Saturday, July 6, 2013


In 2004 William D. Hyder wrote “How people interact with the environment is, in part, a projection of their culture. Patterns in the location of human activities can be interpreted as evidence of cultural behaviors and beliefs (p. 85-86).” He goes on to discuss rock art locations as interpretable phenomenon. He does, however, point out the danger in using our modern framework of beliefs and perceptions to analyze locations that were originally established by people whose framework of beliefs and perceptions was very different.

I have written elsewhere about the pitfalls of making such assumptions because of that very difference. Take, for example, a rock art panel that is found on the general border to one group’s territory. I know many people who will automatically assume that it was placed there as some sort of warning message to outsiders about trespassing on that group’s territory. Just as plausible, however, is the possibility that it was placed there to be as far as possible from the center of habitation of the resident group because it is too holy to be located where it would be exposed to the profane eyes of the group. Almost opposite interpretations, but both are equally plausible, or implausible, the main difference being an inward or outward focus in interpretation. Was it placed there because of us, or them? We just really need to know a lot more about the people and their territory to make that kind of analysis.

This attitude is in line with the thoughts of Lewis Binford who, according to Wikipedia “is mainly known for his contributions to archaeological theory and his promotion of ethnoarchaeological research. As a leading advocate of the "New Archaeology" movement of the 1960s, he proposed a number of ideas that matured into Processualism.” Binford studied the uses that people put various locales in their territory to by analysis of cultural remains, tools, etc., and would then have made assumptions related to possible meaning (had he felt that he had enough information to do so) based upon factual information related to activities in that location.

"Water glyph."

One commonly assumed relationship between rock art and geography is the marking of resources, perhaps most often presented as “water glyphs” which announce to onlookers the presence of potable water. In an arid landscape like much of the American west this is a particularly prevalent belief. I am personally dubious about this and for the same reasons that I outlined in my first posting in this blog on April 18, 2009, ARE THERE MAPS IN NATIVE AMERICAN ROCK ART?  I argued then, that since Native American cultures depended primarily on oral transmission of knowledge the idea that they put up a sign to mark something seems a little unlikely. Add to that the fact that you and I know where all of the resources are in our territory and anyone else is a potential enemy who we would not want to see the signs and you have sufficient reason for me to doubt the reality of those “water glyphs”.

Indeed, these so-called water glyphs resemble the arrangements of lines engraved into rocks in South Carolina that were used for pine tar extraction and leaching lye from wood ashes and that I posted ( and that I posted on 14 April 2013. Not that there is any indication of pine tar extraction in the Arizona desert, but this suggests that there are other possible explanations.

Jane Young related one anecdote that might also shed some light on this. “I remember showing slides to one tribal elder and asking him what he thought about the projected figures. He replied, “I don’t know, I’ve never been there.” His later comments revealed his strong feeling that he couldn’t say much about imagery that he had not seen in its overall natural context. This suggests that rock art images in and of themselves are only part of what is significant about a site; nearby images are also important, as are local plants, animals, boulder configurations, springs, and so on. Rock carvings and paintings are, after all, integral parts of the landscape surrounding the pueblo, and like other features of that landscape, Zunis frequently associated them with events from myth and legend that transpired there.” (Young 2004:83). It seems to me that this also argues against blanket assumptions that any specific symbol can always be interpreted as having the same meaning, no matter where it is located. If it is located at a water source, then perhaps it is a water glyph, but if not, I will not accept that as an explanation. And even if it is in reference to water at that water source, that does not mean it is a sign pointing to that water. Perhaps that symbol is meaningful to the spirit of the water in that location.

As I have said before, I am always very skeptical when presented with claims about rock art being some sort of sign or marker to a resource. Do I know what these “water glyphs” represent – no, I do not, but I am skeptical that they are meant to lead us to water. What do you think?


Hyder, William D.
2004    Locational Analysis in Rock Art Studies, p. 85-101, in The Figured Landscapes of Rock Art, edited by Christopher Chippindale and George Nash, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Young, M. Jane
2004    Ethnographic Analogies in Southwestern Rock Art, p. 80-102, in New Dimensions in Rock Art Studies, edited by Ray t. Matheny, Occasional Papers Series No. 9, Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Brigham Young University, Provo.

No comments:

Post a Comment