Rock Art of the Ancients

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Petroglyphs are images created in stone by means of carving or "Pecking" the outer stone surface away and exposing the deeper stone surface beneath. Carving consisted of scratch designs, pecking was done through use of a hammerstone along or in conjunction with a chisel. Most of the petroglyphs are found on stone that are covered by a thin dark layer on the exterior called patina or desert varnish. The patina is created naturally by the rocks’ exposure to the elements combined with the salts and minerals that leach out of the rock. This layer would be chiseled or pecked away to expose the original stone surface, thus creating the petroglyph image.

There are three main types of petroglyphs found in the Four Corners area. One type is the shallow scratches found on small hard rocks that have been shaped and smoothed by a river or stream. The second type is cut into sandstone that is coated with desert varnish. The third type is cut into sandstone or other rocks that has no desert varnish, so the design must be cut very deep to make them apparent.

Pictographs are not carved into the stone but are painted images on the rock. The "paint" was made from ground minerals mixed with water, saliva, urine or even blood. The minerals used were:

Blue: turquoise, azurite or copper bearing minerals
Red: iron oxides and hematite
White: gypsum, line or caulk
Yellow: limonite, goethite
Grays and black: charcoal, graphite or manganese
Green: malachite or other copper bearing minerals

Few pictographs have survived long exposure to the elements. Those that have survived are usually found in caves or under rock overhangs.

The principal purpose for most of the rock art is thought to be for sacred, ceremonial, sympathetic (healing), or protective magic and primarily created by the shaman or medicine man. There are always exceptions to these generalizations.

Take a look at some of the rock art examples the explorers have found.


Prehistoric rock art, or rock graphics suffer damage through many different ways.

Natural forces like wind, rain, freezing can cause erosion or exfoliation of the rock, causing the rock face to simply fall off the remaining rock. Wind can act as a sandblasting force. Plant roots can cause cracks in the rock.

Human damage to rock art is generally either from individual vandalism, or from economic vandalism. Some individuals may add marks or chalk to the figures, others may add names, dates or other graffiti to the rock art panels. Then there is the senseless destruction caused by bullets or spray paint.

Economic damage comes in many forms. Some people try to cut the art from the panels to steal them for sale to private collectors. Anything thought to be "portable" is collected. Highways and construction can destroy art panels. Air pollution and acid rain can damage the glyphs. Construction of dams and reservoirs cause irreparable loss of archaeological treasures when they drown sites beneath the water they collect.

Petroglyphs and the rituals that may have called for them may seem distant and irrelevant today, but to the ancient people who created them, everything in daily life was connected. All actions and events impacted the universe. They believed that spiritual forces could be directed through ritual and magic.

It is a misconception to think of petroglyphs and pictographs as rock art. These objects were the tools of the shaman’s magic, his ritual technology. Today we rely on our physical technology to direct the course of our future. We live amidst nature, but not so much a part of it.

Sit down in front of a petroglyph panel and take some time to study it. You may get a sense of the worldview that lead to its creation. Now smell the wildflowers, the sounds of the wind and the animals while feeling the ground beneath you. Maybe you will feel the forces of nature flow over you. Maybe, for a moment, the actions of the earlier people and the uses of petroglyphs will become clear.

Read here for some general rules to follow when you visit rock art panels.  Site Etiquette.

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Sources: Stone Magic of the Ancients and Canyon Country Prehistoric Rock Art