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On the Trail of Ancient Art

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An example of the rock art found in the Colorado Plateau.

Albright College religious studies professor Bill King, Ph.D., spent fall 2012 on sabbatical traversing the difficult terrain of the Colorado Plateau to find and document the rock art of ancient American Indians.

by Hilary Bentman

Getting a first-hand look at pre-historic American Indian rock art is not easy.

Though there are tens of thousands of sites in the American Southwest, their locations are largely unpublicized. Art seekers must venture away from towns and paved roads and hike into the high desert and wilderness, where they contend with daytime blistering heat and nighttime chills, not to mention the flashfloods and rattlesnakes.

Days can pass before they spot a fellow traveler, and cellphone reception is non-existent.

Instead, adventurers rely on handheld GPS devices, lots of water, persistence and a bit of luck as they scale cliffs and descend into canyons to find the paintings and chiseled creations left behind by ancient civilizations.

“Sometimes you climb up. Sometimes you climb down. You have to keep your eyes open,” said Albright College professor of religious studies Bill King, Ph.D. “It really is an adventure, a game to find it.”

King should know. He spent last fall on sabbatical in search of rock art. His travels took him to southeast Utah in the northern half of the Colorado Plateau, the area referred to as the Four Corners.

Accompanied by his wife, Janet, he explored and documented more than 100 rock art sites, many from Ancestral Puebloans, who lived there from about 2000 BCE to 1300 AD. The couple also visited 50 archaeological ruins, part of what the U.S. Bureau of Land Management calls an “outdoor museum.”

Over four months, King, who teaches a class on Native American religions, took more than 7,000 photographs and kept a blog documenting the experience, though finding a reliable Internet connection in this desolate region was an adventure in its own right. Back at Albright, he is incorporating his findings into his teaching.

The rock art, some of which dates back 4,000 years, is a combination of pictographs (some in color) and petroglyphs. Some images are tiny and isolated; others are life-size and spread out on panels extending a quarter-mile long. Animals, particularly serpents, and human-like images or anthropomorphs, are common motifs. King blogs about the “Moab Man,” an anthropomorph:

There are thousands of these sorts of figures in Utah, but no one figure is like any other. Sort of like snowflakes. And the image persists over centuries of rock artistry. Are they humans, imaginative beings, masked ceremonial leaders, shamans, or what? Part of the puzzle.

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Rock art seekers must navigate the vast and difficult terrain of the Colorado Plateau.

Scholars and laypeople alike have attempted to interpret the art, offering explanations ranging from shamanism to extraterrestrial influence.

But King said a contemporary audience can never truly discern the meaning. Instead, he views the images through a “geo-religious” lens, examining the art in terms of where it is found in an attempt to connect the physical landscape with the cultural one. American Indians perceive the landscape, from trees to mountains, as having spiritual qualities and the location of the rock art suggests a spiritual significance.

King blogs:

As we approach each panel of ancient petroglyphs, we keep in mind that many of these sites may have been quite sacred. Even if other sites may have had more pragmatic functions, they put us directly in touch with the mind and imaginations of an ancient civilization. The precise manner in which the petroglyphs and pictographs were made indicates that they were important to their creators. [People assume that] some rock art is mere doodling. What we are finding is a form of graphic art that was meticulous, creative, expressive, and required technical skill.  

And the rock art sites continue to possess a spiritual aura, both for today’s Pueblo Indians, as well as for outsiders, said King. “You’re standing there in front of these things. People are speechless. It’s like being in church,” he said. “There is a feeling that these are special places.”

Scholarly interest in rock art took off in the 1980s, spurred by a younger generation of archaeologists, anthropologists and other researchers who viewed the art as a way to understand ancient cultures, religious beliefs and social constructs.

King said the rock art also illustrates the diversity of the Colorado Plateau people, which included hunters and warriors, masons and skilled basket makers. The art also hints at connections with other peoples, including the Mayans.

King acknowledges that prior to his sabbatical he knew little of this region, its ancient peoples or their art. His previous research has been focused on 19th and 20th century American religious experiences and native peoples’ contact with Euro-Americans. Much of his research has been conducted in stuffy archives, poring over diaries, letters and other printed materials, a far cry from the vast, airy expanse of the Colorado Plateau.

Through this experience, King said he has developed a greater understanding of Pueblo culture. He hopes to give a presentation to the Albright community about the rock art and is considering penning articles on the subject. But more than that, King is eager to return to the desert to continue his search for these ancient creations.

 “The story is not over,” he said.

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