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San Luis Valley Rock Art, by Ron Kessler

Review by Ed Quillen

Prehistoric Art – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

San Luis Valley Rock Art
by Ron Kessler
Published in 2000 by Adobe Village Press
ISBN 0-9644056-2-8

ONE OF THE IRONIES of the West is that if you chisel your name on an outcrop of soft rock on public land, you’re a vandal. But if your great-great-grandmother did the same at Register Rock along the Oregon Trail 150 years ago, she wasn’t a vandal; instead, she created an historic artifact worthy of full protection from the National Park Service.

And if your rock-scribing ancestor was a Spanish soldier of three centuries ago, or an even earlier Ute or Ancestral Puebloan, then the scratched stone surfaces gain even more historical significance.

Thus it appears that it takes about a century to convert “vandalism” into “rock art.” Alas, it only takes a few minutes to apply modern vandalism to ancient rock art, which makes me wonder at the wisdom of publishing guidebooks.

Fortunately, the directions in San Luis Valley Rock Art are not overly detailed. There are general area maps, and directions that will get you to the rock art with a little work.

Kessler first mentioned rock art in his annotated translation of Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1779 campaign journal. Its publication inspired Valley residents to tell him about other rock art locations, and this book is the result.

Like all pursuits, rock art has a vocabulary, which Kessler explains well. Petroglyphs are inscribed in stone, sometimes by pecking, and are visible because they break through the “desert patina” that covers the stone. A pictograph is a painting. The figures can be anthropomorphic (human-shaped), zoomorphic (animal shaped), vegemorphic (plant-shaped), or abstract and geometric.

SOME ROCK ART is easy to date — enamel paint used a century ago by Hispanic sheepherders. But most can be dated only if artifacts are found nearby, and the pot-hunters have removed the artifacts from most rock-art sites.

Kessler doesn’t do much speculating about what the rock art might signify, or why it’s where it is. He just gives you the location and a brief description.

For Indian art, he divides the Valley into four quadrants, and notes that the northeast sector, the Crestone area, has no known rock art — a surprising deficiency, given certain arguments that Crestone is a vortex whose cosmic properties were apparent 10,000 years ago.

Spanish rock art gets a chapter of its own, as does damaged rock art. The biggest threat to date isn’t people carving their own names, or collectors with jackhammers — it’s bullets. People shoot at rock art, and the bullets leave little craters.

Rock Art has scores of excellent photographs, and as someone who’s tried to capture old scratchings on modern film, I can testify that this is difficult photography. What seems clear to the eye can be almost invisible on film, and I’m impressed. (Although it should be noted that some striking photographs were taken in the 1940s, when it was acceptable to use chalk to enhance the images.)

The photos generally appear next to the appropriate text, but sometimes I had trouble figuring out which picture was under discussion — inserting more photo numbers in the text would have helped.

At any rate, if you want to see the oldest art in our part of the world, Rock Art will help you find it and encourage you to cherish it and assist in preserving it.

–Ed Quillen