In April 2019, I went on a field trip to see petroglyphs & pictographs in Harney County, in eastern Oregon. This is one of the many trips offered as a part of the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. Our guides that day were Bureau of Land Management archaeologists, Scott Thomas and Carolyn Temple.
One of the first things we learned was the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs.
Pictographs, like the images shown below, are painted onto rocks. These works are generally drawn with red, black, white, or yellow paint.
Pictographs frequently include depictions of animals. For example, the drawing at the top of the picture below appears to be a lizard.
Other works are classified as rectilinear abstracts. This form regularly includes straight lines, zigzags, lines resembling a rake, squares, chevrons, and other elements.
Abstract styles are fairly common in the northern part of the Great Basin. The pictograph below shows examples of the curvilinear abstract form. It includes circles, curvilinear meanders, dots, arcs, tally circles, together with more complex figures.
Petroglyphs are made by grinding and pecking rock away to form an image.
Abstract forms are also common in petroglyphs. These may include circles, connected circles, dots, curvilinear meanders, in addition to zigzagging and straight lines.
Our guides referred to the petroglyph below as the “super 8 movie camera.” Can you see the resemblance?
Zigzagging and straight lines are carved into the rock at the top of this petroglyph.
Significance and age of petroglyphs & pictographs
You may be wondering what these petroglyphs and pictographs represent. No one knows for sure. Some believe they document a specific event, such as a successful hunt. Others believe they were part of a religious ceremony or group history. However, they may also have been created as an artistic expression. All of these theories may in fact be correct.
It is also difficult to determine how old these images are. Sometimes researchers can use the lichens growing on the rocks or C-14 dating to age the petroglyphs and pictographs. When they studied rock art in nearby Lake County, they got a lucky break. Ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,600 years ago covered the images. As a result, this helped them determine those particular images were at least that old. Creating rock art is an ancient practice that has existed for thousands of years.
Preserving the images and seeing them in new way
Our guides made a point of reminding us how fragile these images are. For instance, if you touch them, the oil in your skin can cause pictograph paint to deteriorate. Permanent damage has occurred as a result of visitors making rubbings of carved images. Unfortunately, as we witnessed, images in rural areas are often used for target practice. Due to the negligent actions of a few, access to some sites is limited. Our group helped preserve the images by documenting what we saw only with photographs.
The guides mentioned a really cool way to see more of the faint drawings. If you go to dstretch.com, you can get a plugin that allows you to “see” pigments impossible to see with the naked eye. I was out of cell range and couldn’t get the plugin but others had it. Wow! You see images where it looks like there are none. Impressive. Maybe next time…