by Mary Lowers
Rock Art is images carved, drawn or painted onto solid rock surfaces. Carved or engraved images are petroglyphs, drawn or painted images are pictographs, and images including both techniques are known as painted petroglyphs. These rock art pieces dot the western US.
In the San Luis Valley (SLV) there are many known sites and probably sites yet to be discovered. Ron Kessler in his book SLV Rock Art talks about the culture around rock art, when it stops being graffiti and becomes art is a function of time. Kessler says, “One of the ironies of the west is that if you chisel your name on an outcrop of soft rock on public land, you’re a vandal. But if your great grandmother did the same at Register Rock along the Oregon Trail one hundred and fifty years ago she wasn’t a vandal; instead, she created a historic artifact worthy of full protection of the National Park Service. And if your rock-scribing ancestor was a Spanish soldier of three centuries ago, or an even earlier Ute or Ancestral Puebloan, the scratched stone surfaces gain even more historical significance.”
Most of the known rock art sites in the SLV are found on the west side of the valley. The art takes many forms and may include anthropomorphic human-like elements, zoomorphic animal-like elements, or abstract/geometric elements. Common colors used in ancient pictographs or painted petroglyphs include tan, white, green, yellow, and red. They were created using brushes made of animal hair or plant fiber. Caren Kershner, thirty-some-year Mineral Hot Springs resident and knowledgeable rock art enthusiast, told me she was marvelling to a friend about how the ancient artists managed to make perfect concentric circles. “That’s easy,” he told her, “just take an antler and rotate it like a compass.” Deciphering the ancient art often comes down to discussion that enlightens a person as to the purpose and technique of a rock art piece.
It is often difficult to date rock art. As Caren Kershner said, “I have seen rock art inside a cave in NV so ancient they were barely visible.” Horses and firearms depicted in the rock art indicate it was produced after Europeans came to the area. An Apache rock art panel in La Jara Canyon depicts a huge horned monster slayer with a musket. Some groups have added to older rock art without obliterating the original work. A painted petroglyph in the Carnero Creek/La Garita area is Apache in origin with Hispanic sheepherders added at a later time. Christian religious iconographic images are also a way to get an idea of how old a rock art piece may be. Penitente Canyon, also near La Garita, was a site where the Spanish holy men, Los Hermanos Penitentes, lived in prayer, fasting and seclusion. In the 1940s or 1950s some of the brotherhood lowered an artistic member of their group down a cliff on a tire to paint a lovely Virgin of Guadalupe high on a cliff wall. Underneath her image are the words “courage” and “comfort.”
The purpose of a rock art piece is often another mystery. Obvious answers include hunting guides, wherein the rock art depicts deer, elk and other game found in the SLV. Author Kessler thinks rock art found at the Dry Creek site in the Del Norte area indicates it was on the route of an ancient Ute hunting trail. Sometimes more onsite research leads to a more complete picture of why a piece is put in a specific location. Ken Frye, retired Forest Service Archeologist, SLV native and rock art expert, tells an illuminating story about a “polychrome two color” pictograph called Three Flute Players found in a rock shelter around the Carnero Creek area. After visiting the site, now-deceased Hopi Elder Thomas Banyacya thought the pictograph depicted “the Gray Flute Clan that migrated to the Durango area” in ancient times. Ken Frye brought a flutist friend to the site, “who played his flute right here. You could hear it all over the area. This spot’s a natural amphitheatre. That’s probably why they put that image here.”
Birds including cranes, eagles and other winged creatures are a theme in SLV rock art. The Big Bird Petroglyph site which because of its rarity and its location (so remote there’s only vehicle access through private land), is kept secret by the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) was discovered in 1984 in the wilderness near Monte Vista/Del Norte. According to the RGNF, “The Big Bird Petroglyph’s thought to be a rendition of a Sandhill or a Whooping Crane from the Archaic Period fifteen hundred years ago.” Projectile points and stone tools found near the rock art helped date it.
Caren Kershner told me one of her favorite SLV rock art sites is located on the southeast side of the valley near Fort Garland. Located in the Trinchera Creek area, the site at first looks like an abstract/geometric piece but as you look closer you see what appears to be “corn and other nut-like things.” A field and irrigation map may be part of this site. Caren said, “The people who did the glyphs are very artistic. There are many ways to interpret them. Some are utilitarian in nature depicting a trail or water. Some look as though maybe someone saw a shadow and was inspired.” A site near Smith Reservoir, also near Fort Garland, depicts a round human head with obvious Pueblo influences.
So get out there before the winter winds blow cold and check out some of the SLV’s rock art galleries.