Rock Art, Probably not Rock “Art”

Petroglyphs (rock engravings) and pictographs (rock paintings) are an important part of the rich cultural heritage of the Columbia River people. Archeologists estimate that the oldest of them could be between 6,000 to 7,000 years old.

Many people today call the rock carvings and paintings “rock art” and think of them as a form of traditional Native American art. But are these rock engravings really “art?”

Ancient Rock Carvings: A Form of Communication?

Many Native American people believe that the term “rock art” may not be quite right. They say that the images may have been made as part of religious ceremonies, hunting rituals, or for the purpose of communicating important messages.

Certainly, these rock carvings and paintings are artistic, and to most people today, they look like art. But there was no Native American word for art. So, it’s likely that rock “art” was created for reasons altogether different than art for art’s sake. Those reasons have had something to do with some practical part of life in those days.

The same may be true when it comes to other items created by Native American people, which people today think of as “art.”  Items such as baskets, clothing, and tools, may all have been crafted in artistic ways, but their primary purpose was utilitarian. Likely it was no different with rock “art.”

As for what exactly do the various rock “art” images mean? Except for the obvious images of animals and people, no one can know for sure what their meaning was.

Rock Art Sites Along the Columbia River

Though no one can say for certain, official estimates are that there were roughly 90 rock art sites along the Columbia River, in the stretch of land between Pasco, Washington to the east, and The Dalles, Oregon, to the west.  Unfortunately, many of these sites were either inundated or destroyed when The Dalles and the John Day dams were put into service, and are now lost to the world forever.

Learn More about Rock Art

If you’re interested in rock art, here are some articles and pictures that may be of interest to you …