Ranger Kathryn's Arches

May 2, 2010

“May Day Man” and other petroglyphs

[I apologize for the formatting. I can’t seem to make the pictures and text fit around each other.]


My fascination with ancient rock art is likely rooted in the universals that connect us all. Every emotion I experience was once shared by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this area a millennium or two ago. Let’s look for the themes in various local petroglyphs I’ve photographed.

"May Day Man" --rock art from Chaco Culture NHP

Here’s one I’ve nick-named “May Day Man.” Is there an emergency? Is he startled? Newly engaged? Trying to get help? Petitioning a higher power? Or has someone just given him the best birthday present he’s ever received? Is there anyone who can’t relate to the intense emotion expressed here?

along the Petroglyph Trail at Chaco Culture NHP

Sexuality is another theme that crosses all cultures and all times. I saw such universals celebrated in the hieroglyphs lining Egyptian temples, half a world and three millennia removed. There is no denying its place as a major theme of human experience, worthy of fine art around the globe and throughout history.

Birthing Rock, near Moab

"TV screen" bighorn sheep, Hwy 313 outside of Arches NP

Relating to the organisms around us is another shared experience. Whether one hunts and eats them, or domesticates them for pets, or reveres them as gods, or honors them as another creature sharing this earthly domain — animals are a significant part of our world.

Finally, we have the realm of the spiritual, the unapproachable, the mysterious, the immanent. Every culture struggles to find expressions for this, whether it is shamanistic figures or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These are pictographs (painted), not petroglyphs (pecked).

Barrier Canyon style, at Sego Canyon, UT

Sego Canyon

There are other universals that could be found: conflict, survival, discovery, movement, beauty, love, beginnings, suffering. The intrigue of rock art is that we will never know many of its meanings. We can, however, be certain that if we experience it, our ancestors also did… and took the time to document it with significance lost to us across the centuries.


  1. K,
    Add to your list of universals the need to communicate to another – to others – across distance, across culture, across tome . . . we humans must tell of our experiences. We believe we (and they) matter and the memory must be preserved in any way available be it rocks or digital media.

    Comment by leroque — May 2, 2010 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  2. I like your nice little post and your feelings about the rock art around the world. I wonder if May Day Man is in a dance posture? To me, the sexuality represented is all about fertility. They needed the water to make the plants grow that fed them and the animals. It was all about birth and rebirth and giving thanks for life in a deeply spiritual way on their palette of rocks.

    Comment by windyscotty — October 10, 2010 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

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