; recording movements of heavenly bodies such as the sun and moon; illustrating legends and myths, perhaps as an aid to story-telling. It is also generally agreed that petroglyphs were not hieroglyphics, which is to say, they did not represent letters, words, or phrases, and were therefore not part of a written language as such. Nor were they produced 'merely' as an artistic endeavor, although they are often aesthetically very strong, striking, and beautiful.

While many of the ancient rock art sites are described as sacred, I have been unable to ascertain whether they are deemed so partly because of the presence rock art, or whether the rock art was placed there because the site was already considered sacred. What is certain though is that in order to appreciate the placement of at least some rock art sites, it is helpful to consider the landscape at the time their inception, when many features, particularly water features such as shorelines and river courses, were vastly different. Once such factors are taken into account, seemingly isolated or remote sites can be seen to be points along what were probably relatively well-trodden routes.

  • Literature at the Rock Art Museum in Phoenix AZ
  • Desert Little Bear, a contemporary rock artist whom I met at the museum, and who was kind enough to patiently answer all of my questions (and everyone else's). The depth and detail of his knowledge is matched by his willingness to share it and his great love of the subject. Examples of his own work can be seen at

The word petroglyph comes from the Greek words petro (rock) and glyph (carving or engraving)

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