An Ancient Language: Hidden Among the Rocks, Part 2

Fig. 1. Water bird petroglyph at South Mountain Preserve.

By Justin Olson, South Mountain Park Ranger II.
Continued from An Ancient Language: Hidden Amongst the Rocks, Part 1.


Cultural Meaning of the water bird (fig. 1) as a single image:

In researching the cultural meaning of the bird/water bird, I came across a common theme in both Hohokam and Hopi mythology. Birds can symbolize shamanistic practices. They embody the transformation that occurs when a shaman journeys into the supernatural realm. In addition to representing the concept of “taking flight,” bird feathers are thought to have been used in ceremonies to aid in bringing life giving rain. Birds also served as a major role in cultural flood stories, forming mountain and valleys and preventing man form getting lost.


When the bird is depicted with a serpent/snake in its mouth, this appears to symbolize the idea of “as above, so below” or serving as a conduit between the earthly realm and the heavens (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Water bird with serpent.

Examining elements individually: a circle with a dot placed in the middle (see fig. 3) can be associated with the sun or solar event like an eclipse. If we examine the related image of concentric circles, this also seems to depict a bird’s eye view of a hearth or small ember burning/glowing source of heat found in indigenous people’s dwellings such as pit houses and compound houses. If we hold on to the prior idea of this symbol representing the sun, we may, then, make the connection or dual meaning of the sun producing heat and the hearth serving as a source of warmth.

Fig. 3. Solar-Celestial Phenomena.

A solar disk and tail (see fig. 4): If we keep the theme of solar disk; an attached tail may be interpreted as taking the form of a comet or celestial phenomena resulting in a plasma stream leaving a trail in the sky/heavens. This same shape may, at the same time, represent a serpent swallowing an egg.

Fig. 4. Solar disk with tail.
Fig. 5. Solar-Celestial petroglyph at South Mountain Preserve.

This symbolism is reflected in the form of a large serpent mound found in Ohio (see fig. 6),  and reflected in other prehistoric peoples’ cultures from around the world. The Ohio serpent mound is thought to have been created by the ancestors of the Hopi Peoples. A member of the Hopi Snake Clan interpreted the mound as follows: the oval mound represents a village; the jaws of the serpent protect the village, the extension from the mouth illustrating the snakes’ ability to bring forth light; the small hills on each side of its body representing its eyes and its head facing west marking the journey beginning to the west (Waters, 1963).

Fig. 6. Ohio serpent mound (Smithsonian, 1848).


  • Petroglyph Photography: Justin Olson, 2006-2017
  • Petroglyph Illustrations: Justin Olson, 2017.
  • Serpent Mound Illustration: Squier and Davis’s map from Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1848.
  • Bahr, Donald, et al. The Hohokam Chronicles: The Short Swift Time of gods on Earth. University of California Press, 1994.
  • Bostwick, Todd. Landscape of the Spirits: Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park. The University of Arizona Press, 2002.
  • Waters, Frank. Book of the Hopi: The first revelation of the Hopi’s historical and religious World-View of life. The Penguin Group, 1963.