Rock Art in Southeastern Colorado

by Susan Simons

LAS ANIMAS COUNTY- Locating a rock art panel is a thrill.  It is thrilling because it is art, it is history, and it is contact with other symbol-making humans who lived and died long ago.  If you are with a group, people will be strung out along the rock face calling out, “Look at this; come here and just take a look at this.”   Once your eye adjusts, you begin to see more.  You learn that the angle of sunlight on the panel can mask or highlight the figures and that you will see differently at different times of day.

    The rock art panels of southeastern Colorado are usually petroglyphs; that is, they are shapes which have been pecked into a rock face or boulder. Some are faint and eroded; others stand out against the dark patina of the rock face.  It is common to see abstract images such as spirals, circles, meanders, grids, and undulating lines.  It is also usual to see quadrupeds: four-legged animals such as deer, sheep, elk, or bison.  You will also see  human figures in various poses. Archaeologists call these anthropomorphs.

    The rock art of southeastern Colorado is usually associated with rock shelters and other evidence of the lifeways of people who lived as hunter-gatherers and who sometimes cultivated crops. This rock art is generally organized into four periods, some  dating as early as 3,000 years ago and some as recent as 500 years ago.

    Discovering rock art is a thrill; recording rock art is work.  May 6-16 members of the Colorado Rock Art Association (CRAA) with project archaeologist Larry Loendorf worked on a private ranch and on public lands adjacent to the Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site to record rock art sites which had been previously identified but unrecorded or only partially recorded.  The landowner had requested this recording project, and the Colorado Historical Society had awarded a grant to fund the work.

    Every site must be meticulously recorded.  First, people will spread out and flag every item of interest: rock art, metates, manos, stone tools and flakes, shelters, firecracked stones, charcoal, and so on.  Then work groups will be formed.

    Two or three people will work on a site plan. That is, they will establish a datum, or central point from which all measurements will be taken. They will then take a GPS reading of the datum and begin to measure the length, width, depth, height of the site and draw the site plan to scale.  Every item of interest must be positioned on the drawing with respect to its distance from the datum. Digital photographs will be taken and a photo log will be kept.  A four-page Management Data Form must be filled out which exactly locates and defines the site.     A two-page Prehistoric Component Form  will be filled out noting every artifact and feature.  The forms are filled out in pencil on the site and then edited and entered into a database back in the lab.

Part Two of this series will run next week.