While sweating in the arid Arizona desert, we drove through a vast, inhospitable stretch of the Petrified Forest National Park. On an unassuming road, marked only with a small wooden sign, lays a path to one of the largest and well-preserved collections of petroglyphs here in the United States.
Petroglyphs vs. Pictographs
Petroglyphs are carvings made directly into rocks. Pictographs, on the other hand, are painted onto the surface of the rock. Newspaper Rock boasts over 650 petroglyphs from a variety of tribes that frequented the area, such as the Anasazi, Navajo, and Pueblo. When you have desert rocks, they can develop a coating known as desert varnish. This layer is darker than the rock itself and can be carved away with the right tools and effort. Petroglyphs appear when people carve off the desert varnish to reveal the reddish color of the rocks underneath.
Many of the petroglyphs are crescents, small human figures, animals, swirls, and a few other patterns. While many of the glyphs came from the Pueblo people, there have been many authors over a long stretch of time, extending from the prehistoric era to the historic periods of more modern times. The glyphs can be clan markings or have special spiritual meanings. Others could also be used to mark special calendar events, although we may never know the exact meaning of them. The National Park Service has enlisted the help of modern members of the tribal authors to discern meaning and interpret symbols carved into the rocks.
My visit was hot and arid. I could see the earth evaporating feet in front of me, blurring my vision and giving the horizon an unsettling serpentine shape. At the outlook, there are two sets of binoculars which are scalding hot if you hold them for too long. Looking to the right wall shows swirls and men while looking almost straight downward from the children’s binocular set yields a different set entirely. It was a good view and interesting to be so close to them. I wish we could have gone close, but I understand the need to preserve the carvings. I would recommend going in the cooler months of fall and winter, possibly early spring, so you can take your time and absorb the petroglyphs and all their history.