Semiotic Relationships and Rock Art Sites

Semiotic Relationships and Rock Art Sites


By Carl A. Bjork



If we are to debate or discuss, or to develop a general theory about the symbols and possible semiotic relationships found at rock art sites, we must delineate and set boundaries on the definition or meaning of rock-art. I will use “rock art” to describe what is commonly called petroglyphs and pictographs, carvings and paintings found on rock faces, in grottos and caves, cliffs, or any other geological formation. A rock art site would be a geographical location where one would find a geological formation containing rock art. Within my simplistic definition, rock art site could be a single, rock art-covered boulder in a meadow or a narrow sandstone canyon with hundreds of paintings.


Secondly, I feel that the approach to studying rock art symbols and the relationship to a rock art site must be conducted as a unit of consideration: one cannot be researched without the other. No longer can we look at rock art as “art”, even though that is probably what brought us to a rock art site in the beginning. What brought me to rock art research in the beginning was the geological formation and its geographical setting and, I believe a similar “pull” brought many of the original rock art “artists” to a rock art site. In my personal research into the rock art phenomenon in the western United States, I have found that the environment of a rock art site is what attracted the first rock art “artist”. Many Native American friends have told me, “It is the location of the site that is important, and the rock art came later.” My rock art research started with this question: “Why did they select this site for their rock art?” If we answer that question, then I believe that we will begin to understand the “meaning” of the symbols. We must start with the site, studying its relationship to its spatial environment; including geographical and geological considerations, climatic patterns, acoustical qualities, water and food resources, travel and trade route patterns, celestial viewing properties and the many other values that would make a site useful to a culture.

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What I am suggesting is very controversial with debate coming from both extremes in scientific research circles. One group demands that the study of rock art should be the sole property of the archaeological research community and that rock art should be recorded only, without any attempt at interpretation or “meaning” of the rock art symbols…an “If I don’t know what it is, then it doesn’t exist” attitude, but this approach is within good scientific methodology. Far to the other side are theories about encounters by UFO’s and early travelers who recorded their visit. Even if those who debate the rock art phenomenon are from extreme opposites in their opinionated views, open debate and discussion is the only method to finding truth. It will require a multidisciplinary scientific effort to resolve this controversy.


To understand the message that the rock art symbols are communicating we must fully understand the worldview of the “artist” and what motivational pressures and impacts were controlling this person. Let me paint a possible scenario: We meet a person who does not understand what a touch of wind is nor does this person know what causes a shadow. The sun is something that brings light but also leaves, sinking behind the western horizon. Everything to this person that is unseen but yet felt is a spirit, even the touch of the wind or a temperature change. Imagine the fear that this person feels during the dark of night not knowing if the sun will return or that the sun will return from its annual journey to its winter home. Remember it is not that long ago when it was common knowledge that if you sailed west to the horizon you would fall over the edge. Establishing motive is the key to unlocking the mystery.


Southwest of Bakersfield, California, there is a unique horseshoe-shaped sandstone monolith, rising from a flat prairie, called Painted Rock. Within the amphitheater are some of the most beautiful rock paintings found in the world and even though heavily damaged much remains to be analyzed and studied. What motivated the first Chumash and Yokuts to this site? 1) The geological formation sits alone on a flat plain. 2) The horseshoe-shaped amphitheater has unique acoustical qualities (if you sit at the right location you can hear any whispered conversation within 30 meters). 3) The open end of the horseshoe faces directly north which gives you a unique view of the stars revolving around the North Star. 4) Before the arrival of Euro-Americans the land surrounding Painted Rock was rich in food resources. 5) The geographical location of Painted Rock provided for a warm winter living site for the coastal Chumash and a cool summer camp for the Yokuts who inhabited the hot interior region. 6) The rock is shaped not unlike a huge vulva. 7) If one stands at the high point of the rock formation there is a commanding view of the plain and surrounding landscape, up to 50 km. 8) During certain times of the year wind currents flowing over the site cause interesting effects and echoing, not unlike a crowd of people whispering (spirits?). 9) Inside of the upper end of the amphitheater is a small head-size hole and if you place your head into the hole and the hum, there is created a strong resonating sound that will cause a trance-like effect to the person. Directly above this hole is a pictograph (red ocher) of a horned-anthropomorph (a shaman?). My listing gives ample justification and motivation for selecting this particular site for use by the people but it doesn’t explain why the site was chosen for placement of the paintings and petroglyphs. I have found many other sites that have many of the same characteristics of the Painted Rock site, that also have many pictographs or petroglyphs, as well as bedrock mortars and grinding slicks. Surrounding many sites is evidence of a “living site”, some with middens over two meters deep.

cane man

In Kelso Valley, east of Bakersfield, two faint red pictographs are found on two large boulders sited on a small hill (CA-KER-95). “Why on this hill?” was my first question but when a survey was conducted part of the answer became clear. On the hill was located a vein of feldspar crystals, which are used in “calling down the rain” ceremonies by the Kawaiisu people. I was told that if you sit in front of the paintings holding the crystals and ask for rain, it would come. To the north of Kelso Valley is the South Fork of the Kern River watershed, a major prehistoric trade route. Along this path are many rock art sites located at reliable water sources and if one is standing at one of these sites you can see the next site with a water source, which is important in this high desert terrain.

Hummingbird motifs

In the Owens Valley, a high desert biome, located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, there is a unique basalt rock formation covered with unusual petroglyphs. If one stands at one particular spot it is not hard to understand the glyphs. The top of the rock has been carved and worked so that it is an exact relief map of the mountain range located behind the rock. Many of the lines on the rock object depict canyons and ridges on the face of the mountain. Is this rock art panel a relief map of the mountain range (White Mountains?)? Many say, “No”. Their rational is that the Native Americans did not have the knowledge or need to create maps.

Burial indicator - drawn

Is rock art a form of pictorial communication? I personally believe it is in North America. At many desert sites in the western States you will find some form of a glyph that many refer to as “the comb”. This is a horizontal line with many vertical lines connected to the bottom side of the horizontal line. Many researchers have identified this symbol as representing “rain”. I have found that the “horizontal line” means the horizon or the soil that we stand on and the “vertical lines” represent “rain or water” both words being synonymous. Thus we have a meaning for the glyph: Water underground. This glyph is usually found within 100 meters of seepage or at a location where you can dig and find water. I have tested this hypothesis many times and have found water. Is this translation of the symbol correct, will have to be tested.


I have just begun to touch on the many reasons and justifications for studying rock art sites as part of the total search for the message that is hidden in rock art symbols. The scientific community has refused to accept the study of “rock art” as a viable tool for uncovering the history of mankind for far too long. Many years ago, a Native American Elder told me, “Stop looking at the light, and start looking at the shadows. It is in the play of the shadows on the rocks and nearby terrain that will bring you to understand the message of the symbols.”





1997   Personal Conversation, Little Pictograph Canyon, California, USA.



1997   Personal Conversation, Lamont Meadows, California, USA.



1996   Personal Conversation, Onyx, California, USA.




The author gives a definition of rock art and rock art site and explains that one cannot be researched without the other.




BCSP 31-32






Pgs 43-46











Carl A. Bjork

PO Box 422

Valley Springs CA 95252-0422

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