The Need to Make Our Marks in the World – Petroglyphs in the Desert

Petroglyphs in Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA Nancy Smeltzer, MFA

My take is that I need to make art work to stay sane. If I spend more than a few days without doing something, my fingers start getting itchy. So, it was with interest that I stopped by this overhang on the way back to the cars from our rattle blessing ceremony to look under this overhang to see some of the petroglyphs that were there. These were out from most of the weather, so they could still be seen. I’ve drawn two red arrows onto my photo to point out some of the animal “drawings” that had been etched into the rocks. (Also notice the layers of small rocks above the arrows that looked for all the world like teeth to me.) However, about 155 miles north from where I was are the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the Northern Hemisphere. The following photos were all shot by my friend. Jeff Cannon.

Going into Little Petroglyph Canyon, China Lake, Californina, USAThis is part of Little Petroglyph Canyon, on the China Lake Naval Weapons Station. As you walk the length of the canyon, the petroglyphs have been etched into the rocks. There are over 6,000 images that date from 16,000 years ago to the 1800s. Varying in size, there are some that are no bigger than a person’s hand while others stretch   as tall as about 12′ or 4 m. Weather, time, and the hot sun causes a patina to change the quality of the drawings, with the newest usually being lighter in color.

Human petroglyphs at China Lake, California, USAThese figures appear to be human like. They could have been important members of the people who created them, or they could be deities. Debates range as to the meanings of many of the pictures, as to whether they might have been “portraits” of the artists (“I made this!”) or pleas for Divine interventions.

These drawings of animals seem to have been made in layers on top of layers. Perhaps they were made to commemorate a successful hunt that was wanted to be duplicated. Perhaps, the animals of a More petroglyphs, China Lake, California, USAcertain kind were being hunted to extinction in the area, and these were prayers for more to be born in a time when few animals were domesticated. There does seem to be a need to have something replicated, as there are the layers here that aren’t in other petroglyph sites in the area.

The last photo below shows an outcropping that seems to depict people, animals, and symbols. One could speculate that the circle is a sun symbol, the giver of Life in many cultures, or perhaps a sacred shield that was used for protection during the hunt. Another possibility is that it’s a drum head, used in religious ceremonies.

More petroglyphs, China Lake, California, USAFor myself, I often include deliberate symbols in my art work, such as the use of round buttons that for me are about the Circle of Life. To someone else, they’re just round shapes. While I always enjoy what other people see in my artwork, I usually am just communing with my materials and don’t have a lot of obvious symbolism. What were the intentions of the people that made these will never be totally understood. However, I feel that the pieces speak of the undeniable need of people to communicate through art. Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

PLEASE NOTE: Tours of the petroglyphs must be made in advance. The terrain is rough and there are a number of considerations that must be obeyed, so please check the link for details before planning a visit.

Which emotions or symbols do you find that you often convey in your art work? Are you leaving records of what you were trying to say, or will you leave it to future generations to interpret what you wanted to say?

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