Understanding Nevada's Rock Art Heritage

This course is designed to help you learn about Nevada’s rock art heritage. By the end of the three lessons, you should be able to:

Using this program should be very intuitive, but if you have any problems just raise your hand and someone will come help you.

**All non-photo imagery is the property of the Nevada Rock Art Foundation and may not be used without express, written permission.

Lesson One: What is Rock Art and How is it Made?

What is Rock Art?

Rock art is markings, either painted (pictographs) or engraved (petroglyphs), on the surface of rocks.

You can find rock art on boulders, cave walls, small rocks, and sides of cliffs.

Rock art was created by the native inhabitants of Nevada over the last 10-12,000 years (or as long as people have been living in what is now Nevada)!

Test Yourself

Which picture is a pictograph?

How is Rock Art Made?

Pictographs are created by combining pigment (like berry juice, crushed rock or minerals, or other brightly colored natural items) with a liquid or binder (like water, blood, animal fat, or other oils) to create a natural paint, like in the picture to the right. This was then applied to the rock surface with a brush or fingers.

Petroglyphs are created by cutting or pecking into a rock face using a sharp edged tool.

Test Yourself

Which of these tools would you use to make a petroglyph?

Lesson Two: Rock Art Motifs and Cultural Importance

Why is Rock Art Important?

The native inhabitants of Nevada did not have a written language, and instead relied on oral history to share knowledge. Along with studying other artifacts and utilizing research, rock art is one of the only ways we can study the behavior of the past inhabitants of this area.

We don’t really know what these images meant to the people who made them, because we can’t ask the artists why they created them. But archaeologists study these ancient pictures in the hope that this research, along with other indicators of past behavior, can tell us more about the ways people lived over the past 10,000+ years.

Test Yourself

Why is it important that rock art remains where it is, and untouched by visitors? (you can choose all that apply)

  • So that archaeologists can study it in the same state it was created.
  • Because it can tell us more about the people that used to live in this area for the past 10,000+ years.
  • So that other people can appreciate it.
  • Because touching it can cause intentional or unintentional damage.

Types of Images We See in Nevada Rock Art

Here are some examples of common images we see in rock art, which can be either “abstract” or "representational". 

Remember that we don't know exactly what these images mean, so something that looks like a sun to us might not have meant 'sun' to the person who made it. That's why researchers are careful not to call something 'representational' or make assumptions about what it might represent without other contextual clues. 

But it can still be fun to visit sites, and talk to others about what you think the images might mean!

Abstract

Abstract images are designs whose meanings are unknown to us, such as spirals, wavy lines, circles, squares, etc.

Representational

Representational images are things we recognize, like people, plants, animals, nets, projectile points, etc. 

Test Yourself

What do you think this glyph (rock art image) could be representing? Think about how Native Americans lived, and what they used in their daily life. 

If you are working in a group, talk about what this might be. If you are working alone, write your answer below.

Test Yourself

And what about this one? Is there only one thing this could be, or can you think of more than one?

If you are working in a group, talk about what this might be. If you are working alone, write your answer below.

Lesson Three: Rock Art Site Etiquette

Can You See Rock Art in Person?

Absolutely! Rock art isn’t only important to archaeologists and other researchers, it is also a beautiful and unique cultural resource. 

As long as you treat it with respect and only visit sites that are open to the public/safe for visitors, you should feel free to view it in person and appreciate its beauty for yourself!

How Should You Act at Rock Art Sites?

You should never touch, walk-on, apply anything to the rock art, or touch it in any way. Even the tiniest contact can ruin rock art forever, and once it is gone, there is no way to restore it to its original state. 

The rock art sites below have been ruined by people, either acting maliciously or out of ignorance. Don't take away the opportunity to enjoy these sites from others through your bad behavior--remember, not only is it harmful to damage rock art in any way, it is also illegal!

Test Yourself

Which of the following is ok to do at a rock art site? (you can choose more than one)

  • Take as many pictures as you want
  • Climb on the rock art
  • Make a tracing or rubbing of the rock art
  • Talk to other visitors about what you think the rock art might mean