Along the San Juan River, high above a talus slope, carved into the sandstone of the canyon’s walls, is found one of the most unique petroglyph rock art panels in the world. Petroglyphs are images, symbols or drawings carved into the rock.
This particular panel features the work of two distinct cultures, superimposed onto one another, yet created at least 700 years apart. The first of these two cultures is the Anasazi, who lived in the Southwest and vanished between AD 1200-1300.
The second of these two cultures is the Navajo, who moved into the area after the Anasazi’s disappearance and who still inhabit the area today. In fact, the Navajo is the dominating Native American culture in the Southwest today, occupying the largest Indian Reservation in the United states.
What we have on this panel is a clash of two cultures. A violent, yet somehow superbly artistic and expressive, representation of two entirely set of beliefs.
In the 1960’s a number of Navajos who lived near this rock art site mysteriously fell ill. Upon seeking the help of a local Medicine Man, they were told that the source of their illnesses came from a rock art panel along the San Juan river, panel located within close proximity of where the Navajos lived.
The medicine man said that “altering” the rock art images, if done with the proper knowledge and ceremonial approach, would put an end to their suffering. Somehow, this alteration would stop the malevolent power coming from the images on the rock and return the world to a state of balance and beauty.
The result is what we see today on the Desecration Panel. The Medicine Man used what appears to be a stone axe, a hatchet, or some other metal tool able to deliver powerful blows.
In some instances, the work of the Medicine Man literally nearly obliterates the original Anasazi petroglyphs, to the extent that what we see now is nearly only his. Hardly any of the original Anasazi rock art remains.
In other instances specific marks were made on the original rock carvings, usually at significant areas of the human body such as articulations, fingers, the neck, arms and legs, as if to signify that these stone-carved bodies were cut in pieces, reduced to fragments rather than allowed to remain whole.
Still in other instances, entire figures or series of figures were left untouched. These were allowed to remain whole and unaltered and we can see them today the way the original artist intended them to be seen.
When looking at the Desecration Panel, I am reminded of what a Navajo told me in Chinle, in the waiting room of Big 0 Tires, shortly after 9-11, while watching TV waiting for our cars to be ready: “Good and bad have always been there. They are part of the world.”
Good and bad, evil and goodness, have existed side by side for times immemorial. To some extent they are ineluctable aspects of our world. At times they take on an aspect that we are forced to notice, an aspect that is unmistakable, an aspect which reminds us that opposite forces are at work.
As a photographer I rarely, if ever, take sides about the subjects that I photograph. Yet, I cannot but do so at times. With rock art I very often mention that my job is not to interpret the images left on the rocks. Rather, I see my purpose as being to represent these images to the best of my abilities and according to my personal vision. However, sometimes I need to voice my impressions, share my knowledge and my view of certain things. This is one of those times.
From out of the ages comes evidence of a conflict between two distinct cultures, a conflict foreign to us but to which we can strangely relate. A conflict that has left us with images that, given the context in which they were created, have a surprising aesthetic quality. Image that have the power to move us and cause us to reflect.