Home > Understanding Rock Art > Rock Art As Archaeology

This Article is by Dr. Lawrence L. Loendorf, archaeologist and long-time rock art researcher.
Here is our standard disclaimer that opinions of authors of articles may not reflect ARARA policy.

            Rock art sites and the images they contain were created as part of daily life in the past, so to think of such sites as simply clusters of figures on a wall is to ignore the less visible but equally valuable information often present and awaiting exploration. Unfortunately, it is common to visit a rock art site and hear individuals describe how similar a particular motif is to one they have seen at another location. Although this focus on the stylistic properties of images, referred to as “the iconic comparative approach,” has its merits, to approach the study of rock art sites exclusively from this perspective is to limit what can be learned about the behaviors and contexts in which the sites were created.

            Archaeological research at rock art sites is usually more inclusive and often begins with a careful examination of the site’s surface. Ceramics and chipped stone tools found near rock art sites, especially isolated ones, can be helpful in establishing the age of the site. It is also fairly common to find objects at rock art sites--like quartz crystals, beads, or other trinkets that in ethnographic contexts are known to be offerings--stuck in surface cracks, and although these objects may not be useful in establishing the site’s age, they can help to determine its function. When archaeological features like a bedrock metate or a rock wall surrounding a rockshelter are present, they can contribute to an understanding of events that occurred at the site. Manos and metates were often used for grinding pigments and archaeologists have sometimes found, at the base of rock art panels, pigment-stained manos and the remains of pigments in the varnish on metates’ surfaces.

            Perhaps the most important recognition of the extent to which the study of rock art is embedded in archaeological research is the suggestion that a newly discovered rock art site be treated like a crime scene. It has been recommended that access to the site be prohibited until archaeologists have had the opportunity to meticulously examine the site surface for clues that might be relevant to an understanding of the rock art. In instances in which the sediments in the vicinity of a rock art panel are undisturbed, researchers have often found bits of pigment or the stone picks used to make the petroglyphs that otherwise would have been stepped on and destroyed by well-meaning individuals trying to photograph the rock art. 

            Several techniques have been used to excavate rock art sites, including the use of auger probes or other tools that extract soil samples from deposits at the base of panels. If these probes reveal evidence of subsurface cultural materials, a larger test excavation unit is often opened to investigate the contents of the buried deposits. The remains of intact fire hearths have been found at the base of some panels and, in some instances, these have contained evidence related to the production of the rock art. In other settings where no hearths were present, archaeologists have found the tools used to make the petroglyphs. 

            Researchers should be on the alert for rock art that may have been buried by the accumulation of soil at the base of a panel. Datable materials recovered from the soils overlying buried rock art can be useful in establishing a relative age for the site. Pollen sampling during excavation can also produce interesting results. Tobacco pollen and the pollen of a variety of medicinal plants found at rock art sites provide evidence of the ceremonies that took place at the site either before, during, or after the creation of the images.

            Archaeology is committed to an explication and understanding of the past through the investigation of its static remnants, some of which occur as clusters of images on rock surfaces.  Many aspects of the circumstances and meaning of these images--though now unknown--are knowable provided the full range of traditional as well as innovative archaeological practices are applied to this purpose. Such a goal will only be accomplished, however, by encouraging well-trained archaeologists to undertake more comprehensive research at rock art sites.