rock art (archaic)

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The rock art of the Rio Grande Gorge is extensive and varied. Eight general types have been defined. Click on each type for a simple description and accompanying examples.

Archaic  Pueblo  Ute  Apache  Comanche  Catholic  Textual  Modern


Archaic Rock Art of the Rio Grande Gorge

Generally speaking, the earliest rock art in the Rio Grande Gorge (1) was pecked with a stone tool, (2) exhibits a high degree of repatination over the pecked surface, and (3) is graphically dominated either by aniconic designs (cupules, dots, meandering lines, circles, ticked lines, etc.) or by iconic footprints of quadrapeds, birds and/or humans. It is assumed that “Archaic” rock art of this sort was produced by highly mobile populations of foragers prior to the arrival of Pueblo communities during the tenth century CE. There are many reasons to approach this category with caution, however. The division between Archaic and Pueblo rock art, for instance, is often far from clear, due both to the vagaries of patina formation (which depending on the degree of surface exposure can make very old rock art look young and vice versa) and to the simple fact that many Archaic graphic elements continued to be produced within the Pueblo rock art tradition. Moreover, to speak of Archaic rock art as “pre-Puebloan” is to draw some ten thousand years of human history into a single category, ignoring the many cultural differences within this vast period. “Archaic”, then, does not designate a culture, nor is it necessarily even a historical sequence of related cultures.

Bearing this in mind, perhaps the most curious thing about the Archaic rock art of the Rio Grande Gorge is its remarkable consistency. Especially striking is the overwhelming restraint from the figuration of human and animal bodies, which would become a mainstay of image production with the arrival of Pueblo farmers. Is it really the case that for thousands of years hunters and gatherers in the Rio Grande gorge effectively limited themselves to squiggles and dots, without ever depicting the human face? How are we to understand this seemingly longstanding iconographic prohibition? Such questions challenge us to imagine Archaic images as “working” in very different ways than their Pueblo and later successors.

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