Graffiti or Art?

Graffiti, art, petroglyphs, defacing public property, whatever you call it, mankind seems to have a need to leave his mark on walls. In modern culture the mark seems to be mostly made with paint, specifically spray paint. In the past, however, the urge to leave one’s mark was by etching on the walls of a canyon, outcrop, or any slab-sided mountain face.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to visit a couple of national parks and a national monument. Dinosaur National Monument in Utah is famous for both fossilized bones of long extinct dinosaurs that were first discovered at the turn of the 20th century and a collection of petroglyphs left by the Fremont people around 1200 years ago. While it is no surprise to see anything in the west with the name Fremont attached to it, these have nothing to do with the famous explorer and one-time presidential candidate John C. Fremont. This indigenous people group lived in the desert along the banks of the Fremont River. You can learn more about their culture at the National Park Service webpage. Unfortunately for us, they didn’t develop a written language, so their lifestyle, culture, and history remain lost to the modern world. These etchings on the walls of the cliff seem to be all that is left.   

The petroglyphs leave behind many questions such as were the pictures the act of some ancient teenage rebel? Were they officially sanctioned by the tribal leadership? Are they supposed to let future generations revel in the accomplishments of the past? I don’t know the answers. Perhaps I am super imposing modern culture over a tribe of people who were merely struggling to survive in a barren landscape.

It seems art, or the need to leave a mark for posterity, is part of the human condition

A couple of months later I was at Arches National Park. In addition to the weathered and sculpted remains of ancient sea beds and lifted mountains, there are petroglyphs here too. Depictions of ancient horses, maybe dogs, and people seem to be only a small part of a larger relief along the rock outcropping near Wolfe Ranch. Unlike the ancient reliefs left by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, these seemingly isolated scratches on the rock surface don’t congeal together to tell a story or brag about the conquest of some neighboring people or tribe. But they don’t have to be.

Modern man with all his technology can’t resist the urge either. Here is an example of a worker or engineer who, while working along the Colorado River, decided to do a selfie. Apparently, he came back later and dated his handiwork twice.

It seems art, or the need to leave a mark for posterity, is part of the human condition. It also serves to remind us that even in places of seemingly austere climate, there are little hidden gems.

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