Winter 2016: By Mike Toner
Residents of Phoenix long ago recognized something special about the rugged mountains that rise from the desert south of the city. In 1924, this area became one of the largest municipal parks in the country. But the city’s denizens weren’t the first to appreciate the striking beauty of the South Mountains craggy landscape. The Hohokam, the prehistoric people who populated the Phoenix Basin from approximately A.D. 400–1450, embraced the same mountains as a sacred landscape, and adorned them with thousands of rock art images that endure today.
Although archaeological investigations of the Hohokam have focused on their population centers and the vast network of irrigation canals they built along the Salt and Gila rivers, Hohokam rock art is not new to archaeologists. In recent years, however, a new perspective has emerged—one that reflects a growing effort to transform rock art analysis from a neglected stepchild of archaeology into a more useful tool for the study of the Hohokam as well as other ancient cultures.
“Rock art has never been as amenable to scientific, quantitative analysis as ceramics, tools, and other artifact classes,” said Aaron Wright of Archaeology Southwest, a Tucson based non-profit organization dedicated to preserving archaeological resources. “Iconography is difficult to interpret with any surety. The symbols almost certainly meant different things to different people, and meanings probably changed through time.” Absent a rock art Rosetta stone, past attempts to divine the meaning of these symbols have been fraught with such ambiguity and unverifiable interpretations that rock art studies were often dismissed as fringe science.
But Wright’s five-year study of Hohokam petroglyphs in Arizona’s South Mountains, published in the 2014 book Religion on the Rocks, suggested a way in which the work of ancient artists can be as useful a tool for archaeologists as other diagnostic artifacts and features. The key is context.
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