Petroglyphs: Imagination Chiseled in Stone

For tens of thousands of years humans have struggled to survive, but at the same time, our over-sized brains were busy imagining things. And one of the enduring proofs is petroglyphs.

These mysterious stone carvings appear around the globe on every continent except Antartica, and scientists have been intrigued for decades by the almost universal desire of ancient humans, separated by both distance and time, to create these artistic stone badges. But despite all the study, and as frustrating as it must be for archaeologists, no one can say with certainty what the carvings meant to the artists or their cultures.

It’s been proposed that petroglyphs are astronomical markers, maps, records of events, territorial boundaries or drawings of spirits. Animals, of all types, are a recurring subject, so maybe the carvings were meant to help hunters in the challenge to find food. But, as is frequently the case in history there are some things that the experts can’t, and won’t, ever know for certain.

Sky Rock Petroglyphs located in the Volcanic Tablelands near Bishop, California.

So what that presents for the rest of us is an opportunity to stop worrying about what it all really means and have some fun making our own guesses … and just appreciating the art for art’s sake.

Before COVID clipped our travel wings, we stood in the desert heat at the base of West Mesa outside Albuquerque, New Mexico playing our own fun guessing game. With over 25,000 images and 17 miles of volcanic exhibit space, Petroglyph National Monument must be one of the largest, most accessible displays of ancient art in the world.

It was a wonderful prehistoric scavenger hunt because any rock face in the blocky jumble could turn up our next surprise. Turtles, lizards, and Puebloan stick people were pretty obvious, but a turkey with antlers had us scratching our sunburned heads. Likewise, the compass arrows pointing in two different directions were ripe for interpretation.

A few days later found us in Moab, Utah which is home to a number of excellent petroglyph sites. The most famous carvings in the area are the trio: “Moab Man, Moab Maiden, and Moab Mutt.” And in case you’re wondering about the photo, no the trio isn’t etched into the White Cliffs of Utah. These are the glyph-knockoff fridge magnets we bought in the Arches National Park gift shop. It was important to get the three petroglyphs in one frame, because of all the stone art I saw in the American Southwest, they’re my absolute favorites.

Moab Man is on the far left. Located on the golf course in Albuquerque, New Mexico USA

They’re believed to be carvings from the Fremont Culture which populated Eastern Utah from 300-1300 CE. I love them for their lighthearted cartoon character and deliberate simplistic design. I could easily see these anachronistic figures in some goofy, online comic, but they were chiseled, stone on stone, 800 years ago!

I have no doubt that most of the petroglyphs scattered around the world had a practical function or a deep symbolic meaning to the societies that created them. But alternatively, perhaps sometimes Paleolithic artists just wanted to express how they felt that day, and that feeling might have been nothing more than happiness for the freedom from the drudgery of daily survival.

Petroglyph of shepherd and sheep in Grapevine Canyon, Nevada USA

Many of our ancestors disappeared without a written history, but petroglyphs are messages etched into rocks that have stood the test of time. We’ll never totally understand their meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the art and appreciate the artists for allowing us a glimpse into their ancient imaginations.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Petroglyph at Lion Plate at Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Photo Credits: 1. Jim Bouldin  2. Steven Yabek  3. Philippe Kurlapski 5. Kevin Keator 12. Megan @ Red Around the World 13. John Fowler 14. Olga Ernst  

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

60 thoughts

  1. These are great petroglyphs! We saw some in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia a few years ago, made by the local Aboriginal people, they were amazing.

    1. Thanks for the comment Deb and for dropping by the blog. Given Aboriginal “Dreamtime,” it’s certainly no surprise that they would have wonderful, imaginative art – and I love the kangaroo petroglyphs! You’ll see none of that in the American Southwest. ~James

    1. Beth, if you get to the Four Corners region of the American Southwest you’ll have a good chance. And in fact, Petroglyph National Park is literally on the edge of a suburb in western Albuquerque, so finding them is no problem. I hope you can make it once we’re all a bit more mobile. ~James

  2. Thanks for this fun and informative post. I really enjoyed all your photos. Several years ago on a hot summer day we spent hours at Petroglyph National Monument climbing around those rock trying to figure out what each carving meant.

    1. Beth, isn’t Petroglyphs NM the coolest? I love how accessible it is to the city. It was strange to look over my shoulder while examining these petroglyphs and see people from the neighborhood walking their dogs. I’d love to have an ancient art display like this close to my home. ~James

  3. Oh, how the mysteries continue! What a treat, to learn about the possible origins of these petroglyphs and yet to be left with so many unanswered questions. But aren’t such historical remnants at once so puzzling and fascinating?! By the way, I’m totally partial to Moab Mutt – and anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised 😉

    1. Amit, I’m partial to Moab Mutt as well. Given the harsh lifestyle that dogs (and humans) must have had in those days, it seems unusual that the Mutt would be so happy, but he definitely is. I also enjoy all three figures because they’re so anachronistic-looking. Very cool, and as you say, mysterious. ~James

  4. I love these…especially the turkey with antlers! Some aren’t too far away from us. We will have to explore.

    1. Brenda, isn’t that turkey a hoot (no pun intended). Other than dogs, turkeys were one of the only other domesticated animals that indigenous natives had, so they probably played a big part in their lives. But still, the antlers are a mystery. And I encourage you and Larry to take a petroglyph field trip. If you’re like us, a roadtrip is welcome, and for a talented artist like you, it will provide lots of fodder for the easel. Hope you are both well. ~James

    1. Kathy, thanks so much for this link. I haven’t seen such a detailed analysis before, and find it fascinating. It’s particularly interesting that it was possible to break the art into Prehistoric, Transitional, and Historic and to watch the types of animals change as time passed. I’ll have to study it a bit more. Thanks again for the interesting link. It must have been very cool to see in person. ~James

    1. Jacqui, thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. I had never thought of it, but the graffiti/art vs. vandalism argument has been going on much longer than I knew. And BTW, I just bought your recent book “Survival of the Fittest.” I’ve just gotten a start, but am really enjoying it so far. If you’ve seen a few of our recent posts you may have noticed my interest in human history, so it’s the perfect kind of book for me. I’m looking forward to finishing it. Good luck with the new book. ~James

      1. I love your curious mind, James, so I am following you. I’m counting on you to share fascinating bits of the world with me! Thanks for buying my book. Love to hear that.

  5. People say boredom is the gateway to creativity. Without too many things to distract them like what we have to deal with in a constant basis today, our ancestors probably saw those rock walls as a prime object to kill their boredom. Or maybe they were just having fun, without having to feel bored at all to begin with.

    1. Bama, I hadn’t heard the phrase “boredom is the gateway to creativity” before, but I definitely agree with the idea. You make a very astute observation. I’m sure that when ancient cultures were making long-term celestial observations they had two of the necessary ingredients: a totally dark sky without light pollution and lots of time. ~James

  6. Love this post because I love petroglyphs. Can’t always interpret the photo, but, as you said, we should just enjoy them for what they are. There are some similarities, however, among petroglyphs in different areas, and that sort of baffles me. Did artists get a book on How to Draw Petroglyphs? Did they travel, assess different ones, and then add them to their locale? Hmmm. Not sure. But really just having fun.

    1. Rusha, I agree that the similarities between art produced in different areas and time periods is uncanny. I suspect there was some cultural exchange when it was possible, but I’ve often wondered about the explanation for similarities from opposite sides of the world. It’s almost like some shapes, figures, and techniques were hardwired into the human brain. Either way, it’s fun art to admire. ~James

    1. Darlene, I suspect there was a fair amount of doodling (see Bama’s comment above), and maybe we’re trying to force symbolism where there is none. Who knows? But it is fun to try to come up with explanations. ~James

  7. Thanks for sharing these petroglyph tales and images. I enjoy looking at them as well. A fun kind of art and so authentic!

    It’s easy to get an overload in Petroglyph National Park, especially when the temperatures soar near 100 degrees. Despite that, we walked slowly and managed to get a good feel of the area, seeing tons of rock art. Later on, we actually did two (repeated) house sits on the Mesa in Albuquerque, steps from the National Park, but this was an area without petroglyphs. We could see the hills and the desolate beauty of the park from the house we took care of and walked the owners’ dogs on the Mesa part of the park. That was cool as well. 🙂

    1. Liesbet, how cool that you had the chance to spend time in Albuquerque. As you know, living in the desert is an acquired taste, and it takes work to appreciate all the nuances of what it has to offer. But, having a huge collection of petroglyphs so close by must have been wonderful. Having that volcanic mesa meandering through the area is relatively rare, and particularly so when the art is added in. Given the collection and its accessibility, I’m surprised that the National Park doesn’t get more attention. For me it’s one of the primary draws to the area. Very cool. ~James

  8. James and Terri – Interpreting art is a changeable thing, isn’t it? Of course, I am assuming the petroglyphs were art, and not, for example, keeping count of a herd. Whatever the interpretation, I am so glad some of it has survived to pique our curiosity. Many thanks – Susan

    1. Susan, interpreting art when we know the artist, as well as when and how they lived is hard enough. Take out the who, how, and when and it becomes very difficult indeed. And this is the problem facing modern archaeologists when they try to interpret petroglyphs. In the meantime, we can all have a guess. ~James

  9. Well, darn – we just passed through Albuquerque a few months ago; I wish I’d known to check these out. I never seem to make time to see petroglyphs, but reading about them is always fascinating to me. I enjoyed your hypotheses on some of their raisons d’etre!

    1. Lexie, sorry you missed Petroglyph National Park, but the next time out that way you really should check it out. We roamed all over the Four Corners area and far and away, these were the easiest and most numerous petroglyphs to visit. Its on the far western side of town and the parking lot for the trail we did was literally on the edge of a residential suburb. There’s lots to see and you can spend as much or as little time there as you want. I hope you can make it. Go early to avoid the heat. ~James

  10. These ancient art works are so fascinating.And fun! I agree with you that the three represented by your fridge magnets are standouts. We saw a lot of ancient Aboriginal art in Australia, some reputed to be 30 or 40 thousand years old (paintings not petroglyphs if I remember rightly) and so interesting. All around the world there are the same themes. Sometimes I think there is some kind of osmotic link between us all.
    Alison

    1. Alison I agree with you that common themes and techniques across time and distance are intriguing. I mentioned in another comment that I sometimes wonder if some of these ideas are hardwired into human brains.

      Also, I remember reading that some of the animals (a type of emu I think) in the Australian paintings are extinct now, but obviously weren’t when the paintings were done: an ancient time capsule. Very cool stuff. ~James

  11. These are great! We especially like petroglyphs. We’ve been to the Albuquerque site. There’s also a good spot a couple of hours south. One of my favorite petroglyph walls is outside of Santa Fe. That one really had a mystical feel to it. We really like the Moab site – that was the first place we ever saw petroglyphs, along with Petrified Forest’s Newspaper Rock. Neat stuff!

    1. Pam, on our trip there last summer we saw lots of petroglyphs in northern NM and the Four Corners area. There really are lots of sites scattered around the countryside, but given the distances involved and accessibility over less than ideal roads, it’s important to do a bit of research ahead of time. But with some time and perseverance, if you want to see petroglyphs it’s the place to be. ~James

  12. Fantastic post! Love the fridge magnets. A few of these sites aren’t that far away from me. Thanks for the tips. Hope to visit them someday now that local road trips are so in fashion. 🙂 Hope you’re both doing well and staying healthy!

    1. Thanks Kelly. We had seen a few petroglyphs before, but until our long camping trip out last summer we hadn’t really focused on them. They’re scattered all over Northern NM, The Four Corners, and eastern Utah (Moab is a good base), so if you visit this area there are definitely lots to see. But if you’re short on time, Petroglyph National Monument outside Albuquerque is a good one-stop place to see lots of art. And thanks, we’re both doing well, and hope you are as well. ~James

  13. James and Terri, I like your game of trying to guess what each of the petroglyphs means. We visited the World Heritage Rock Art Centre in Alta, Finnmark, Norway, last year and pondered so many questions about the 11,000 years old petroglyphs there. It is just mind-boggling!!

    1. I hadn’t heard of this rock art Gilda, and I checked out a few photos online. It’s beautiful and quite fine work for the time, and the large, flat slabs of rock make the perfect canvas. These petroglyphs, like many around the world, are an interesting study in the animal life that existed at the time. Very neat stuff. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. ~James

    1. Laura, petroglyphs are one of the major perks from visiting the Southwest. The desert climate has preserved them well and the lack of vegetation make them easy to see. We really enjoyed them on our trip there last summer ~James

    1. Jean, I’m sorry you missed it as well. As I’ve said to others, it’s a wonderful collection that’s on the edge of the city and so easy to get to. Honestly, I’m surprised it doesn’t get more attention, which may be why you missed it. Maybe next time. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Kathryn and for dropping by the blog. I’ve never seen the petroglyhs on Bornholm, so I checked them out online. As I commented in the post, the similarities and commons themes in different places and at different times is amazing to me. I suspect that it came down to similar experiences and ideas, but who knows? Thanks again for bringing these to my attention. ~James

  14. The comments are almost as enlightening as the post, James. You have a better class of reader here! 🙂 🙂 Just joking- it’s a fascinating subject. I’ve never seen petroglyphs in person.

    1. Jo, petroglyphs aren’t common, but they’re scattered around a good part of Europe, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t some close to the Algarve. If you get a chance to search them out, they’re an interesting look into the lives of our ancestors. ~James

  15. A fascinating post James. Although it may be disappointing not to know conclusively what the drawings mean, I prefer the scavenger hunt concept. Have you heard of ‘Writing on Stone’ Provincial Park in southern Alberta? It is one of many locations in the province where First Nations people left their art. Due to the elements here, many of the drawings are becoming weathered and worn. For now a tremendous gift left to us to explore.

    1. Sue, I checked photos online for Writing on Stone, and they appear to be more deeply incised than most of what I’ve seen in the desert of the SW US, which is probably an indicator of rock type and hardness. Cool and different than farther south.

      I love your term “First Nations.” I have heard this but had forgotten it. On a post that comes later I discuss the problem with what to call the indigenous people of North America. Because they were here long before America was named, it’s obviously a touchy subject, and deservedly so. In the SW US many of the tribes prefer that the historic tribes be called “Ancient Puebloans” because they lived in pueblos. ~James

    1. Peggy, as I said in elsewhere, it’s incredible how widespread petroglyphs are, in both time and location. A record of our passage seems to be a part of human nature and our development. Cool stuff. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Promod and for dropping by the blog. We will never know the motivation, or for that matter the meaning, but there’s no denying that lots of imagination was involved. ~James

  16. Having recently read a book on an American woman living with the Australian Aboriginals, I wonder if they would look at these and instantly recognise what they are and why they are there? ‘Mutant Message Down Under’ by Marlo Morgan. No matter what, they are doubtless beautiful and a national treasure. Thank you for posting such fabulous images. A real joy.

    1. Thanks for the comment Bella and for dropping by the blog. I read this book some years ago, and had forgotten about it. However, given my recent interest in petroglyphs, it might be one to re-read. From the petroglyphs we saw in the American Southwest, it’s interesting to see common themes and techniques from indigenous groups that lived at totally different times. I’m going out on a limb here, but I wonder if some of these images are “hardwired” into the human brain, or is it just coincidence. It’s also intriguing that many of the truly ancient images are stylized, geometric, and almost modern looking. Cool stuff. ~James

      1. Hello James, I do believe we are hard-wired to express ourselves be it what’s in our minds or to keep record, and creating art is what makes us human. As demonstrated in this conversation, we all seem to have a common need to communicate. I was worried about making reference to the book as when looking online I see it has some negativity surrounding it. Whether it is fabrication or truth, I still find it interesting to see the world in another way and suspect the petroglyphs will be around long after we have left our mark. 🙂

      2. Bella, most anthropologists agree that our ability to create art is definitely one of the characteristics that makes us human, and in fact, early art was one of the first tangible indicators of our ability to imagine. I find the first steps that we took as humans fascinating, and the worldwide presence of petroglyphs shows that it happened across all cultures. It’s interesting that in the US, the best preserved petroglyphs are in the desert southwest which ensures what you say: they will be around long after we are gone. ~James

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