GHOSTS OF THE CONQUISTADORS KEEP THEIR SECRETS
By Ernie Bulow
Many years ago someone told me about a second El Morro somewhere south of the Zuni Reservation. They described a high rock wall with ancient petroglyphs, modern graffiti left by drifting cowboys and lonely sheepherders, and several Spanish inscriptions.
“Not quite as impressive as El Morro, but almost as good,” they said. They weren’t sure exactly where it was. There was no road to the place and it was a pretty tough hike.
Over the years, mention of this marvelous display would come up, and several Zuni friends said they knew where it was, but it was very hard to reach. Only a couple of them claimed to have ever actually seen the inscriptions. I was assured, though, that there were several very old Spanish examples in the gallery.
Recently, though I don’t get around so good these days, a friend offered to take me to see these marvels. Nothing came of it for months, though it continued to be mentioned from time to time. I considered it a tease on his part. Early this spring I decided that, even with a cane, I simply had to see this wall and document the Spanish carvings.
In my younger days I traveled all over the West and spent a good deal of time in the outback: hunting, rafting, hauling firewood or just poking around. I saw rock art wherever I went. There is a small mountain just north of Brigham City, Utah, for example with a remarkable rock art gallery all around its base.
The slickrock on both banks of the San Juan is covered with ancient doodles.
There is a canyon leading to the put-in point for rafting on the Green River that is a veritable library of Fremont pictographs. Just a little north of Winslow, Arizona are some of the best and most interesting: a group often used as proof of the origin of the Katsina Cult because they can be dated by nearby ruins. Just a few of my favorites.
Rock art is literally everywhere.
My first visit to Zuni, nearly fifty years ago now, I was taken to a rift called Hardscrabble Wash, just a little west of the Witch Wells Bar. This rocky cut is famous for boasting several miles of great rock art. The last time I visited there was about fifteen years ago when my son was a small boy.
I heard recently that the local rancher, displeased with what he considered too many invaders on his land, did a pretty fair job of destroying that particular display of ancient art.
I know, and have read about, people who claim they can read rock art as easily as people read Egyptian hieroglyphics or Mayan inscriptions. Most scholars and students of the genre do not believe pictographs are writing, though the meaning of some of them seems pretty obvious. I have always felt interpreting the symbols was pretty much a personal opinion.
The belief that many of the designs are far more than idle scratching is borne out by the fact that some of them, like the famous “sun dagger” at Chaco Canyon, took a great deal of trouble and foresight (or forethought) to create. Their placement and purpose are obviously very deliberate.
There is also the fact that many symbols – besides natural elements like deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and the like – notably the sun spiral and Kokopelli figure, are very similar and very common over a huge geographical area and were created by a number of different cultures over a long period of time.
Most people interpret Kokopelli as an insect because of the antennae rising from his head. The figure is consistently depicted with a hump back and playing a flute. Sometimes he sports exaggerated genitalia as well. Whole books have been compiled about this figure.
In general it seems that Native Americans do feel that rock art has a purpose and definite meaning, and many Zunis consider them sacred and magical. Most of the masked figures near Zuni and elsewhere, south of the Colorado Plateau country, are readily identifiable as specific katsinas (Kokko). The oldest ones are hardest to interpret.
There is another group that clearly picture warrior figures. They carry shields and weapons that are obvious and need no interpretation, though many of them have non-human faces – representing either masks, or perhaps grimaces to frighten enemies. We talk today of “putting on a face” in certain contexts.
In southern Utah these warrior figures are often much larger than life-size and sometimes very stylized. They usually carry shields, clubs, and spears as weapons. There is another group of figures that wield bows and arrows for hunting – not battle. They are usually presented with various game animals, sometimes many figures in a group.
The age of some of the hunting figures is attested to by the appearance of what are plainly atlatls (spear throwers) which added force to their short spears in order to bring down big game.
It is also common to see figures of snakes. In our neck of the woods the snakes often have horns on their heads and/or feathered collars. These go by many labels including Avanyu (a common Pueblo pottery motif) and Kolowitsi, the Zuni name.
All this information is by way of setting up my four recent treks into some rough country in search of Spanish carvings. Once I decided to look for the fabled inscriptions, I was determined, but with no success. I don’t really mind. I love the outdoors and don’t spend that much time there any more.
Another reward was renewing my acquaintance with the sheer quantity and artistry of rock art. For every mile of walking, for every hundred names, dates and initialed hearts, there will be something worth seeing. And for every few hundred of these examples of genuine rock, there is something that takes my breath away.
I am talking about something completely unique, wonderful and actually breathtaking. Every once in a rare while there will be that image that haunts my sleep for weeks on end; stimulates my brain; gives me a new insight – or at least curiosity – about the thinking of so-called primitive people.
Purely by accident we found one of these magical images. It wasn’t on a rock wall, flanked by hundreds of names, figures and modern katsina figures. It was on the south side of a small hill out in an open plain. There was a clearly visible ruin of a small fort on the hill, used for lookout or defense. The boulders around the hill were covered with superior rock carvings.
The guys I was with were far more agile and muscular than I and one of them called me over. After a very scary climb up through a thorn bed (I don’t even know what the plant is called) and through loose rock and one badger hole that collapsed under me, I came face-to-face with one of the warrior figures, shield prominent with interesting designs on it.
No, he said, look at the hands. They had six fingers each, not quite the usual number. Unfortunately the sandstone in that area is prone to scaling and bits and pieces were missing from the picture. Definitely six fingers.
The face was also strange. Not a katsina mask, but not a human face either. The boulder he was carved on was not too large, but he took up all the available space, being larger than life size. The rock tilted sharply to the north which made him face upward and to the south, getting maximum sun exposure.
I didn’t get the feeling the figure was malevolent as much as just mysterious, and strangely powerful. We kept spotting interesting elements until one of the fellows noticed that something seemed to sprout from the head (or possibly the helmet) of the figure. It was a corn plant in full blossom, ready to fertilize the nascent ears of corn, not yet visible. [Sorry, I don’t get to use words like nascent very often. It just means infant or bud.]
Among the tens of thousands of examples of rock art I have seen in my lifetime, I have never seen anything quite like this. I wouldn’t feel okay about even talking about it, but nobody is likely to ever find it. Don’t even go looking. No outsider is welcome there.
On my last trip out, the boys found the rock they were sure had held the Spanish inscription, but it had eroded from the cliff and fallen face down. Now it’s just a giant slab of sandstone. My friends say it is the work of the spirit people. I should not have been looking for it in the first place and the spirits have hidden it forever. They don’t think it was the Spanish ghosts, but the spirits who guard that lonely spot.
The tiny spring nearby was dried up, in spite of all the rain in the area the last two months.
I keep wondering why, then, they let me find the wonderful Corn Man – a hundred times more special to me than some Conquistador’s feeble attempt to leave his mark. I think it was to teach me never to underestimate the vision and scope and imagination of the ancient mind. The artist who created Corn Man had an insight I can only guess at – but I’m still pondering and enjoying.