Petroglyphs & Rock Art



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Petroglyph terminology

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Petroglyph Terminology
If you're new to rock art and petroglyphs, you'll undoubtedly run across a few terms that you're unfamiliar with.  Several of these terms will be used here too.  To refresh those who are already aquainted with rock art terminology and, to enlighten others who are not familiar with them.  Here are some of the basics:

Petroglyph - greek: petro meaning rock, and glyph meaning drawing or engraving.

Anthropomorphism - the attributing of human shape or characteristics to gods, objects, animals, etc.

Photo of anthropomorph petroglyph
Example of petroglyphs commonly referred to as anthropomorph(s). This particular sample of petroglyph --- photo taken at the North site --- is also interpreted by some anthropologists as a frog, toad, or lizard.

Pecking - (or small peck) used to describe a method used to create a petroglyph.  Whereby a tool, such as a sharp pointed rock, was utilized in a percussive manner, to hit the rock and carve the drawing.  The tool may have been used alone or with a "hammerstone" to peck the bearing surface.   Petroglyphs made in this manner have a rough, pitted surface.  All petroglyphs observed at the site locations here appear to be made by the small peck method.

Photo of ceremonial ram petroglyph
Ram or deer with special powers?

Pictographs - ancient rock art symbols that are drawn or painted onto rock, normally without any pecking or abrasive methods of creating the scenes or symbols.   Paint made from powdered minerals, blood, charcoal, or other substances were used to make pictographs.

Photo of 3 generations pictograph at Gila Cliff Dwellings.
This pictograph represents 3 generations of a family that inhabited a small cliff dwelling, west of the main grouping of what is today known as the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, in southwestern New Mexico, near Silver City.   The paint used appeared to be colored with ground cinnabar.  The nearest deposits of cinnabar to the Mogollon (Mimbreno) dwellers there was over 40 miles away (to the west as the crow flies), near present day Glenwood, New Mexico.

Rock varnish - a substance which forms over time onto the surface of rocks causing darkening of the color of the rock.  Microscopic organisms residing on the rocks surface secrete a substance that causes airborne specks of certain minerals to stick to the rock.  Over long periods of time, as the varnish accumulates over petroglyphs too, the petroglyph can become as dark as the rock.  Sometimes leaving it very hard to see in contrast to the surrounding natural coloration of the rock. 

Websters New Twentieth Century Dictionary; The World Publishing Co, 1964.

Dennis Slifer; Signs of life - Rock art of the Upper Rio Grande; Ancient City Press 1998. IBSN 1-58096-005-7

Elizabeth C. Welsh; Easy Field Guide to Southwestern Petroglyphs; Primer Publishers Sixth Printing - 1998. IBSN 0-935810-60-9

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Copyright (c) W. C. `Bill` Porter 1999, all rights reserved.