This is a pamphlet from the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which explains the rock art found here. For more background on the site, visit the National Park Service website.
Rock Art
As you visit parks and monuments in the Southwest, especially places like Canyon de Chelly, you will probably see examples of a unique form of expression called "rock art." Rock art can be any picture painted, drawn, or carved onto a rock surface. Some of these pictures are thousands of years old, but others are part of ongoing cul­tural expression at Canyon de Chelly today.
Much of the rock art found in Canyon de Chelly was done by the Anasazi, a prehistoric pueblo people who lived in the canyon from about a.d. 1 to 1300. Though we can only speculate as to the meaning of these drawings, their variety and detail suggest that the Anasazi had a rich, flourishing culture in the canyons.
The Navajo people came to Canyon de Chelly after the Anasazi abandon­ment and they brought with them their own colorful and distinct style of rock art. Navajo people continue to use rock art to record both the secular and cere­monial aspects of their lives, although such use is more limited now than in the past.
Rock art prompts us to imagine the daily lives, as well as the deeper phil­osophies of the prehistoric Anasazi and the historic Navajo, allowing us a peek into a world very different from our own. Come and explore the rock art of Canyon de Chelly.
Canyon de Chelly rock art, like most rock art throughout the world, is of two basic types: pictographs and petro­glyphs. Pictographs were painted or drawn onto the rock surface. Petro­glyphs were created by scratching, pecking, or abrading the rock surface with another rock.
Pictographs are the most abundant form of rock art found at Canyon de Chelly, in contrast to most other areas, where petroglyphs predominate. The colors are almost exclusively derived from mineral pigments found in clay and stones. The variety of colored clays available in this region gave the artists great diversity. White and red are the two most common colors, but yellow, black, orange, and turquoise are also found.
These mineral pigments were ground to a fine powder and mixed with a "binder," which actually held the paint to the surface. The Anasazi used a variety of binders, including animal
fats, vegetable oils, blood, urine, egg whites, and water.
The paint was sometimes applied rather crudely using the fingers. Often, however, brushes made of fine animal hair or yucca fiber were used, resulting in pictures of fine quality.
To make petroglyphs required the use of a hammerstone as a pecking tool, or two stones, one used as a hammer, the other as a chisel. The artist often made petroglyphs on "canyon varnish," the dark patina found on many canyon walls. By pecking away this thin dark coating, the lighter natural color of the rock is revealed, creating a picture in relief. Other times, the pictures were deeply incised on bare rock.
Sometimes these techniques, picto­graph and petroglyph, were combined. You may occasionally see incised pet­roglyphs that have been painted like pictographs.
The two most frequently asked questions about rock art are "How old is it?" and "What does it mean?" Both of these questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer.
Archeologists have no precise way to date rock art. If the artifacts in a cer­tain area are all from one major time period, then it could be assumed that the rock art is also of that time period. But suppose a site has been occupied continuously for centuries. How do you determine when a particular piece of rock art was done?
Two methods are used to date rock art within a general time frame. In one, archeologists create categories of rock art styles and correlate them with cer­tain time periods. Another way is to consider content (e.g., bows and arrows, guns, horses, etc.), which can sometimes give us a clue to the great­est age a piece of rock could be.
When it comes to deducing the meaning of rock art, especially prehis-
toric rock art, we have even less infor­mation. Many of the pictures are so removed from our reality that we can­not even guess what they might repre­sent. Even when we see a recogniz­able object, such as a deer, how are we to determine what was in the artist's mind? Was he attempting to communicate the idea of a literal deer? Or was the deer only a symbol for a more abstract thought?
Even the meaning of much Navajo rock art is obscure. Certain scenes seem to depict events in the history of the Navajos in the canyon. Others deal with sacred ceremonial events whose power depends on keeping detailed information confidential.
In any event, the rock art of both the Anasazi and Navajo shows ample evi­dence of highly developed, complex civilizations living with a fundamental awareness of nature and in harmony with the land.
Rock art offers a window into the thoughts and culture of peoples whose lives are very different from our own. In some cases it is the only avenue we have available. Yet, this valuable cul­tural resource is being taken from us.
Erosion is a force about which we can do little. However, there are steps we can take to insure we do not hasten the destruction of rock art.
Photography and drawing are the only safe ways to record rock art. Never touch the rock art, either with your hand or another object. Rubbings, impressions, chalking, and other intru­sive methods of recording are all detri­mental to the art.
Report vandalism of rock art sites to the proper authorities. Help to educate others about the threats to this resource and to the values it possesses.
There is magic and mystery in rock art that can still be felt today. Enjoy the artistry. Wonder at its meaning. Come and feel the magic.