Anyone who knows me well knows that I love a good petroglyph. Because of this, during a recent visit to Las Vegas, I made a point of visiting the Valley of Fire State Park, which is about an hour’s drive northeast of the city. I wrote about the park in general last week, but today I’m going to focus on the rock art specifically. That park is a petroglyph mecca. I saw hundreds during my visit, and I have no doubt that I overlooked many more.
Two of the oldest rock art-stewn locations in the park are Atlatl Rock and the aptly named Petroglyph Canyon. The first is a short walk from a parking lot, and a climb up some steel stairs. The second involves a moderate 0.75 mile hike. I’ve never reached petroglyphs so easily in my life.
Some of these petroglyphs are up to 4000 years old, from a time when the Gypsum People camped in the valley and hunted for bighorn sheep. Younger petroglyphs may have been created by the Basketmakers or the Ancestral Puebloans, both of whom also came here to hunt and hold ceremonies. The Southern Paiutes have farmed this area since 1100 AD, and some of this art could be theirs as well.
Humans do love to make their mark. We can’t be certain of the exact meaning of these symbols, which were scratched into the desert varnish that coats many of the rocks. Were they messages? Records of significant events? Myths and legends? Spiritual visions? They weren’t graffiti, as it’s clear they were powerful cultural symbols. The mystery of it all has always intrigued me.
One thing I wish I had read about the petroglyphs in the Valley of Fire before I saw them is this brief article in Atlas Obscura, which would have greatly improved my understanding of what I was looking at. The article states, “Visitors with a keen eye will find a hierarchy in the petroglyphs, with those closest to the ground representing everyday activities and symbols like water. Those above are mostly dedicated to hunting and the highest layer seems to hold ritualistic petroglyphs with shamans and religious symbolism.”
Even without that information, though, I still found myself gazing at the work in awe. The first petroglyphs we came upon were on Atlatl Rock, which is so close to the park’s entrance that you get there before arriving at the park’s visitor center. It’s a great introduction to the park that makes you anticipate the wonders to come. The rock is so named because one of the topmost symbols seems to be that of a man holding an atlatl, which is a device that allowed people to throw spears farther, faster, and more accurately. It was a groundbreaking innovation at the time.
These petroglyphs are high on the rock, so the State of Nevada was kind enough to provide a stairway. I’ve always wondered how these artists reached such heights. It’s not like wood was readily available in the desert for ladders or scaffolds.
But once you’ve climbed the stairs, there’s the art. It’s almost close enough to touch, although you shouldn’t. Some fool scratched some modern day graffiti into it, which goes to show that many people aren’t born with respect or common sense. But once you’ve absorbed that cultural insult, the original art leaves you speechless.
Having said that, I’ll let the art on Atlatl Rock speak for itself.
From there we went to the visitor center, and I am grateful, in retrospect, that I took a picture of one of their interpretive displays about a particular petroglyph, because when we went a mile further up the road and hiked into Petroglyph Canyon, that very ‘glyph was one of the first that we came upon. It was kind of fun to have the ranger’s interpretation close at hand.
But this Canyon had much more art in store for us. I found myself grateful that this particular hike was not a loop. You go out to a place called Mouse’s Tank and then come back the same way. In looking at the canyon from the opposite direction, you discover a lot more art on the back side of rocks that you had previously walked right past, oblivious to their wonders.
During that hike, some tourists apparently took my intense interest in these petroglyphs as some sort of expertise, so one of them said to me, “What’s the difference between a petroglyph and a hieroglyph?”
I love questions. They give me the opportunity to overshare. So I smiled and said something like, “Well, for starters you are much more likely to find hieroglyphs in Egypt.”
I then went on to tell them that petroglyphs are scratched or pecked into rock, pictographs are painted on rocks and are often found in caves, and hieroglyphs are carved in rock as well, but they usually represent a word, syllable or sound. And Egypt isn’t the only culture that used heiroglyphs. We know that hieroglyphs are writing systems. Petroglyphs seem to be more abstract and symbolic.
Here are but a few of the many petroglyphs we were treated to in Petroglyph Canyon.
Even though we’ll never know exactly what these ancient people were trying to tell us, when I view their work, I can imagine the artists standing right where I am at that very moment. We are in the same space, separated only by time. I can almost feel them. Their shadows flit at the corners of my eyes. If time could be overcome, perhaps we could communicate in some way.
If only that were possible. What a gift that would be! I have no doubt that they’d have much more to teach us than we would have to teach them.
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