Legacy of the ancients at South Mountain

Can you find the horned snake?

I found the petroglyphs on my fourth trip to Hieroglyphic Canyon. Etched on boulders lining a generous sandy wash, the figures and designs are hidden from the main hiking route. Somber saguaros dominate a landscape punctuated with smudges of palo verde and barrel cacti and gigantic boulders sit about in stacks, on slopes and everywhere.
I’ve been searching for rock art on hikes and reading Todd Bostwick’s fascinating book Landscape of the Spirits. Bostwick and photographer Peter Krocek studied the South Mountain area extensively in the 1990’s, documenting more than 50 geographic localities containing rock art within the mountain boundary. A couple of these locations have more than two hundred panels of petroglyphs! They also discovered eight intermittent seeps or springs within the inner canyons, including one that produces water year round. With 274 species of plants, and 157 species of animals, we perceive a rich environment that would have attracted ancient peoples to the mountains. Most of the petroglyphs were apparently hammered into the rocks by the Hohokam who farmed along the banks of the Salt and Gila Rivers, living in vibrant village communities. The present day O’odham view the South Mountains as sacred, and maintain that the petroglyphs are visions, dreams and memories of the ancient shamans. Bostwick endorses the spiritual aspect of the figures etched throughout the mountain area, but stresses the unknown aspects of the culture and speculates that each image may carry significance beyond our imagining. The rock art images are widespread and show anthromorphs dancing, hunting, farming, fighting, transforming and in altered states. Some rock art panels capture rays of the sun, aligning images with shadows and beams of light on the solstices. Seasonal records would have been vital to these farmers, as would rain. A disproportionate number of petroglyphs portray big horned sheep, an O’odham totem of wind and rain; and flute players are also found among South Mountain petroglyphs, perhaps influenced by the Zuni rain priests.
My discovery in Hieroglyphic Canyon began with bitter disappointment when I discovered modern graffiti sprayed and chiseled over a few petroglyphs. But as I descended further into the canyon, I found more and more ancient images and designs, until in one central and perhaps sacred place there was a dense concentration of petroglyphs. The human-like anthromorphs are joined by many animals including lizards, a salamander, a horned snake, a bird man, coyotes, songbirds and mountain sheep. Very intriguing are the intricate textile patterns. Bostwick speculates the textile designs are symbolic of religious concepts or perhaps portals to the spirit world. I lie awake at night looking out at the bulk of South Mountain and think of shamans pecking dreams into rock. I wonder if the spirits linger there still. And I ponder what our societies’ legacies will be to future inhabitants of this earth and what conclusions they will draw about us.


One response to “Legacy of the ancients at South Mountain

  1. As an observer of this rock art many years ago, it was with great pleasure that I was re-introduced to them in this great blog…thanks for reminding me.

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