Friday, March 7, 2014

Rock art in the desert

March is Arizona Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month and I got to tag along on a hike led by the park's archeologist, one of the Bills. The other Bill is the paleontologist. They really are jointly known as The Bills. Archeologist Bill is leading four hikes to two different places this month, alternating between a site out in the Painted Desert that's down a mountain goat track, and the other to old Route 66 - two widely different destinations but if he's in charge they can be nothing but interesting. 

If I hadn't been on this hike I would never have seen the path that took us down from Lacey Point, a pullout on the Painted Desert that's named for John Fletcher Lacey. Lacey is significant in the history of the conservation movement for his role in writing (with the help of anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewett) and enacting the Antiquities Act. The Act has been pivotal to the preservation of major archaeological sites in the Southwestern United States. The path is down a mere sliver of ridge atop one of the sloping sides of the point, where I took no pictures as I was too busy watching my feet. A gazelle I am not, nor a mountain goat.

The distinctive banded reds of El Desierto Pintado, so named by Colonial Spanish explorers.

Petrified wood litters a ravine and has tumbled to the desert floor.

The truncated mound is our destination for petroglyphs. I've heard there are petroglyphs everywhere within park boundaries, and there are probably some yet unknown. The expansion lands span tens of thousands of acres and no one has been over every bit of them yet.

The rugged terrain of badlands:

One member of our party is on the hunt for rock art. We weren't told where it is but just given the direction to go look for it.

This is an impressive representation. The desert vanish in which the art is inscribed is dark and still intact, and the figures are sharply detailed. The human figure is sometimes called the Jitterbug Man.

You can see here how the desert varnish has chipped away. One rock I looked at from the side had varnish about 1/4 inch thick. I'd never realized it was that thick.

There aren't any codes or keys anywhere to say what the images mean. The archeologist told me he used to teach an undergraduate course and at the beginning of the semester took in a copy of Beowulf in Old English. When he asked students to read it they were generally unsuccessful, and that's how he introduced rock art. No one wrote a lexicon. Your guess is as good as anyone's, and even the Hopi and Navajo people, who claim this land as part of their ancestral heritage, don't have records handed down over the 50 or so generations since these messages were literally carved in stone.

Here's an example of rock art that will be lost soon. The desert varnish is flaking away in large spots, making the images harder to see. I saw this rock from a distance and couldn't tell if I was actually seeing something there, or if it was just a lucky confluence of spots. There is something there, an arrow sloping from upper left to lower right in the upper right area of the stone, and to its lower left, a couple of boxes. A few more chips falling off the rock and this image will be gone.

Archeologist Bill was standing to the left when I came across this rock and started taking pictures. When it seemed I was done, he nodded to the space between them and told me to look in there. Wow.

I could be entirely wrong but this looks like a kokopelli figure (the flute player) to me. To the left is what I called a ladder and learned that others call it a centipede.

There are lots of glyphs of big horn sheep in the park. See how this one is deteriorating? What a shame. There aren't big horn sheep in the park now.

A horse? A mule deer? Whatever it was, it was important enough to the scribe to chip it into the stone.

A sun and other images that are starting to fall away. It looks like there was a human figure on the right, now half gone.

 More animals and a human and a half.

I've read that meandering lines are thought to represent rivers, which is easy to interpret on some rock art I've seen. I don't know if this boxy meander means the same thing.

 This spiral is about perfect. I'm sure someone knows, but I wonder if it's a solstice marker.

Up around the hill to the right was a treasure trove of pottery sherds. This is maybe from ladle handles.

Wonderful detailing, and imagine how large the pot must have been, judging by the wide curve of the sherd.

The black is from the fire the pot was cured in, and the red was a glaze that was applied before firing. This would have been another large pot.

Bill talked about the difference in pottery decoration, depending on its use. A dish or bowl that would be presented to a guest during a meal could be decorated very differently from a large one outside the pueblo door that served an ornamental, rather than functional and intimate, purpose.

This part of the site was almost carpeted with broken pieces, as though it was the village dump. As much as one can tiptoe in hiking shoes, I was doing my best not to crunch the artifacts into crumbs.

The site is a couple of miles off the road. I couldn't see the pullout from the desert floor and would not have ventured out without someone who knew where he was going. But I now have, thanks to a good, good friend, a great GPS that will bring me home even if I can't make out a beacon on the rim. More discoveries await when I figure out how to use it.

Thought of the day:
Write what should not be forgotten. (Isabel Allende)