wku logo

Anth 130 Introduction to Archaeology
Dr. Darlene Applegate
Fall 2007
Lab 3: Archaeological Interpretation - Rock Art


The eighth step in archaeological research design involves interpreting archaeological data in order to answer one’s research question. One type of artifact from which archaeologists can collect data is rock art. In this lab, students will use a rock art panel to develop interpretations about past human behavior. This lab relates to the archaeological goal of lifeways reconstruction, or the detailed description of the past culture of a group of people.




Rock art is the depiction of figures and symbols on rock outcrops, walls, or ceilings. It may be found in caves and rockshelters or out in the open. Rock art is considered a non-portable form of expression, meaning it is recorded on rock faces that cannot be transported from one place to another. There are two major types of rock art. Petroglyphs are engraved or incised onto rock, while pictographs involve the application of pigments (painting) onto rock using brushes, blow pipes, fingers, or another tool.

Rock art is found in the archaeological records of nearly all parts of the world. The archaeological record of rock art extends back more than 30,000 years in some places like Europe. The longest continuous rock art tradition spans over 20,000 among Australian aborigines. There is a well-documented tradition of American Indian rock art in North America.


“Indian people throughout North America created rock art in prehistoric times. Its meaning is mysterious and at times controversial. Some people think that rock art is a type of storytelling. Others believe that it depicts religious or spiritual beliefs, while still others regard it solely as an artistic expression” (Society for American Archaeology 1997:8).

“North American rock art is not a true writing system that can be ‘read’ or a phonetic alphabet, although some rock art specialists attempt to decode rock art symbols. Archaeologists analyze the figures and patterns and frequently find that different cultural groups made different styles of rock art. Other rock art researchers analyze stories and information about Indian people to draw conclusions about rock art” (Society for American Archaeology 1997:8).

“Some Indian tribes have oral traditions about rock art and its meaning. Many believe that the spirit of the makers resides in what he or she has created; therefore, rock art is living and has a spirit” (Society for American Archaeology 1997:8).

Native American rock art is documented in all parts of North America, and many scholars have studied the long tradition of rock art in this part of the world. Rock art in Kentucky is described in a book by Coy et. al. (2004). Diaz-Granados and Duncan (2004) edited a book on rock art in eastern North America. Southwestern rock art is described by Schaafsma (1986). Loendorf et. al. (2006) edited a book on rock art throughout North America.


Common symbols in southwestern rock art are presented below (No Author 2006).


Additional interpretations of rock art symbols are provided below (Millett et al. 2007).



A rock art panel is a set of (presumably) associated petroglyphs and/or pictographs. The figure below is a recreation of a rock art panel discovered in Clear Creek Canyon in Sevier and Millard counties, Utah. The date when the panel was created is not currently known. The canyon became part of Fremont Indian State Park in 1985. To read more about the rock art of Clear Creek Canyon, see Baker and Billat (1999).

The panel was created by prehistoric Native Americans referred to by archaeologists as the Fremont archaeological culture. The Fremont people -- who probably represent a series of related social groups rather than one single group -- settled in the canyon as early as 5200 BC (Utah Outdoor Activities 2006). Though initially food collectors (hunter-gatherers), some domesticated plants like maize were grown by later Fremont groups, especially after about AD 400. They lived in pit houses, made baskets from plant material, wore foot gear made of animal hides, and manufactured gray pottery vessels with thin walls. The Fremont archaeological culture reached its peak about AD 700-1250, overlapping in time with the Anasazi archaeological culture, which is renowned for the construction of large pueblos and cliff dwellings. 

art panel
a = object held in the right hand of the large solid figure at left, b = object held in the left hand of the large solid figure at left, c = large solid figure at left, d = open figure with three projections, e = two horned quadrupedal animals, f = solid object with two projections at right, g = spiral shape at right


On the answer sheet provided in class, respond to the following questions regarding the Clear Creek Canyon rock art panel. Each student will complete his/her own answer sheet in pencil. The answer sheet will be completed during class time and submitted at the end of the class session.

Examine the Clear Creek Canyon rock art panel provided above and answer the following four questions.

1.  What do you think the individual symbols (labeled a through g) represent?

2.  What message do you think the entire panel is intended to convey?

3.  Why do you think people created this panel?

4.  How might rock art be used to reconstruct past lifeways?  Be specific.

Read the four Native Americans' interpretations for symbols a, b, and c (distributed after you complete questions 1-4) and answer the following two questions.

5.  How do the native interpretations compare to your interpretations for each of these three symbols?   Be specific.

6.  How important is it for archaeologists to consult with descendants and other informants when conducting archaeological research? Why?


Baker, Shane A. and Scott E. Billat
1999 Rock Art of Clear Creek Canyon in Central Utah. Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Occasional Papers No. 6. Brigham Young University, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Coy, Fred E., Thomas C. Fuller, Larry G. Meadows, and James L. Swauger
2004 Rock Art of Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington.

Diaz-Granados, Diane and James R. Duncan (editors)
2004 The Rock-Art of Eastern North America : Capturing Images and Insight.
University Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Loendorf, Lawrence L., Christopher Chippindale, and David S. Whitley (editors)
2006 Discovering North American Rock Art. University of Arizona Press, Tuscon.

Millett, Ronald P., Eldon G. Lytle, and John P. Pratt
2007   Petroglyphs: Rock Art or Rock Writing? Accessed on 28 August 2007 at http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2006/petroglyphs.html

No Author
2006 Pages Out of the Past. Accessed on 3 May 2006 at http://www.comnett.net/~kolson/Lesson%20Plan.html

Schaafsma, Polly
1986 Indian Rock Art of the Southwest. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Society for American Archaeology
1997    An Introduction to Rock Art. In Images on Stone: Understanding Rock Art, Archaeology and Public Education, Volume 7, Number 3, pp. 8-9.

Utah Outdoor Activities
2006 Fremont Indian State Park. Accessed on 3 May 2006 at http://www.utahoutdooractivities.com/fremont.html

Return to the Introduction to Archaeology Home Page

Visit the Western Kentucky University Home Page, Western Online
Page composed by Darlene Applegate, darlene.applegate@wku.edu
Last updated on August 28, 2007
All contents copyright (c), 2007. Western Kentucky University.