Saturday Art and Archaeology: Big Bend Chimney Rocks Petroglyphs
The ancient rock drawings found at the Big Bend National Park Chimneys have been viewed and enjoyed by hikers in that remote park for aeons, about two and a half hours away from the trailhead. They are much photographed, but little written about them. There were two tribes that traveled through the Big Bend, Apache and Comanche, and some Apache settlements like Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico, retain that heritage.
Like many of the puzzles left by tribes that were present here, the sites of their rock art have symbols we can guess about and some that are found repeated in other, similar, petroglyph displays in other territories where American natives left their message.
Paintings are found throughout the Big Bend area, for instance, that are not related to the Pecos River style. Among the Big Bend sites are Rock Pile Ranch, Fort Davis, Lewis Canyon (the one site that is mostly petroglyphs), Study Butte, and Comanche Springs. Other places where rock paintings have been found include Nolan County, Winkler County, Paint Rock (near the Concho River in northern Concho County), and Lehmann Rock Shelter (northwest of Fredericksburg). Most of these rock-art sites cannot be attributed to any one Indian group, and probably the drawings were done or added to by many different individuals. The paintings and petroglyphs vary in age; some are estimated to be thousands of years old, while others date only from the 1700s and 1800s and are of Plains origins. In some cases the figures represented are an indication of the relative age of the rock art. For example, the absence or inclusion of horses, guns, missions, and white men (and the sequence in which they appear) helps in dating the relatively modern drawings. These more recent drawings, however-which are often mixed in with the older work-along with vandalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have made age determinations more difficult.
The resemblance to petroglyphs elsewhere in the park that are also found at the Hot Springs area seems to indicate there was a native population, all communicating in a way we do not have the key to interpret.
The symbols include circles, which are interpreted in a variety of ways, and the snake-like crooking lines that often are read as a power marking, along with several others.
Despite volumes of scholarly study, no one can say with certainty what the etchings/paintings meant to the artists and their culture, but, clearly, rock art was not, as some have theorized, mere idle doodling, a kind of prehistoric “tagging.” Rock is not an easy medium to work. The more elaborate petroglyphs took many perfectly placed hits to create and required untold hours to complete. Hunting and gathering societies survived on a fine edge in a difficult landscape. Members of such societies had little time for idle doodling.
Rock art is also not a crude attempt at an alphabet or a universal language. It was not writing in the modern sense of the word. Panels of rock art cannot be read from left to right like the pages of a book.
Still, rock art may, like writing, may have served as storytelling symbols. It was a tangible attempt to portray human hopes and fears and beliefs in something more lasting than the spoken word. Each piece of rock art is like a verse in the long poem of our attempt to come to grips with the elements of both the physical and spiritual landscape in which we live. Rock art creates those verses in stone.
The images, like hieroglyphs, may represent interactions with the spirit world, display familiar icons, recount stories, record events, or mark trails, territorial boundaries, or locations where water could be found.
There are an infinite number of things one could think of that the symbols might mean. For example, there are at least five separate interpretations of a circle: That it represents the universe; a shield (the bird of prey was often associated with warrior societies); the sun; nearby water; or an eye (the all-seeing power of the bird-man). We may never learn what the person who carved or applied the paint intended the figures to be, whether a “work of art” in the modern sense, a ceremonial object, or a territorial marker. We have found no Rosetta Stone.
Our knowledge of rock art is scant, but visitors increasingly seek out these intriguing evidence of our past, and venture into scenic vast areas that the tribes knew and commented on with their art.