Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Wyoming
A visit to Wyoming’s rock art sites left me with a sense of how my life is suspended within a fabric of lives connecting over time and space. These petroglyphs and pictographs are both ancient and recent, foreign and familiar.
Wyoming has five sites open to the public where beautiful, chimerical rock art can be viewed. Without a doubt, there are many more sites which are protected from public viewing, either because they exist on private land, or their characteristics have been deemed superior and worth extra protection. The need for protecting the sites is painfully obvious. I saw disheartening examples of vandalism at some of the sites I visited.
It’s my belief that people, at their core, are not much different from place to place or from era to era. The reasons for the rock art are probably as varied as the people who made them, and maybe as simple as the desire to express experiences and beliefs.
A basic form or figure in the rocks is referred to as a figure, image, or glyph. Some are recognizable as animals such as eagles, elk, deer, and bison, and some are more mysterious and may reflect life unfamiliar to us, or possibly, religious beliefs. These more mysterious and complex glyphs are referred to as motifs if they are repeated over multiple sites. It is reasoned the motifs were understood across people groups and conveyed a meaning readily known to them.
Significant work has been done to decipher the meanings of the glyphs, but for me the tangible sense, almost a weight, of TIME is what I experienced. It is in these places that the western concept of linear time is most effectively pierced by the older perception of time as a spiral reaching through geographical space. The specific meanings of the images seem less important than the awareness of humans passing through and leaving symbols of their passing: An activity reaching back thousands of years, picking me up as it sweeps by, and propelling forward into years not yet witnessed.
All images Copyright protected.
Petroglyphs are in some way chiseled, pecked, or scraped into the rock face, likely using rock fragments or bone tools. Pictographs are painted onto the surface of the rock. In some cases both methods are used on the same glyph. Pictographs are far less likely to withstand the weather unless they are in a protected place such as a rock overhang or cave. Pictographs were drawn with paint-like substances made from mineral or plant dyes. They may have been applied with fingers or brushes. A dark red stain is what I have seen the most. I was told it is made from iron oxide. We know that iron oxide has been mined in Wyoming as far back as 13,000 years ago.1
Some of the images are recognizable as familiar wildlife, even if we may wonder at the details. These are generally referred to as zoomorphs.
Glyphs with human-like characteristics can vary widely and are referred to as anthropomorphs. I can’t help but be fascinated by these figures. Is that a shield? Why are the hands made this way? Are they holding something I don’t recognize? Are they meant to depict spirit beings, or important people in the community?
Methods of creating petroglyphs include pecking many, many small divots into the rock. En toto is a style of petroglyph where the image is filled in with pecking. Imagine the work that entailed.
Unfortunately, some humans cannot approach these sites with respect and insist on adding graffiti, defacing these archaeological treasures. In some cases, entire panels have been removed. Is it any wonder most of our rock art sites are not open to the public?
The rock art sites I have visited vary in age. Dating can be tricky, but the best estimates date examples as recent as the early 1800’s and as old as the Mesolithic period.2 The Medicine Lodge site excavation produced evidence of regular occupation for at least 11,000 years.
Please be respectful of these sites and the natural resources. Please don’t touch the rock art or damage it in anyway. Leave only footprints. For more information on the petroglyph sites in Wyoming, visit WyoParks and Wyoming BLM.
1 Wyoming Metals. https://www.wsgs.wyo.gov/minerals/metals.aspx
2 Prehistoric Ages in Order. https://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-ages-timeline