First of series: An Ancient Language: Hidden Amongst the Rocks, Part 1

by South Mountain Park Ranger Justin Olson

As you explore the desert trails of the South Mountain Preserve located in the Salt River Valley, you may notice prehistoric carvings on the surfaces of the rocks you encounter. These prehistoric expressions have been skillfully and artistically inscribed through a hard layer of minerals deposited on the rocks’ surface from bacterial secretions collecting magnesium and iron from the atmosphere. This thin mineral formation on the exterior of a rock is referred to as patina or desert varnish. Generations ago, this patina was skillfully chipped away by indigenous peoples revealing the lighter un-weathered stone beneath. These carved patterns and symbols create the petroglyphs many have come to love and ponder to this day.

There are many mysteries surrounding these fine works of artistic expression, including their purpose and intent. As many of us are either far removed from our indigenous roots or do not have a direct relationship to the peoples responsible for creating these incredible depictions, we find their existence and placement to be a continual source of discovery, history, mystery and admiration.

Over many years of seeking out and reflecting on these poignant images, I have been exploring the idea that these images are not simply a representation of an object seen or a symbol of an event that has taken place in history; they may, indeed, be a form of written language. I am in the early days of this mental exercise, but have found great comfort in exploring this hypothesis and enjoying the process of discovery. I may never attain validation, but it adds another depth to my daily hike in this majestic mountain range.

The mindset and world view of petroglyphs as a written language starts with the idea that there exists a great depth to the world. None of what we observe and experience is 2-D or black and white; the human condition is vivid and 3-D. When we try to communicate, we find boundaries such as language. Some modes of communication, such as symbolism, seem to go beyond the 2-D experience of the written language or oral tradition and help to affect the observers experience in mind, body and soul. Most, if not all, symbolism begins in a tangible observation and evolves in time to incorporate emotion, experience and larger ideas contained within the whole. With this idea in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the form of a water bird petroglyph found throughout South Mountain Preserve and the greater Salt River Valley to see if we can examine the forms/elements that make up the petroglyph, as a whole, and extract a deeper understanding of this form from its parts.

Check back soon for the second in this series by Justin Olson, An Ancient Language: Hidden Amongst the Rocks – Water Birds