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Posts Tagged ‘petroglyphs’

Gila Bend isn’t a particular hotspot for travelers on Interstate 8 through Southwest Arizona. We stayed there in the late 80s in a typical roadside motel. Like many always hard-up desert towns, Gila Bend seemed in a chronic state of poor economic health. Besides boarded up buildings along the main drag, all that was memorable about that stay was that at 10:00 pm it was 109°. When we went out through the motel’s automatic glass doors, the heat was startling, like stepping into the stove to check something broiling.

At Painted Rock

At Painted Rock © SR Euston

So this month when we exited I-8 just west of Gila Bend to visit the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Petroglyph Painted Rock Site and Campground we didn’t know what we were about to stumble on.

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Petroglyphs © SR Euston

The petroglyph site itself is an easily accessible jumble of rocks covered with over 800 symbols and pictures chipped out of the black basalt which overlays a granite outcrop. A short trail takes visitors around the mound and allows for up close viewing of the rock art. There is an adjacent dry campground with pit toilets, and for folks seeking desert isolation, a half-full campground and clear night skies this is just the ticket. It may not be as extensive as New Mexico’s Petroglyph National Monument or Three Rivers BLM site or Utah’s Newspaper Rock, but it is a remarkable agglomeration of mazes, natural symbols like lightning and the sun, animals, and stylized people that make it a fascinating concentration of southwest petroglyph art.

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

This used to be one part of a Petroglyph Painted Rock State Park which included a “Lake Unit” with camping and fishing about four miles north on Painted Rock Reservoir, formed by a late ‘50s Army Corps of Engineers dam. Now completely closed, the “Reservoir” is only an intermittent lake—in flood it has been (briefly) the second largest lake in Arizona, but with seepage and evaporation, the lake always dries it up. And due to large scale 1950s and ‘60s DDT use on surrounding cotton fields (one of the mainstays of Gila Bend’s shaky economy), this stretch of the Gila River which feeds the reservoir has the dubious honor of being one of the most polluted stretches of waterway in the nation. The only water we saw was one puddle of marshy standing water on Painted Rock Road’s shoulder.

Painted Rock Outcrop © SR Euston

Painted Rock Outcrop © SR Euston

For more info on the site see: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/recreation/camping/dev_camps/painted_rock.html

To get to the site from the highway from I-8 involved taking Painted Rock Dam Road north about 10 miles. It’s on this road where the “new” Gila Bend takes shape.

Next: Sustainable Gila Bend

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Rocks to me are akin to bones, bones of the earth, it’s skeletal frame that has been pressed and extruded and deposited. Rocks in one sense hold the meaning of life, because life has evolved in a medium of rocks dissolved, eroded, polished, blown, washed away, wore bare by human feet or by their chips and scrapes, cut into gigantic blocks of stone somehow put upright; rocks placed one on another to make shelter, to use as ornament, to defend the castle.

Rock photography is about solidity. Rocks are there, a bit like Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. And they are quiet. They encourage contemplative visualization. Rocks are the finest blending of natural history and visual power, oftentimes overlaid with intimations of the mythic and mystical – the spirit of the land at its most basic. To see them  – really see them – is a near Zen practice.  SRE

Petroglyph, Three Rivers, NM © SR Euston

Volcanic Rocks, Jemez Mts., NM © SR Euston

Volcanic Deposits, NM © SR Euston

Coastal Upthrust, Oregon Coast © SR Euston

Canyon Rocks, NM © SR Euston

"In Place", Blue Ridge Mts., VA © SR Euston

"Castle", Hovenweep National Monument, UT © SR Euston

Blue Rocks, Catwalk, SW NM © SR Euston

Shoreline Rocks, Cape Blanco OR © SR Euston

Shoreline Rocks, Cape Blanco OR © SR Euston

Lava Cones, Craters of the Moon Nat'l Monument, ID © SR Euston

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On December 21st, buried back there under the frantic ramp-up to Christmas, the Winter Solstice occurred. Beyond the astronomical explanations about the earth’s tilt and relation to the sun, much is made of the winter solstice’s age-old celebratory events. Festivals, feasts, yule logs, ancient carols, and modern celebrations, from Christmas to Hanukkah, have been linked to this moment, when winter’s lengthening darkness ends and the days again head back toward spring’s light and new life.

Winter ©SR Euston

There are two solstices, this winter one, the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day, and June’s, the year’s longest. In Sydney or Sao Paulo, it’s the opposite. The name, from middle English, is roughly translated to come to a stop or cause to stand. I have a mental image of the winter sun, stopping and shaking itself off as far away as it’s going to get from Earth for this year, then beginning to return, lengthening and brightening our days toward summer. (This is totally astronomically inaccurate, I might add.)

Petroglyph©SR Euston

But what about all those solstice markers scattered about our Four Corners region, especially Chaco Canyon’s highly studied and postmodern- mythologized Sun Dagger, whose main claim to fame is marking the summer solstice with a knife sharp shaft of high noon light on a large spiral petroglyph? What do these markers mark, if anything, about winter?

At Chaco, this solstice marker is, in fact, a kind of annual astronomical calendar made of five remarkable human-placed components—three slabs of closely aligned rock which form two separate slits of illumination cast onto two distinct petroglyph spirals. At the winter solstice, sun comes through both slits, illuminating the larger spiral in two offset bands, one on each side of its center. The spring and autumn equinoxes are marked with one shaft on the smaller petroglyph spiral. Unique in archeoastronomy, these sun dagger motions are related, not to the sun’s rising and setting, but rather to its height in the sky. (See http://www.solsticeproject.org/science.htm for more detailed information.)

So a thousand years ago, Ancestral Puebloans were carefully, intentionally, scientifically, marking critical annual astronomical events.

And this solstice what were we up to? Probably out reveling and buying things.

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