Saturday

Rock Art Interpretation

Interpreting images created by a person from another culture and from a different time is fraught with problems.  The cultural threads become thinner and thinner as the time span between the creation of an image and the interpreter becomes larger.  This inverse relationship makes interpretation of pictographs and petroglyphs left by the former inhabitants of the southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona a best guess.  One approach to the problem is through the use of ethnographic studies where modern descendents maintain a stronger cultural link with the past than an interested observer.  But without direct cultural and lineal descendents this approach can at best only provide a rough guide as to the possible meaning of rock art.  Cultural materials associated with rock art may provide clues to the cultural affinity of the original creator but this requires careful excavation and recovery of associated materials and does not help the interested observer in drawing conclusions about the meaning of particular rock art found in the field.  We are left then to fall back on personal views about the meaning and these are a function of an individuals world view which may or may not coincide with those around them.

As an example the image below is a pictograph panel in Antelope Pass in the Peloncillo mountains.  The panel is 8-10 ft in length, 3-4 ft in width, and is on a large piece of breakdown which was originally part of the ceiling of a shelter cave which at some point collapsed.  Faint pictographs may still be seen on the lower surface of the exposed shelter cave wall indicating the original location of the breakdown blocks.  The collapse occurred sometime during the period of occupation as evidenced by shallow grinding holes on the broken upper surface of the breakdown.  This panel is protected from the elements by the the breakdown and the colors remain bright and the overall pattern easily observed.

At first glance the panel appears to contain connected straight lines and squiggles with the only identifiable feature being an element in the lower right that would appear to be a sun representation. One professional Biologist viewing the panel commented they observed a millipede with legs and segments. But by comparing the view from this shelter cave towards the west across the San Simon Valley to the silhouette of the Chiricahua mountains with the panel several features coincide.  Compare the pictograph panel image with the screenshot from Google Earth captured from the same location.  The squiggly line at the top may be interpreted as the silhouette of the Chiricahuas seen from the shelter cave.  The riverbed is then represented by the series of rectangles from left to right across the panel.  The riverbed would have been the most intensively farmed area in the valley and drainage from Horseshoe, Sulphur, and Cave Creek once met in this area.  The four serpentine vertical lines coincide with drainages from the Peloncillo Mountains around Antelope Pass.  The single short squiggle coincides with a short drainage that abruptly widens found just downstream (north) along the San Simon Riverbed where there are a number of recorded archeological sites.  Based on these correlations, the large blob of red pigment would be representative of the location of the shelter cave and view.  Below these are 2 additional linear features which, if a map, would coincide with the Animas and Hatchett mountains.  Below this lie 2 parallel lines of dots perhaps representing a north/south road or trail similar to the one proposed connecting Paquime with Chaco Canyon or a trail headed into the Mimbres Valley.

The only unidentified feature on this presumptive map is the hatched feature in the middle right on the panel.  It is unclear what this feature may represent but it is perhaps worth a look sometime to look for a corollary.  While evidence of landscape representations (maps) in pictographs and petroglyphs seems to be lacking, perhaps this is the first example of a landscape rendered in a pictograph or alternatively a just a lot of hand waving.  To rise to the level of a scientific hypothesis testable predictions must arise from the hypothesis otherwise it is just a good story.

Addendum:
If this interpretation is correct, a map based on the view from the rock shelter, it contains elements from 2 sources.
1.  A direct view of the landscape from the shelter cave.
2.  Information about the landscape that was in the artists mind.  Painted features on the right side of the panel (starting at the short wide drainage) are not visible from shelter cave, the view is blocked by the Peloncillo mountains, so the information represented could only be held in the mind of the artist and added from memory.

Addendum:
It was pointed out that the "map" as currently viewed is upside down and that when on the ceiling, as originally painted, the silhouette of the Chiricahua mountains would be at the bottom.  This observation is correct but the orientation of the pictograph with respect to north is the same.   When viewed by an observer in the past north was to the left (currently north is to the right in the photograph because of the rock fall).  The position of the sun feature currently in the lower right of the photograph would have orientated a viewer.  Also of note is the location of the sun feature.  It is in the northern part of the sky suggesting the painting is during the summer months and not the winter when sunrise is further south.

Addendum:
Another pictograph with a "sun" feature and "mountains" is found about 4.5 miles further south in the Peloncillo Mountains at the base of Gray Mountain, view here.

pictograph panel
pictograph panel

Google Earth screen shot view from shelter cave

6 comments:

  1. You have been very busy while I have been on vacation! I have been on this hike several times you make this blog very interesting!

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  2. Glad to here your back in the bubble and I hope your vacation was enjoyable and relaxing. The hike in Antelope Pass was very interesting with lots to see, it was my first time in the area and it is a nice winter hike. It is close and something guests might enjoy.

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  3. Did you hear Carol say ?? . . . that her husband Howard wrote a paper for archeologists because he was with the chief archeologist at Escalante National Monument and saw ant lion tracks and depressions in the sand under some rock art and Howard speculated the squiggles there represented the ant lions' curvy path. Very cool.

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  4. Thanks. Everyone sees the world differently and with rock art the tendency is to interpret them based on our own experiences which makes for some interesting observations. The example above is just one possibility.

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  5. another way to interpret what symbols mean is to research records of recorded ceremonies, etc. by early ethnologist that actually worked and lived among the American Indian, and relate that info to symbols and panels. this interesting idea has just been presented in a book called "symbolism of petroglyphs & pictographs near Mountainair, New Mexico" by susan holland. the text is accompanied by colors photos by an award winning photographer to argue proof of what the author presents.

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  6. Your quite right. My interpretation is not based on any ethnographic research but rather an imaginative speculation based solely on time spent experiencing this landscape firsthand.

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