Ancient Rock Art of The American West: Unnecessary Endangerment

Feb 10, 19 • 5enses, FeatureComments Off on Ancient Rock Art of The American West: Unnecessary Endangerment

IMAGE BY: Dale O’Dell

By Dale O’Dell

Normally when you see a sign on the bathroom door at a national park or monument it says something like, “Closed for cleaning.” It is definitely not normal to see a sign that reads, “Please Help Save…” the very place where you’re standing. Yet this is what I saw after wrapping up a photo shoot last year at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. I’d begun my documentary photography project of Ancient Rock Art at Newspaper Rock specifically because it is easy to locate and protected within Bears Ears. Well, I thought it was protected. The sign, as usual, made no difference whatsoever, and now the Monument has been reduced to 15 percent of its previous size and uranium miners are moving in. Newspaper Rock could be destroyed, or access to it denied by a mining company. The environmental impact will be destructive, permanent, and unnecessary.

Ancient American Indian rock art, petroglyphs (made by chipping rock surfaces) and pictographs (made by painting or dying rock surfaces), are found throughout the American west. The Native American artworks are between 500 & 4,000 years old and some are even more ancient. These are beautiful symbols and stories, permanently preserved in stone by ancient American Indian shaman-artists. Imagine the native artist of 2,000 years ago: He spent nearly every waking hour simply surviving — hunting, gathering, seeking water and shelter — and yet he still made art that survives to modern times.

IMAGE BY: Dale O’Dell

Today, the United States is such a major producer of oil and gas that it is not necessary to drill in national parks and monuments to meet demand. Nor is the country so mineral-poor that we need to destroy pristine national parks to get them. Despite this, the majority party of government seems hell-bent on shrinking or destroying our parks and monuments. This is nothing more than the politics of screw you. Since conservation is perceived as a “liberal” issue, and the ruling conservatives hate all things liberal they ‘win’ by un-doing “liberal” things, like protecting our collective archeological history. Over thirty sites in the Southwest are at-risk currently. No long-term studies have been done. No environmental impact statements have been written or published. Worst of all, the local native Indian tribes have not been consulted. This leadership style strikes me as not that much different from what ISIL has done by destroying the archeological art and cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria and Libya. I find it heartbreaking to see 1,500 year old mosques, shrines, churches, monasteries and other ancient and medieval sites blown up and destroyed for no reason other than ignorance and hatred. I don’t even care about the religious significance, simply preserving the art is enough.

Ancient rock art tells the story of who we were and we should not destroy our own human history. Political movements come and go but once this ancient art is gone, it’s gone forever. This should be obvious.

Ignorance has destroyed some rock art in America. From vandals with rifles who take potshots at pictographs to modern day graffiti artists who scratch their own “artworks” on top of ancient petroglyphs, this destruction is because of simple stupidity. What ISIL is doing is a deliberate and politically motivated destruction of the historical record. What’s happening in the U.S. is even more insidious, as the ruling party abdicates permanent preservation in favor of temporary profit. Allowing the potential destruction of ancient artifacts and artworks for reasons of politics and ignorance leaves all of us culturally poorer.

After the Palmyra Temple’s destruction in Syria in August of 2015, the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) announced plans to establish a digital record of historical sites and artifacts threatened by ISIL. To accomplish this goal, the IDA, in collaboration with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) will deploy 5,000 3D cameras to partners in the Middle East. The cameras will be used to capture 3D scans of local ruins and relics.

Documentary photographs will be the only record of these artifacts if the destruction continues. If America is to be truly “great again” we shouldn’t allow the destruction of our own native art history.

With politically-motivated urgency I’ve been documenting the ancient rock art. There is no imminent threat to these sites; so far, but we can no longer trust our governmental institutions to protect our artistic and cultural heritage. As an individual artist and documentarian I can add my imagery of American petroglyphs and pictographs to the cultural collective.

In 2018 I began a Go Fund Me campaign, GoFundMe.Com/documentary-photography-of-rock-art. I wanted to raise money to continue to travel and photograph as many rock art sites as possible. With more than 7,500 sites in the state of Utah alone it is a formidable task. Fortunately there is a lot of good, documentary style rock art photography already in existence and I can concentrate my efforts on the most at risk sites. My efforts are three-pronged: the first step is to document the petroglyph as it is today, with no post-processing retouching. The second step is to digitally retouch the image to remove signs of vandalism, destruction or decay. The goal is to return the image to as close to what the original ancient artist left for time. The third step is artistic. I’m entering into a “collaboration over time” with the ancient artist where I take what he left and use it as a starting point for a digital, impressionistic reinterpretation. A modernization of the ancient form.

It’s sad to think that petroglyphs and pictographs that have survived for thousands of years could be destroyed or rendered inaccessible because of one, contemporary political party’s apparent distaste for conservation. Collectively, we’ve done a good job since Teddy Roosevelt protecting our ancient archeological heritage. National parks and monuments, state parks, Bureau of Land Management conservation areas, etc., have been set aside for protection. Native American Indians have done a good job managing and preserving many historical sites in the West. We’ve even educated the stupidest of the stupid not to shoot guns at rock art or vandalize it with graffiti.

Ancient rock art is important because art history can trace a direct line from 20,000- year-old cave paintings in France to 2,000-year-old petroglyphs in Arizona to a contemporary artwork exhibited downtown. When describing rock art, a Zuni Elder once said, “I don’t know what it means, but I know it’s important.”

IMAGE BY: Dale O’Dell


Dale O’Dell will is the Featured Artist at The Raven Restaurant on Cortez Street downtown. His new work featuring petroglyphs will be exhibited from January 14 through February 24, 2019. The opening reception will be Wednesday night January 16. Open to the Public. See for yourself the magnificent art of the Petroglyph

If you’d like to contribute to Dale’s “Documentary Photography of Rock Art” project, please visit:

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Celebrating art and science in Greater Prescott.

↓ More ↓