The dark coating on the boulder below you is desert varnish - a concentration of mineral, clay, and organic material that accumulates over time. Prehistoric artists created rock art by exposing the lighter material underneath. But what do these symbols mean? Unlike contemporary writing, petroglyphs are not letters or sounds. Instead they represent the ideas of the artist. Like all of us, the creators of these petroglyphs were trying to communicate with the world around them.
Present day indigenous oral traditions help us understand what petroglyphs might mean. Members of the Zuni tribe believe that this rock art depicts clan ties of the artist - perhaps a mother from the Crane Clan and father from the Frog Clan. An alternative Hopi interpretation recalls stories of a giant bird that came to villages to eat bad children.
What do you think large bird pytroglyph represent? Visitors often say "a stork and a baby," which is a European oral tradition with a different cultural history. Yet the image is similar to a native bird at Petrified Forest. The white-faced ibis is a water bird that eats frogs and other small animals. If you look closely, you can see what might represent water drops below the frog. Instead of a literal interpretation, this petroglyph likely represents aquatic resources and fertility. Around the world, people in arid regions show reverence and give thanks for water through symbols such as fish, tadpoles, and dragonflies. What do you think that these symbols might represent?