Learn about Rock Art

From painted pictographs to carved, pecked, or incised petroglyphs, rock art offers a window into the beliefs and experiences of prehistoric peoples.

Overview

Prehistoric Rock Art

Rock art comprises images made on rock surfaces (boulders, cliffs, caves, etc.) or boulders and cobbles that were arranged to form patterns (geoglyphs). Rock art is found throughout the world and ranges in age from ca. 40,000 years ago to the recent past. In the Great Basin, it spans the period 10,500 years ago (and perhaps as much as 14,800 years ago) to the nineteenth century.

Rock art is strongly associated with hunter-gatherers (particularly in Ice Age Europe, Australia, and South Africa) but also with pastoralists (in North Africa) and farmers in Southeast Asia and Europe. European Ice Age cave art has been widely studied because it seemed to offer a window on the development of fully human cognition. Australian rock art’s detailed ethnographic contexts demonstrated the complex social uses of rock art, disproving that it was only the result of artistic impulses.

The Great Basin’s rich tradition of prehistoric rock art occurs in association with mundane domestic activities (such as seed or plant processing). It provides evidence that prehistoric hunter-gatherers (like their descendant communities) led complex cultural lives and complements the picture of their lives derived from the archaeological remains of economic activities.

The main types of Great Basin rock art are:

Petroglyphs

Images made by removing the patina of a rock face by pecking or pounding, scratching, or abrading. This is the most common type of Great Basin rock art and it usually occurs in open settings. Petroglyphs are more durable and erode at a much slower rate than pictographs, the other main form of Great Basin rock art.

Pictographs

Images made by applying pigment (“paint”) or charcoal to a rock face. Pictographs are very fragile and sensitive to exposure to the elements. They survive best in protected settings, such as caves or rock shelters, and are much less frequent than petroglyphs.

Dating

How Old Is Great Basin Rock Art?

Lincoln County rock art is representative of wider Great Basin rock art traditions, albeit with a distinctive regional expression. The age and purpose of Great Basin rock art are not well understood and determining its age and stylistic evolution is complicated by many factors. Rock art was reused and its locations revisited. Superimpositioning of design elements and discernible differences in the surface patination of designs show that rock art was made and modified episodically over long periods. Some rock art sites appear to have provoked cultural responses over hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. This makes chronologies and evolutionary trends rather generalized.

Great Basin and Lincoln County rock art predominantly take the form of petroglyphs. These can rarely be scientifically dated, as they are not usually found in dateable, stratified deposits, and generally lack organic or other materials that can be radiocarbon dated. Pictographs do contain organic or other materials that can be radiocarbon dated. However, taking a sample for radiocarbon dating is destructive. Only in cases where painted material has flaked off its parent rock art panel are such analyses tried. The general lack of scientific dating opportunities means that the age of rock art sites is often estimated by using relative dating methods:

Iconographic Analysis

Dating rock art by its portrayal of objects and themes of known age.


Stylistic Analysis

Dating rock art because its style is of known age.


Contextual

Using rock art’s proximity to archaeological remains of known age to provide a general indication of when people were using its location.


Superimpositioning

Determining relative sequences as rock art that overlies other rock art is more recent than the art it superimposes.


Identifying artifacts or themes of known age portrayed in rock art (iconographic analysis) allows a broad estimate of the age of rock art. Only a narrow range of such subjects is portrayed in Great Basin rock art. Anthropomorphs with cowboy hats, or depictions of horses and wagons, for example, are easy to identify as Contact period and historic rock art. Dateable prehistoric themes are generally limited to rare portrayals of projectile points (i.e., dart or arrow points) and, rather more frequent but still statistically minor, the atlatl and the bow. The latter only allow for a broad Middle or Late Archaic age determination (ca. 5,500-700 years ago).

Despite the limitations in knowledge of the chronology of much Great Basin rock art, it is clear from contextual evidence that its production and use span the history of human settlement of the Great Basin, albeit concentrated in the Middle and Late Archaic. The oldest site, Winnemucca Lake (northwestern Nevada), is believed to be at least 10,500 years old, and possibly as old as 14,800 years old. It is also the oldest rock art site in North America to be dated by scientific methods. The rock art here was indirectly dated based on the age of carbonate crusts, formed by deep lakes, similar to those overlaying the rock art. The site is believed to have a distinctive style of abstract imagery, the Great Basin Carved Abstract (GBCA). This style comprises deeply pecked designs with wide lines that are densely packed and leave little white or negative space. Other examples of this style are much younger in age. For example, at Massacre Lake (northern Nevada), organic material trapped in patina covering rock art in this style was radiocarbon dated to 4,000-2,900 years ago.

Rock art at Massacre Lake
Rock art at Massacre Lake

Sites such as Winnemucca Lake show that the most ancient rock art sites currently known are in the northern Basin, dating to the earliest phases of the region’s settlement by people. This oldest rock art style (GBCA) is not well represented in Lincoln County, though a small number of examples of this style are known near Kane Springs Valley. In general, rock art appears to become more common over time as populations grew and human settlement expanded to fill most of the Great Basin. Thematic elements such as atlatls and the bow show that many sites probably date to the Middle and Late Archaic (ca. 5,500-700 years ago); historic themes (cowboys and horses) show that some rock art was made around the Contact period. This chronology of rock art is supported by the age of associated archaeological materials at rock art sites, which are most frequently represent settlement debris from Middle and Late Archaic logistical camps and work areas, a pattern shared by Lincoln County.

Rock art at Winnemucca Lake
Rock art at Winnemucca Lake
Formal Qualities

Styles of Rock Art

Styles of rock art are identified by considering how artists made it and what they chose to portray. The choices that prehistoric artists made were constrained by their cultural beliefs. Artists are not free to portray whatever they like however they want. Cultural beliefs establish what subjects can be portrayed and how these are to be depicted. In most cultures artists select from a set of styles depending on context. Art that portrays everyday life tends to be stylistically different from those depicting ceremonial themes. For example, in parts of Australia, rock paintings portraying ancestral beings are stylistically very different from rock art made by the same artists for the purposes of sorcery. The former are very formal and carefully made, in contrast to the more elemental rock paintings made for sorcery.

Archaeologists try to assign different styles to specific periods and relate them to known archaeological cultures. But archaeologists recognize that it is not straightforward to attribute specific rock art styles with individual archaeological cultures. Individual cultures usually have several styles of art that are used for different purposes, similar to having different styles of ceramic vessels for different functions. Styles of art and artifacts are also the result of cultural and social practices that may be shared by different cultures (such as the Ghost Dance movement).

Great Basin rock art ranges from abstract designs to schematic representations that closely resemble people or animals (“representational” designs). Abstract motif types predominate throughout the region. These are difficult to separate into individual styles because their shapes are often very similar. Individual styles are most easily recognized by identifying the different choices made by artists in what themes to portray and in how to depict those themes (form and method). The best-defined Great Basin rock art styles, therefore, are based on distinctive stylistic treatments of people and animals.

Pit and Groove example
Pit-and-groove style

Pit-and-groove

Circular depressions, usually a few centimeters wide and deep, pecked or ground on boulders are called cupules or the Pit-and-groove style. These are very distinctive in appearance and were once believed to be the earliest Great Basin rock art style. At Grimes Point (western Nevada), cupules on basalt boulders have been coated by patina so dark (and therefore old) that they are very hard to see. Cupules are not abundant in the Great Basin and are also found in association with Late Archaic or Late Prehistoric archaeological remains, indicating that they cannot be assumed to always be of great antiquity.

Basin and Range rectilinear example
Basin and Range rectilinear motifs
Basin and Range curvilinear example
Basin and Range curvilinear motifs

Basin and Range Tradition

The abundant curvilinear and rectilinear abstract designs found throughout the Great Basin culture area are called either Basin and Range tradition or Western Archaic Tradition. Curvilinear motifs comprise a wide variety of circular designs (such as concentric circles, connected circles, spirals, dots, etc.), curvilinear meanders, and serpentine lines. Rectilinear motifs comprise grids, rectangles, rakes, cross-hatching, etc. Only a limited range of animal species are portrayed in Great Basin rock art. By far the most common zoomorphic theme is bighorn sheep, with other mammals and reptiles portrayed in small numbers.

Curvilinear motifs usually predominate, accompanied by rectilinear motifs, smaller numbers of stick-figure anthropomorphs, and a narrow range of animal species. Basin and Range tradition rock art spans the Archaic and the Late Prehistoric (8,000-150 years ago) and is strongly associated with Archaic hunter-gatherer cultures in the Desert West. It is a less prominent component of anthropomorph styles associated with Fremont and Western Puebloan groups in the region.

Fremont Anthropomorphs
Fremont Anthropomorph Style
Coso Anthropomorph Style
Coso Anthropomorph Style
Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style
Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style
Stick Figure Anthropomorphs
Stick figure anthropomorphs

Anthropomorphs

The best-defined styles are distinctive styles of anthropomorphs and bighorn sheep, and mostly developed during the Late Archaic. These “representational” styles, with the exception of the Coso and Pahranagat Anthropomorph Styles, are typically associated with Fremont and Western Puebloan cultures (ca. 2,000-750 years ago) in southeastern Nevada (including Lincoln County), Utah, and the Colorado Plateau. These semi-horticultural groups made rock art that included stylized anthropomorphs that share common attributes of trapezoidal, rectangular, or triangular body shapes. These were often portrayed with bodily decoration such as headgear, jewelry, or decorated clothing.

Anthropomorphs with similar attributes were also made by Archaic hunter-gatherers in southeastern Nevada and the Cosos (eastern California). The Pahranagat anthropomorph style is broadly contemporaneous with Fremont and Western Puebloan rock art styles, though its origins lie in the Middle Archaic. The age of Coso style rock art is poorly defined, but appears to be concentrated in the Middle Archaic. A general evolutionary sequence is apparent that stylized anthropomorphs seem to be a later development, with the exception of the Coso style.

Rock art found in Sevier Fremont territory (western Utah but extending into eastern Nevada and fairly well-represented in Lincoln County) is the most schematic or stylized of these anthropomorph styles. It comprises triangular and trapezoidal anthropomorphs, usually lacking legs, sometimes with arms, and often with headgear and ear decoration, made as pictographs or petroglyphs. At their most schematic, these are trapezoid outlines that closely resemble the shape of Fremont clay figurines.

To the south and bordering Lincoln County, Western Puebloan groups made distinctive rock art (West Virgin Kayenta style) in western Utah, the Valley of Fire and lower Moapa Valley, Nevada. These Western Puebloan rock art anthropomorphs have triangular, rectangular, or hour-glass shaped bodies, sometimes with “horns” or headgear. Most of these formal attributes are characteristic of Fremont anthropomorph styles though their visual appearance is somewhat different. This suggests that cultural practices and knowledge distinctive to Fremont or Western Puebloan peoples did occasionally cross cultural boundaries. Alternatively, the anthropomorphic traditions of both cultures may represent variations on shared cultural practices that symbolized social status through public presentation of self and manifested in rock art.

Both cultures were experiencing far-reaching economic, social, and settlement changes—i.e., the development of horticulture, reduced mobility, and resulting increases in population, more permanent villages, perhaps greater social stratification, and sporadic social conflict. The stylized anthropomorphs of these cultures may have represented new social positions and statuses that arose from economic and settlement changes, as well as being used in social practices aimed at gaining acceptance of these changes by managing social tensions by presenting them through the legitimating lens of symbolic culture.

Although the age and cultural affiliation of Lincoln County’s distinctive Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style is somewhat unclear, based on the age of associated archaeological materials, it appears to be Middle and Late Archaic in age. This age range fits with the general pattern of distinctive anthropomorph styles largely being a Late Archaic development

Interpretation

What Does It Mean?

There are various perspectives from which to approach the question of rock art’s meaning. One meaning is the cultural significance rock art has for contemporary Native Americans, as an expression of their long tenure on the land and their connection with their ancestors and spirit beings of the world. From an archaeological perspective, meaning is reconstructing the role rock art played in prehistoric societies.

Although rock art is a system of communication (but not writing), trying to recover specific interpretations placed upon it by its makers and users is not possible without insider commentary. For prehistoric cultures, there is no insider commentary to tell us about rock art’s original “meaning.” Even with indigenous commentary, as among African or Australian indigenous communities, social anthropology shows that art has multiple symbolic meanings contingent on context. The same design may mean different things to different people depending on their age, sex, and social position. It often may have different meanings for the same person at various stages of life. For archaeology, explaining rock art is about understanding the ways that people used rock art in their cultural lives, as its original meanings cannot be recovered.

One thing that rock art makes clear is that prehistoric cultural attitudes to the landscape were not solely based on economic considerations. Ethnographically, Great Basin peoples recognized supernatural power as distributed in patterned ways across the landscape and as potentially residing in animals, plants, or other natural objects. It is unlikely that prehistoric populations conceived of the landscape as culturally neutral. Rock art, as it serves no obvious “utilitarian” purpose, seems to represent places that were important to visit for mainly social or cultural reasons. Although widespread, rock art only marks a fraction of the environment used by prehistoric populations. It is strongly associated with logistical campsites and economic activity areas away from village or aggregation sites. Even very dense concentrations of rock art are frequently associated with comparatively slight habitation debris. Prehistoric rock art is not the casual byproduct of other economic activities in its vicinity, otherwise most campsites and work areas would also have been accompanied by rock art.

Archaeological Findings

Lincoln County Rock Art

The general pattern of a strong association between rock art and logistical camps is illustrated well in Lincoln County. The area was settled by hunter-gatherers for most of prehistory but borders Late Archaic Fremont and Western Puebloan cultural developments, with a brief Fremont presence in the eastern half of the county. Approximately 200 prehistoric rock art sites have been identified in the county, concentrated in the west-central half of the county in the Pahranagat Valley area and, in the east, along the Meadow Valley Wash drainage. Two-thirds of sites are small concentrations of rock art (fewer than 15 rock art panels) and cover a small area. The largest sites and major rock concentrations are in the west in the areas of Badger Valley, Pahranagat Valley, and Sixmile Flat. Rock art spans the Archaic and Late Prehistoric, but based on themes in the art and the age of associated archaeological features, most rock art sites seem to belong to the Middle Archaic, Late Archaic, and Late Prehistoric.

Bighorn sheep figure
Zoomorphs such as bighorn sheep figures are abundant in Lincoln County's rock art assemblages

Basin and Range tradition is the most common rock art style in Lincoln County and is generally representative of its broader Great Basin expression. Abstract designs account for approximately 80% of all rock art imagery in the county and co-occurs with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery throughout the county. Thousands of curvilinear and rectilinear motif types are represented in Lincoln County rock art; curvilinear motifs are the most abundant type, making up 31% of all individual motifs, while rectilinear and simple linear combined make up 25% of all designs. Circles, bisected circles, concentric circles, circles connected in a line, and circles with external radial lines are by far the most common curvilinear motif types (44% of all curvilinear types) and resemble closely the form and relative abundance of similar designs in other regions of the Great Basin. Rectilinear designs most commonly take the form of rectangles and rake-like forms (two-thirds of all rectilinear motif types) and are more prominent in the county than their counterparts in the northern Great Basin.

Portrayals of bighorn sheep make up 10% of all rock art designs found and are much more frequent than portrayals of people. Bighorn sheep images are widely distributed but are more abundant in the western half of the county. Here, large concentrations in the Badger Valley and Mount Irish areas have hundreds of bighorn sheep figures, typified by sites adjacent Red Pigment Canyon/Shooting Gallery III and Paiute Rocks. Away from these two areas, bighorn sheep figures generally occur in small numbers (five or fewer) at sites. Only a limited range of other animal species are portrayed, usually in small numbers, principally coyotes, deer, and ambiguous serpentine lines that might be schematized snakes. Overall, Lincoln County’s rock art is representative of the Great Basin preference for rock art dominated by abstract imagery with bighorn sheep as the main animal depicted. However, zoomorphic imagery is more prominent (and abundant) in the county’s rock art assemblages than those in the central and northern Great Basin.

Anthropomorphs account for about 5% of the county’s rock art designs, with Fremont style, Pahranagat style, and stick-figure anthropomorphs occurring in roughly equal numbers. Stick-figure anthropomorphs are widely distributed but their Fremont and Pahranagat style counterparts are localized in their distribution.

Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style PBA variant
Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style PBA Variant
Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style with solid-pecked body
Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style with solid-pecked body

The Pahranagat Anthropomorph Style is unique to Lincoln County and comprises two distinct variants; one a headless (usually) pattern-body anthropomorph (PBA) and the other with a solid-pecked body. The PBA variant is rectangular in form, internally decorated (with grids, dots, or geometric motifs) and “fringed” by short vertical lines. This type often lacks a head but has stick-figure legs and short arms that sometimes hold an atlatl-like object. The second type has a solid-pecked oval or rectangular body, large eyes (indicated by using negative space), and a line protruding from the head; the arms are portrayed down-turned and with long fingers. This anthropomorph style is known from about 27 sites ranging from the Delamar Mountains in the south, White River Narrows in the north, Mount Irish in the west, and Kane Springs Canyon to the east. It only occurs in large numbers (over 60 figures) at two sites in Pahranagat Valley and nearby Delamar Valley. About 220 PBAs are known compared to about 60 solid-body types.

This style is dated to the Middle and Late Archaic because nearly a third of PBAs are portrayed holding what appears to be an atlatl and the major Pahranagat style sites are associated with archaeological materials that span the Middle Archaic through the Late Prehistoric. The landscape settings of most known sites appear to have been most intensively used for seasonal campsites by small groups that had dispersed from large villages. This rock art style has continuing cultural significance for contemporary Numic peoples in the region.

Fremont anthropomorphs are concentrated in the eastern half of the county in Meadow Valley Wash and upper Kane Springs. These belong to the Sevier style and have triangular or trapezoidal torsos, and triangular or rectangular heads, made as either petroglyphs (at open sites) or pictographs (in rockshelters). Fremont anthropomorphs occur in small numbers, rarely exceeding 10 at a site. Fremont work parties making forays from larger Fremont village sites to the north and east made these small rock art sites. Either they were made while carrying out other resource procurement activities or represent expeditions to visit culturally significant places located in areas otherwise peripheral to Fremont settlement activities.

The Basin and Range tradition component of Lincoln County’s rock art is associated with archaeological materials that span the Middle Archaic through the Late Prehistoric. These rock art sites generally co-occur with evidence of relative minor economic activities, foraging and resource processing, or short-term campsites. The latter were the locus for a wide range of hunting and foraging activities and were used by social groups ranging in size from specialized foraging or hunting parties to a small number of family households. These foraging and hunting expeditions were made to take advantage of seasonally available resources (economic and cultural) as environmental conditions permitted. Rock art indicates that certain places in the landscape had a cultural significance despite the economic costs of visiting and using such places. Although enigmatic, rock art does show that social practices and beliefs played some role in shaping how cultures categorized their environment and its resources, much like ethnographic Great Basin peoples.

About LCAI

The Bureau of Land Management administers the Lincoln County Archaeological Initiative (LCAI) to support archaeological projects in Lincoln County and to carry out the archaeological provisions of the Lincoln County Land Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-298) and the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, Development Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-424). Projects funded by the LCAI focus on the inventory, evaluation, protection, and management of unique archaeological resources in Lincoln County, NV. Projects must be within Lincoln County and address specific priorities.

Contact Special Legislation Ely District

Ely District Office
702 N. Industrial Way
Ely, NV 89301

Mindy Seal
Special Legislation Program Manager
775-289-1800

Contact LCAI Lincoln County, Nevada

Caliente Field Office
PO Box 237
1400 S. Front Street
Caliente, NV 89008

Robert "Jake" Hickerson
Archaeologist, LCAI Project Manager
775-726-8100

Project Team

The Basin and Range National Monument 3D Documentation Pilot Study team was led by Architectural Resources Group. The Center of Preservation Research at the University of Colorado, Denver completed the 3D data collection. G2 Archaeology and the Nevada Rock Art Foundation selected the sample sites and features, and provided project support. All work was overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

This website was built using Arches, an open source GIS-enabled data management system for built heritage. LegionGIS led the development, customization, and data modeling of the The Basin and Range National Monument 3D Documentation Pilot Study Arches site with assistance from Coherit Associates LLC. The project's source code is freely available on GitHub and is using Arches version 4.4.x. The project's source code was based on the Arches package developed by Global Digital Heritage.

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