The Arizona Petroglyphs: A Catalyst for Connecting with Ancient Culture
I swerved off the road, slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, sending dust flying up from the desert floor. Squinting in the hard sun, I stood transfixed by the horizon, where a yin-yang performance of earth and sky played out. Against the backdrop of a cornflower-blue sky, and atop the mountain range in the distance, a curving white bank of clouds undulated in a weird rhythm.
In a cosmic game of musical chairs, puffy cumulus clouds wafted along at a steady clip then suddenly paused and dropped into the lap of a valley below. Each gauzy ball of weather nestled briefly in the gap between the purple peaks, with a wispy white arm draped across the shoulder of the summit ahead. Then, synchronized to a divine beat I couldn’t hear, each cloud rose at the same time, gracefully rolling up the pinnacle before it and the cha-cha line again moved on.
I’m not really sure how long I stood on the roadside and watched the atmospheric tumbleweeds blow by; eventually the sound of another car on the lonely highway interrupted my reverie. As it whizzed by, I felt a blush of foolishness, self-conscious at being caught in the act of staring at the sky.
Back at the wheel and down the road, I gave myself a mental high-five for spotting a small sign I could have easily missed and veered off the highway in the direction indicated. I headed down a rutted road carved by tire tracks into an endless expanse of red dirt, dotted here and there with lonely crooked cacti. Passing a deep river bed etched into the dry, rust-colored earth, I reflected that it was likely to be surging with spring runoff in a couple of months.
I pulled into a parking lot with a lone car in it. Still not completely sure that I was in the right place, I grabbed my camera bag, slammed the door and looked expectantly around. As if on cue, a couple appeared over the horizon and walked toward me. Yes, they said, this is the V-Bar-V site; they pointed me toward what I had come to see.
I set off through a meadow of tall pale grass, following the trail as it sloped gently downhill and then branched into two, creating an iconic fork in the road. A week earlier I had been issuing instructions to a CEO ; today I stood frozen in a field, befuddled by the simple choice of going left or right. In an alien landscape lacking all the familiar indicators that made reflexive my every action at home, I paused to listen, for what I couldn’t say.
With that act of openness, I awakened a long dormant clarity, hearing with great intensity sounds around me that I had been oblivious to moments earlier. Birds called and I was actually able to discern the distinctive cries. I detected the murmur of moving water nearby. I noticed branches lightly clapping together, rustled by the same wind that drove the dancing clouds.
I chose the right fork and soon entered a wooded area, which eventually opened to small clearing at the base of a massive cliff, shaded by the surrounding trees. Approaching the red wall, a shaft of sunlight penetrated the foliage canopy, and the petroglyphs that I had come to see came alive.
The Rock Art at Beaver Creek
Thirteen “panels” were festooned with more than 1,000 drawings made by the Southern Sinagua Indians. The slab of sandstone was crammed with a concentrated mass of symbols—stick figures, turtles, swirls. Unlike other sites that display rock art from numerous peoples, only one style is represented here — known as Beaver Creek and believed to have been rendered between A.D. 1150 and 1400.
One of the panels, on the far left of the rock formation, unmistakably resembled a human profile, complete with a forehead, nose, upper lip and chin. In exactly the spot where an eye would be located, an ancient glyph in the shape of a circular spiral sat. In other places, figures seem to emerge from cracks, as well as dive downward and raise hands upward. It’s believed that some of these elements represent shamanistic practices to encourage rain or enhance fertility.
On one level, I was a kindred spirit to the creators of this primitive but powerful mural; I too often felt my head was filled with a jumble of vivid, feverish and slightly cartoonish characters careening off each other. On another level, even as a devotee of archaeology and anthropology, I wondered how we could ever know what had inspired this artistry, what had moved the mind and heart of a Sinagua man or women to lift their arm to this red wall to forge an expression of themselves.
V-Bar-V’s rock art has been the subject of study by archaeoastronomers, practitioners of an emerging discipline that combines astronomy with cultural anthropology. These scientists seek to interpret the meaning of phenomena in the sky for ancient people and the role of the heavens in their daily life here on earth. Then, as now, knowledge is power and observing atmospheric occurrences enabled these early people to exert some degree of control over their environment, which led to societal changes, like moving from hunting and gathering to farming. Even with cultural shifts that significant, the concept of time and the pace of life for the Sinagua was light years from today’s 24/7, “I need it yesterday” mentality. I imagined there being much more space for deep intuition and insight to dawn.
For 25 years I had run my life on a rigorous schedule driven by ruthless conviction. I believed that if I reasoned long enough, or analyzed hard enough, I could wring out an answer to any dilemma. Every email had become urgent, every call, life or death. Uncertainty was to be avoided at all cost.
One week into my new life, and alone with the musings of the ancient Sinagua, I placed my hand on a depiction of a paw print, the rock face cool to the touch. How magical to not know, but marvel and wonder instead.