Investigating the Mysteries of Native American Rock Art

By Eubanks, Paula | Art Education, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Investigating the Mysteries of Native American Rock Art


Eubanks, Paula, Art Education


Recommended for grades 4-8

A mystery is anything that is kept secret, remains unexplained, or is unknown. Mysteries are anything that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation. A mystery can also be a secret rite or ritual such as those depicted in the ancient Roman wall murals at the Villa of the Mysteries. Both approaches to the meaning of this word are important when investigating rock art. Almost nothing in archeology around the world has been the subject of so much speculation or such wild theories as the first images created by prehistoric peoples. Our lives today are so different from the lives of the people who made ancient rock art that it is hard to even imagine the contexts in which these works were made or the purposes of them. Some seem to have been just doodlings with no apparent meaning or purpose. Some rock art probably had practical purposes such as to mark territory, keep records, record events, or mark time as part of a solar calendar. Other rock art images, however, were likely made for ceremonial, religious, or magical purposes and probably involved the participation of a shaman, or ancient priest (Barnes, 1982). Since there are no written records, just the rock art and the mysteries surrounding it remain.

The oldest images made by our species, painted on and pecked into rock, are found all over the world. Almost anywhere exposed rock can be found, people made marks on it. The oldest rock art was made in Africa and Europe and is 8,000-14,000 years old (Coulson & Campbell, 2001). Rock art in North America is comparatively newer, only 3,000-5,000 years old. The Four Corners region, where Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado meet, is especially rich in rock art. Only archeological evidence of the Anasazi and Fremont cultures who lived in this area remains. Though no written records exist about the way of life of these people, it is possible to discern clues to the mysterious meanings and uses of rock art by examining possibly related cultural practices of the Native Americans who live in the Four Corners region today.

Solving mysteries is always an attractive proposition to students, but great care must be taken not to infer too much when speculating on the context in which this art was made. The principle of Ockham's Razor, that the simplest explanation is probably the best, is a good rule to follow (Barnes, 1982). Also it is important not to assume that any one explanation is correct until you have proof.

The study of rock art presents opportunities to use instructional strategies that encourage higher-level thinking (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Through engaging in the discussions, research, hypothesizing, and art activities presented in this Instructional Resource, the following learning objectives will be achieved:

* Students will cooperate to explore and record information about the geography, climate, geology of the Four Corners Region, and the contemporary culture of its native peoples.

* Students will generate hypotheses about the purposes of rock art and the lives of the people who made it.

* Students will compare rock art and contemporary images that are part of our visual culture, as well as the differences in the materials used to produce them.

* Students will create images on ceramic tiles, based upon impulses similar to those that might have motivated rock artists.

* Students will cooperate to create a mural depicting milestones in their lives and cultures, with paint made from natural pigments.

About the Artwork

Perfect Panel

Utah. 3,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE

The Anasazi pictographs on Perfect Panel are painted with natural pigments on the wall of an alcove high within a canyon, which is reached only by the most persistent climbers. Pictographs are paintings on light colored rock surfaces made with such natural pigments as blood, colored clays, and plant juices. …

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