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Petroglyphs in Arizona

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Petroglyphs in Arizona, Archaeology field work in Tonto Forest –

“I have a Petro over here!” exclaimed an archaeologist in the Tonto Forest of Arizona.

We were walking out our transects through the Pinyon Juniper shrub trees on top of a highly elevated mesa in the forest. Prehistoric sites were reveling themselves out of the ground nearly everywhere we looked. But the discovery of a Petroglyph was something new.

The entire crew raced over to where the excited voice of the discoverer was standing. We all formed a semi circle around a small boulder near a rock outcrop at the edge of the mesa, and looked down.

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Wade from www.VagabondJourney.com
Tonto Forest, Arizona, Southwest USA, Early November 2009
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There we saw it: the carved out shape of a large elk designed by the hand of an ancient craftsman. The archaeologists looked at the discovery in awe, and then one of them pointed out the lightly engraved shape of a stick man a little ways away from the elk on the same boulder.

Petroglyph of an elk probably done by the Anasazi

Petroglyph of an elk probably done by the Anasazi

“And there is the hunter,” the crew chief confirmed with an air of mystery.

The archaeologists then split up and scoured the rock outcrop on the edge of the mesa, all looking for any more signs of rock art. We found plenty.

“I found one! I found another!” we’d yell out to each other.

The peak of the mesa was full of rock art.

Wade inspecting a petroglyph in the Tonto Forest of Arizona

Wade inspecting a petroglyph in the Tonto Forest of Arizona

Meaning of Petroglyphs

“What is the consensus on what these petroglyphs mean?” I asked the crew chief.

“Nobody knows,” was basically his answer, “but a lot of people have some pretty strong ideas on the subject.”

In this way, archaeology is an interesting science — if it could really be called such a thing. It is my impression that a scientist spends their life searching for “the answers” but when the questions are virtually unanswerable, to come up empty handed is sometimes a hard option. I have found that the archaeologist with the strongest opinions today are usually the ones regarded as fools tomorrow.

Quadraped petroglyph in Arizona

Quadraped petroglyph in Arizona

A good archaeologist should probably say “we don’t now yet,” more than anything other phrase. Contrary to how this sounds, it is not a phrase of defeat, but one that encourages progress — it is difficult to learn when you think you already know.

I worked with some good archaeologists at the Copan site in Hoduras — they said “we don’t know” more times that I care to recollect.

“What was the ball made of that the Maya ball court game was played with?”

“We don’t know, maybe rubber, but we think they had the same size and weight dimensions as a human head, which they may have represented.

“How did the ancient Maya at Copan cut the large stones that they quarried from that outcrop over there?”

“We don’t know.”

And so on my interviews would turn up an endless streams of “We don’t know yets.” But this was good for my knowledge, albeit it was a little poor for the story I would come to write about excavating there (“I don’t know” just doesn’t cut it when you are writing a fancifully romantic article on archaeology).

“In this profession, we all are full of shit,” a wise archaeologist once stated, “So you need to learn how to believe your own bullshit.”

But there are many “strong opinions” on the meaning of petroglyphs: were they religious in function? merely decorative? Territorial markers of where one tribes boundary began and another’s ended? An ancient show of humanity’s drive to physically actualize their existence for a posterity that will extend far beyond their brief existence? Ancient graffiti? Or were these petroglyphs just the remnants, preserved throughout the ages, of what becomes a bunch of bored humans with nothing better to do than carve pictures into rocks?

“We don’t know yet.”

Petroglyph Southwest USA

Petroglyph Southwest USA

We then came upon an assemblage of petroglyphs that spanned the ages. It was a prehistoric Anasazi design of something that looked like the rib cage of a skeleton, but next to it was something different, a petroglyph from a different time:

There, etched directly next to the ancient Anasazi rock art was scrawled in large Roman letters the name “Z E King.” The piece was completed with an acute time stamp of precisely when this individual volunteered his earthly title as a bridge between prehistory and modern times:

“Oct 5 1918″ was scratched into the stone directly above the name.

“In 1918 this was still wild country,” the crew chief commented.

He was correct, Arizona had just become a US state only six years earlier.

Prehistoric and historic petroglyphs side by side

Prehistoric and historic petroglyphs side by side

Historic petroglyph next to prehistoric

Historic petroglyph next to prehistoric

Petroglyphs historic and prehistoric

Petroglyphs historic and prehistoric

Prehistoric petroglyph with historic rock art

Prehistoric petroglyph with historic rock art

And this is perhaps how collections of petroglyphs were always assembled: one human marks his passing through a place in the world, followed by another, followed by another throughout time, bridging the gap between the ages with simple icons and tags.

It was the historic graffiti from 1918 combined with the prehistoric rock art that really made these petroglyphs interesting. Z E King, whoever he was, apparently noticed the work of some long gone Anasazi, and left his mark side by side with antiquity. Now he is more than likely long gone, and we look at his handiwork through the same lens of inquiry and interest.

I laughed a little as I thought of what a glorious transgression it would have been to add “W-A-D-E NOV 2009″ to the temporal register, but my profession is one which is happily content with its uni-directional view backwards into time — and not very appreciative of a modern human being an ass.

Contemporary man is perhaps too arrogant to consider himself just another insignificant click in the ever onward roll of time. It is the people who know that they will not live forever who are the ones compelled to carve evidence of their existence into stone. When all of the paintings of the greats are rotted to shreds, when all of our computer crap and digital imagery is reduced to the sum of its parts, when nearly every great work of art that modern humanity has ever created is dust in the wind, that Anasazi carving and the handiwork of Z E King will still be sitting on top of that Mesa in Arizona.

Photos of Petroglyphs in Arizona

Petroglyph of something

Petroglyph of something

Concentric circle petroglyph

Concentric circle petroglyph

Petroglyph

Petroglyph of a lizard

Human figure rock art

Human figure rock art

Anasazi petroglyphs

Anasazi petroglyphs

Elk petroglyph

Elk petroglyph

How to become an archaeologist

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Filed under: Archaeology, Arizona, Art and Music, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been moving through the world since 1999. He is the author of Ghost Cities of China. has written 2724 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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