What is rock art?

Nevada is home to some 1,200 identified prehistoric rock art sites. These sites span a period of 10,000 years, and were used throughout the Archaic and even into ethnohistoric times. Rock art is one of the most visible monuments left by prehistoric Indian cultures and one of the few remains of human activity studied by archaeologists that offers a glimpse into culturally meaningful and significant social practices. Rock art resonates powerfully with modern observers as an enigmatic archaeological feature that directly conveys its associations with prehistory and other ways of living.


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Rock art is an archaeological monument that takes the form of culturally meaningful markings on boulders and on bedrock, such as cliff-faces, cave ceilings and walls. These marks range from abstract geometric designs to highly schematic portrayals of animals and people. The most familiar types of rock art are petroglyphs (peckings, engravings, etchings, and scratchings) and pictographs (paintings). Because petroglyphs endure longer than pictographs in exposed settings, these are the most abundant form of rock art in Nevada. Rock art also includes other modifications of rocky features in the natural landscape, such as arranging small boulders to form recognizable designs on the ground (geoglyphs or rock alignments).

Despite being widely found in Nevada, it is clear that rock art is not randomly distributed in the landscape. Rock art is found associated with other archaeological remains, but only select camp sites and hunting locales have rock art. Likewise, only select cliffs, taluses, rock shelters etc. have rock art. One question to consider is what makes the places where rock art is found different from those that do not have it?

Scientific dating of petroglyphs is very difficult; pictographs contain organic materials that can be dated but are very rarely subjected to radiometric analysis because collecting samples would destroy a portion of the art. This would date when a painting was made, not when it was used or its locale visited. Although archaeologists may not be able to exactly determine when a particular petroglyph or pictograph was made, a site's period of use can be estimated from the age of associated activities in the landscape as indicated by other archaeological remains. Many rock art sites display evidence of repeated use over long periods but punctuated by episodes of disuse. And revisits and re-uses of rock art localities that did not modify the site’s art are only evident through the archaeological remains of other activities left behind. It appears that some rock art localities attracted people to visit them over long periods.