Signal to Noise Ratio of Social Media and Rock Art
The Colorado Plateau is crowded with archaeological sites left behind by ancient and modern cultures who were either migrating through or had settled in the area for agricultural purposes. It can be an arousing experience to come upon rock art while out wandering around in the desert and even more exciting to stumble upon an arrowhead or pottery sherd.
A recent visit to the Indian Creek Corridor just south of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, with its canyon walls lined with petroglyphs, got me thinking about communication tools, past and present.
A few years ago I uncovered a knife while kicking at quartzite flakes in the sand and upon subsequent research discovered its probable original knap occurred between 4,000 and 8,000 BCE. It continues to live where I first found it as I feel it tells its story best within its provenance rather than on a bookshelf or the deep, dark environmentally-controlled basement of a museum. Glyphs of bison and big horn sheep etched on a rock nearby suggest it was used as a tool for carving up meat. After the discovery, I started absorbing everything I could find on the genesis of pounding and painting on rock as human expression. I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet caves of southern France and read David Lewis-Williams' book, The Mind in the Cave.
Much controversy surrounds the interpretation behind all the pecking and drawing. Some say it was shamans in psychotropic trances. Some say women. Some say hunters. We may never know or understand its intent through the noise of convention and time. Patina, predominant style, and geographic location are used to determine age and culture with meaning construed through those contexts, yet classification falls short of getting to the meat of the matter.
Desecration Panel, situated on a stone wall along the San Juan river, provides an example of how symbols, perception, and cultural relevance can skew the author's original intent. The greater geographic area surrounding these glyphs of large anthromorphs has absorbed the footfalls of Ice Age hunters all the way up to the present. The panel is thought to have been created by Basketmaker II people who were just beginning to settle into a more agrarian lifeway from a hunter-gather, nomadic one. In the 1950's, a Navajo family living nearby were told by a tribe healer that the site held demons and was the cause of their mutual illness. The figures now have cross-hatched marks across their bodies to kill the evil spirits. Maybe they just all ate bad meat.
One of my favorite panels, one that further confounds and starts up a head-scratching session, is Newspaper Rock, just off the road that wanders through the Indian Creek Corridor. The images include animals, humans, animals ridden by humans, animal prints, human prints, gun shots, and graffiti. Every time I visit, an image I haven't noticed before, peeks through the cacophony of newer, brighter etchings, the older forms removed from the news by desert varnish and modern doodling.
On my recent trip, I was struck by the amount of fresh "I was here" postings and the efforts to erase them as well as the heavy metal bars enclosing the wall which have replaced an old wood-rail fence. In 2011, a Las Vegas, Nevada judge sentenced a teen to 9 months in jail, 9 months of supervised release and a $23,777 fine for defacing a similar site. I couldn't help but draw a parallel between the efforts at communication before me on the rock and a log-on to social media sites where we're all typing and painting and photographing and videoing what's relevant in our own worlds to share with others as a means to touch other's lives and be a part of the greater human conversation.
The ethics and perceptions, both online and off, about how we communicate will continue to morph, today's graffiti revered as rock art tomorrow. Regardless, the timelessness of listening will send your signal of "I hear you" through the clickety-clack, keyboard noise of "I'm here's" and leave an indelible impression on someone's wall - whether or not you eat meat.
Good stuff... In our exploration of the Colorado Plateau, my wife and I focus on seeking out rock art sites. It is indeed exciting to observe the ancient art. Some of it is very, very impressive. This past August we found a few exquisite sites in your area, in Seven Mile Canyon that I had heard about. Makes a profound impression!
What an amazing comparison of the past and present! There has been an ever growing need to communicate between people but also, I strongly believe, to simply preserve a moment of our life and the environment we live in, hence primitive drawings or modern photographs.
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