What is the Difference Between a Petroglyph and a Pictograph?

Written by on February 6, 2018 in The Southwest - No comments

The Southwestern United States is littered with thousands of sites where ancient peoples left their mark. Ancient artists used the symbols they carved or painted in the rocks as teaching tools, message points, astronomical markers, maps, and other forms of symbolic communication. Some petroglyph images probably have deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them. Petroglyphs and pictographs are also frequently referred to as rock art.
The Southwest lends itself to these forms of artwork thanks to a phenomenon known as desert patina or desert varnish. Simply put, a thin layer of dark red to black mineral is deposited or oxidized from the rocks of the Southwest. The surface is polished by wind and rain leaving a semi-glossy finish. It usually takes 2,000 years or more for the varnish to develop.

Petroglyphs take advantage of desert patina, and are created by removing part of the rock surface leaving the lighter colored rock exposed. The rock is sculpted, carved and engraved leaving long-lasting images behind. Where the desert patina is thin, the ancient artists used a different technique. A pictograph (also called a pictogram) is an image drawn or painted onto a rock face and requires no sculpting, carving or engraving. In some cases, artists combined the two techniques, using both carving and paint to detail their work.

Archeologists have dated some of these carvings and painting to 10,000 B.C., but the more recent and most prominent images in the Southwest were created between around 500 A.D. to around 1,500 A.D., and are the work of the Anasazi people — a name the Southwestern Native American tribes use to refer to their ancestors. The word Anasazi comes from the Navajo language and means “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy.”

Perhaps the most famous of all rock art pieces is called the Holy Ghost panel in the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon, Utah.

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