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Picnics and Petroglyphs


Picnics and Petroglyphs

Brian G. Angevine, Ph. D.


            A few years ago I cut an article out of the Kansas City Star regarding petroglyph sites in Colorado.  Since I travel through southern Colorado quite often, I kept the article for future reference.  The time finally came to visit the sites.

            I started out for Vogel Canyon which was described as “just off Colorado 109, south of U.S. 50.”  I took that to mean it was just a short distance south of U.S. 50 near LaJunta.  As I continued south on Colorado 109, vainly looking for signs to Vogel Canyon, I kept wondering if I was heading the right direction.  Several times I slowed down planning to turn around and go back, but something (my sense of adventure) kept me going.

            The only sign I found for Vogel Canyon was at the turnoff from Colorado 109, fifteen miles south of LaJunta.  That was considerably farther than I expected but I was glad I had not turned back before I got there.  A dusty road led about a mile into the high desert with me wondering how in heck a petroglyph site could possibly exist here.  Finally; a parking lot on a high hill overlooking the Purgatoire river valley.  Knowing the origins of the Purgatoire because I have a cabin near those origins, I could not imagine, still, a canyon deep enough and protected enough to provide a site for petroglyphs.  The Purgatoire is a very small river.

            With misgivings I trudged down the dusty path with a bottle of water and a camera in my hands.  I passed a very small cave which looked almost like someone constructed it for an oven, and then the canyon started to plunge downward.  The rock was sedimentary which is easy to carve, but generally does not withstand the trials of nature to preserve petroglyphs over a very long period.  Other petroglyphs I had seen were carved into basaltic, volcanic, rock in the Rio Grande Canyon in New Mexico.  Somehow this site just didn’t fit my image.

            Eventually I came upon a few carvings behind boulders and so forth, but nothing very impressive.  Turns out I had come the “back way,” instead of arriving at the largest carvings first.  After wending my way around a lot of rocks and worrying about snakes and admiring the profusely blooming Jolla cacti, I found the main carving sites.  A sign was protected with a plexiglas covering describing the site, how it was discovered by white men, and asking people to not deface the site.  Fat chance!  There were carvings all over the place that obviously were created by modern people.  That got me to wondering.

            I taught a Humanities course in a high school.  One of the things studied are ancient archeological sites described in the textbook.  Such places as Lascaux cave in France and various Norwegian petroglyph sites, along with ancient pyramids in Sumeria, Egypt, South America and Mexico.  I always had the kids read the text then locate other books about the sites and prehistorical areas of the world.  The experts always describe how and why people created the things they did.  I always wonder how they know.  I don’t wish to denigrate the experts here, but I think a lot of their pronouncements seem like something they made up, albeit after serious research.  Anything we see or experience is filtered through the lens of our own experience.  There is no way a modern man can know what an ancient man was intending to express through the cave paintings and other artifacts that have been found.  The best we can do is make an educated guess.

            I say this because even modern painters, writers, poets and other artists often don’t know, or can’t express, why they did a certain work in a certain way.    Experts render their opinions which are sometimes refuted by the artist.  That makes me wonder how accurate are archaeologists.  Many people believe what they read.  If someone wrote it, it must be true.  If someone has spent years studying something and makes some pronouncement, it must be true.  That is the fallacy of “argument by the beard.”  If someone has white hair and a beard and makes a profound announcement, it must be true.

            I admit, I am a skeptic.  I require proof in a lot of things, but on the other hand I accept a lot of things by faith.  I am not an expert on archaeology, but I am an observer and a skeptic.  So what do petroglyphs mean?  Why did people create petroglyphs?  What is their purpose?  After viewing a lot of sites that have both ancient and modern petroglyphs (if a petroglyph is something carved into a rock someplace, why are not modern rock carvings called petroglyphs?) I have some questions, but no answers.

            Graffiti.  A modern word to describe modern “defacement” of property.  As one of the exercises in my humanities class I had students find both ancient and modern “petroglyphs” or examples of graffiti.  The World Wide Web has many sites that show modern graffiti, usually consisting of paintings sprayed onto walls, railroad cars, and other objects that stand still for a long enough time to accomplish the task.  Some of the so-called graffiti is quite artistic, yet we deride it, mainly, I think, because it is painted on someone else’s property without their permission.  Sometimes the graffiti is a political diatribe--that can certainly get people in trouble.  Sometimes it is nothing more than a person’s “tag” or name, or symbols that identify a certain “tagger.”   We admire calligraphy and pay people good money to write in a fancy manner on diplomas and other memorabilia.  Some taggers are quite flamboyant and colorful, and yes, beautiful.

            Another problem with taggers is that their “art” is on public display.  Believe me, it is impossible to please all of the public!  Kansas City has a unique program designating any new public building budget to provide one percent for “art.”  One percent of the budget has to be spent on some artistic aspect of the project.  What consternation that causes upon the initial viewing of the “art.”  The “hair rollers” on the top of the Bartle Hall expansion are still a laughingstock to many of the residents.  I don’t view them as hair rollers or anything else recognizable.  They are simply unique decorations.  Another interesting project in Kansas City is the “bull wall.”  A sculptor who was raised in K.C. and visited the stockyards in his youth, was commissioned to create the one-percent-for-art project when the American Royal Arena was renovated and expanded.  He created two parallel Core-ten steel walls with identical cutouts of bulls in various postures.  In between the walls is a steam generating machine and lighting.  When one moves past the walls the bulls appear to be moving and the steam that is generated by warm bodies on a cold day is very realistic and impressive.  The cutouts themselves have been bought by various entities and appear all across the city.

            Back to petroglyphs.  Who knows?  Is there any connection between graffiti and petroglyphs?  Is there any chance that the ancient people who carved on canyon walls were derided by their community for defacing nature?  Was the painter, or were the painters, of Lascaux convicted of defacing public property and forced to clean up their misadventures?  Or are those paintings and carvings truly representative of something sacred to the people, or at least a story about how a certain hunt or battle progressed?  Are they educational or merely graffiti?  Will future generations look back at our graffiti and make similar judgments?

            This gets into a whole other argument about what is and isn’t “art.”  I will save that for a future time.  But let me describe the two petroglyph sites I visited in Southern Colorado.

            Vogel Canyon was a huge disappointment to me.  The site is visited far too often by people who have no regard for keeping something natural and pristine.  There was far too much graffiti and defacement of the general area.  And the petroglyphs were not all that impressive to me.

            The other site which is very difficult to get to is on the south shore of John Martin reservoir.  Once again I followed the instructions in the article in the K.C. Star and was lucky enough to find the place.  It is well hidden amid a bunch of boulders and down a duck hunters path.  I had a four wheel drive vehicle and it was almost a requirement.  In wet weather there is nothing that would get you there except four wheel drive, and maybe not even that. 

            The petroglyphs there were more scattered out and often were on the lee side of boulders instead of a canyon wall.  I found them quite interesting and, in a way more authentic, than Vogel Canyon.  A major problem was that poison ivy was growing heavily all over the site.  There were many examples of carvings I skipped because I didn’t want to itch the rest of my life.

            Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy looking at ancient artifacts, and I am just as prone as anyone else to guess at why people did certain things.  But I am still a skeptic about the experts in many cases.  My advice is to get off the interstate highways, take some of the side trips, and enjoy some picnics and petroglyphs.  Your life will be richer for it.


--1600 words

Brian G. Angevine, Ph. D.

PO Box 5

Cuba KS 66940