By K. Nepsa

Last month, we talked about ancient art, its possible meaning(s), as well as posed the question as to why the artistic expression appears similar each time we see one on a rock face. Ancient drawings on rock (petroglyphs) were created much earlier than ancient paintings (pictographs) and both have been discovered all over the world. Were our ancestors simply playing with artistic concepts or were they communicating a deeper meaning with each stroke of their chosen instrument? To make this subject more interesting, we should hear from scientists who know more about it. I recently posed a question to a forum of super smart scientists on the subject, and this is what a few of them had to say:

“More colorful detailed art tends to be found where fairly large groups of humans lived in the same place for long periods of time, which would allow for practice and improvement of skills by artists, and community support, such as feeding artists. Petroglyphs were often done by small nomadic people.” – Gordon H.

“They were not intended to be realistic, just a legible and relatively fast way to communicate ideas.” – Jessica G.T.

“Part of it is the medium and tools available…these were typically nomadic tribes on the move chasing food and shelter. They may not have had the time to improve their skills on this challenging medium.” – Heidi R.

“Could have been used as a language/storytelling. They only had rock to carve into and not a lot of other materials. Maybe they were drawing spiritual experiences. The point is that it wasn’t always to represent a literal meaning.” – Stacy H.

“Their priorities were different. Their tools and mediums different. They were drawn to move under the flicker of flames.” – Belladonna R.

“Finally, “art” means something different across both cultures and time. We may define it as a visual representation created with the purpose of it being consumed by others, or to view it for beauty’s sake, or to carry a message, could have been political or just a statement of art.” – Angela S.

The “simple” designs we find in our deserts have more significant symbolism than what we see at a glance. The images we see here in the southwest have deep meaning, even to the descendants who study them today. These are direct lines to their ancestors. Preserving this artwork should be a priority and we need to remember to treat them as the sacred messages the artists intended. They have withstood the test of time and immortalized in the rock in which they were drawn. Next time you come across these beautiful petroglyphs, take a closer look – but don’t touch – and imagine what the artist was trying to communicate, to an audience who now whispers in the wind.

K. Nepsa has a B.S. in Geology and a Master’s in GIS. She has lived in Arizona, HI, CA and Shanghai, China. Her hobbies include enjoying the outdoors via Jeep, Kayak, horse or foot. She has been a Vail resident since 2005.

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