Despite the permanency the name implies, rock art has an unexpectedly ephemeral nature. It doesn’t announce itself but creeps up on you, appearing in places you’d least expect like the footprints of someone who’s passed before you. It is this very transitory nature of rock art that makes it both fascinating and extremely difficult to understand. Because of the large and unique collection of petroglyphs and rock structures in Southern Colorado, archaeologists in our area may one day be able to shed a little light on the meaning of rock art images all over the world.
The Picket Wire, or Purgatoire, Canyon area just south of Lamar has a large and well-preserved concentration of rock art that archaeologist Lawrence Loendorf of the University of New Mexico predicts will “be the key to understanding North American rock art.” The Purgatoire River running through the canyon is one of many tributaries that make up the Lower Arkansas River Valley, an area which extends through the southeastern corner of Colorado and into the Oklahoma Panhandle and Northwest Texas. This area has the highest concentration of rock art in North America and a cultural history going back tens of thousands of years.
Walking into the Purgatoire Canyon is like walking back in time. The canyon is huge—wide enough to be seen from space—and blanketed with long, savannah-like grasses, intersected by tall cottonwoods and tamarisk that line the river. On either side, the valley walls rise up and branch off into smaller canyons that remain largely unexplored. The canyon walls themselves are dotted with junipers and basalt boulders that run all the way down to the river bed like toys scattered in a child’s playroom. Considering that less than a century and a half ago the canyon had the humid, fertile environment of a rain forest, it’s not difficult to imagine the attraction of the oasis-like valley to settlers throughout history, from the Folsom Man to Spanish colonists.
And the rock art is everywhere: pieces chipped off from boulders litter the trail, and every rock seems to have some sort of petroglyph, although not in the most obvious places one would look.
Something that becomes immediately apparent when searching for rock art is how much seeing it depends on luck and subjectivity, even when the area is rich in petroglyphs. As Loendorf put it in his study of the Purgatoire Canyon, A Manual for Rock Art Documentation,
“ … in practice it can be very difficult to decide if marks on a rock are the result of a tree limb blowing against the surface or the product of a human artist. It can be equally difficult to decide if a series of marks is purposeful, not fortuitous.” He also points out that finding rock art can depend largely on such changeable conditions as lighting and recent rains.
Loendorf has been studying the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, or PCMS, since 1989 and is the world’s foremost expert on petroglyphs in Southern Colorado. The PCMS itself is not part of the Purgatoire Canyon, but borders the northeast side of it.
According to Loendorf there are three major types of rock art in the area: biographic, which are incised scenes of warfare similar to ledger drawings and buffalo skin paintings; visionary and shamanistic images like handprints, which are the most common images in the PCMS; and what Loendorf refers to as “doodles,” or very abstract shapes such as squiggly lines and spirals.
These types of petroglyphs are not unique to Colorado. Handprint petroglyphs can be found all over the world; and when seen in conjunction with human figures they are believed to be a sign that the art is shamanistic in purpose, as if the print is capturing the artist’s soul. Spirals or concentric circles are also a worldwide phenomenon. In the Southwest they are often associated with shields, but are sometimes also connected to astronomy.
That being said, there are certain types of rock art that can only be found in the Purgatoire Canyon and PCMS site. These petroglyphs are anthropomorphs or quadruped figures who face the viewer and have knobby knees and digitate hands. They were created by the mysterious Apishapa (also spelled Apishipa) Culture, a group unique to Southern Colorado who inhabited the Lower Arkansas River Valley between 2,000 and 500 years ago. They’re mostly known for building rock structures like the “Stonehenge” type ruins found in the Apishapa State Wildlife Area, about 20 miles east of Walsenburg. But there are also examples of their rock structures in the PCMS and Purgatoire Canyon.
Unlike other inhabitants of North America during this time period (between about 1050 and 1450 AD), who were developing a more sedentary lifestyle, the Apishapas remained semi-nomadic even though they were building permanent stone structures. These structures were probably used for visionary and shamanistic purposes, not as homes or shelters, and some sites have material dating from the Paleoindian and Archaic periods, suggesting the sites themselves might have been in use up to 10,000 years ago, around the time when the “Folsom Man” lived in nearby Folsom, New Mexico. No matter how long the stone structures were in use, though, one can infer from the continuity of the Purgatoire Style of rock art and archaeological evidence that there was a continuous culture existing in Southern Colorado up until about 500 years ago, when a sudden break in the style of rock art coincided with the disappearance of the Apishapas and the arrival of Plains tribes like the Apache.
No one knows what caused this break in cultures, but Loendorf speculates it was a combination of drought and the arrival of Europeans, which brought the availability of new tools such as horses and the uprising of a warrior culture. Unlike the Apishapas, the Apache (one of the first recognizable tribes to inhabit the area) liked to decorate their sacred caves with the images of their deities, as well as use caves in conjunction with cattail pollen to induce visions, which so far has not been found in the rock shelters of the PCMS. They also favored biographic images in their rock art, which is very rare in the Purgatoire Canyon. Instead, rock shelter-rich areas such as the one around the Dolores Mission and Cemetery have petroglyphs pecked or painted onto boulders outside of the rock shelters, never inside. According to Loendorf, the boulders were crude stone altars used by Apishapa shamans who drew figures “on the ground near them” to represent tribal deities.
No discussion of rock art in Southern Colorado would be complete without mentioning the work of the late William McGlone and Phil Leonard. Although not professional archaeologists, anthropologists, or art historians, they have probably done more research into the petroglyphs and stone structures of Southeastern Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle than anyone else in modern times. While their exploration and records are valuable, their contribution to the study of these petroglyphs is somewhat marred by their belief that the petroglyphs created by the Apishapa are actually Ogam, a form of writing developed by Irish monks sometime in the fourth century AD. They claim that reading Ogam inscriptions have led them to discover several archaeoastronomical sites, including Crack Cave in Picture Canyon and the Sun Temple, also in Southeastern Colorado. They also believe that some petroglyphs are a form of Northern Arabic writing.
The idea that petroglyphs are “saying something” is hardly surprising; as Loendorf puts it, “Art is not unlike language; when one element is placed on the wall, it plays a role in the next element.” However, aside from the presence of these supposed Ogam writings, there is no evidence of Western occupation in the Americas prior to the Vikings around 1000 AD, and then only in Newfoundland. Without proof of a Western presence, the theories of McGlone, Leonard, and others like them can only be interpreted as racist. By taking Native American inscriptions and monuments and labeling them as Ogam, Mithras, Anubis, Northern Semitic, Egyptian hieroglyphic, Apollo, and so on, they are essentially taking the history of Native Americans, erasing it, and replacing it with Western history!
Their claims would be too ridiculous to even warrant discussion if they weren’t regarded with so much credulity and if this practice wasn’t so wide spread in regards to Native American rock art. In 1994, for example, the discovery of Chauvet Cave, an Upper Paleolithic site in France with “wondrous” multicolored paintings, was featured in every major American newspaper. That same year, the Kaibab Paiute finished a study of cave paintings in the Grand Canyon which depicted the Ghost Dance and other images every bit as impressive as those in Chauvet Cave. Instead of mainstream media press coverage, however, they were featured in Weekly World News under the headline, “4,000-year-old UFO Found in Grand Canyon!” Even if these sensational claims are the only way to generate interest in rock art in North America, any attempt to remove American Indians from Native American rock art should be met with outrage.
Petroglyphs hardly need UFOs and secret histories to be interesting. Rock art is mysterious, and beautiful, and exciting, and for scholars trying to study it, occasionally frustrating. But possibly that is what it’s meant to be. One doesn’t have to understand or give a single meaning to everything one sees in order to appreciate it. Petroglyphs are artworks that are living and magical in a way that paintings in environmentally-controlled museums can’t match. While it is doubtful the petroglyphs and rock structures in Southeastern Colorado will ever be more comprehensively studied unless attitudes toward rock art change, the fact remains that the Purgatoire Canyon and the Lower Arkansas River Valley as a whole contains a wealth of history just waiting to be explored and admired.