Sedona Friends of the Forest volunteers have had many opportunities thru the years to do interesting and valuable work in the Red Rock District. In early 2020, prior to the full impact of Covid, a new opportunity presented itself.
Discussions with several members of the American Rock Art Research Association, indicate that scratched petroglyphs at our sites are directly comparable to those found at various sites in North America. Dating back many thousands of years, they were created by some of the earliest human inhabitants in North America.
The initial question was whether our examples are as old. To answer the question the Scratch Project was initiated. The initial answers are far more wide ranging and exciting than we ever expected.
Within and near the Palatki Heritage Site, there are multiple rock art panels with extensive finely scratched petroglyphs that exhibit a remarkable consistency in style and method of production. Some of our examples appear to be created by different cultures that lived here in the past. Some are covered or “superimposed” by paint that is interpreted to be thousands of years old and are therefore older. Some cut thru paint that we interpret to be less than 1000 years old and are therefore younger. We know that Early Archaic and “Clovis” hunter gatherers roamed this area as early as 12 to 13 thousand years ago leaving traces of their presence in the form of stone tools and spear points. Did they also create rock art that we can now study?
Using a combination of high resolution detailed photography, angled lighting, a computer based interpretation and annotation tool developed by our ARARA collaborators, support of the Forest Service and the perseverance, dedication and teamwork of multiple volunteers, we have discovered many examples of precisely scratched “motifs” such as “checkerboard”, “big diamond”, “snakes” and other forms. The remarkably consistent scratch widths, styles, line terminations and spacing imply that these motifs were significant to the people who created them and their tradition carried on thru the ages to other cultures that followed. What they achieved is far beyond what most of us can accomplish today without “hi-tech” tools.
In our world with such advanced technology and interests, a question is why study such insignificant evidence of earlier cultures. Peter Pilles, Coconino Forest Archaeologist aptly states that
“Archaeological science these days is science. It includes everything from the tomb of Tutankhamen to the scratched lines. It’s not the big finds, it is the little things we look at today, with the eye of science. The minutiae of pollen grains, temper particles, fragments of charcoal give us more information, thru science, these days than the vast volumes of whole pots and turquoise jewelry which was the focus of the past.”
Another viewpoint is that this is not just a study of scratches. The detailed photography and interpretation of the petroglyphs is almost certainly a study of a type of language and means of communication, that for the most part, is foreign to our culture. There are many levels of information to evaluate. It raises the issue of how these people communicated without what we consider written language. What do these “messages” on the rock wall mean? What were they trying tell each other and us?
Here in the Sedona area, it is a privilege to have such interesting windows to the past available to marvel at and study.
Like everything else in our modern society, not everyone agrees. As we learn about the scratches we have discovered that they are far more widespread in the Verde Valley than previously known. As is common in archaeology, the more we look, the more we find. In response to a recent vandalism/graffiti incident at the Honanki Heritage site, it was determined that new graffiti on site was scratched directly over very fine but distinct examples of the checkerboard and diamond motifs not previously identified on that rock art panel. Approximately 50% of the ancient petroglyphs were destroyed by the graffiti. Coconino Forest Archaeologist Peter Pilles stated, “A simple swath of rock or paint over sandstone, whether due to ignorance or intentional vandalism