Art & Literature

GIS & Mapping


Base Camp

Prehistoric Art
The Anasazi

One of the most challenging things to understand when studying pre-literate (before writing) ancient civilizations is to realize that in many cases they did not even have a concept of 'art' as we do today. Today, artists create art works to express individual, personal ideas, and their art work has no utilitarian purpose .. it is not 'used' for anything but instead hangs on a wall or sits on a shelf .. in many ways it is more like a visual story describing events or a personal experience.

In prehistoric life, the artifacts we see today were most often not 'art' as we know art today.

They are items that were crafted for specific uses and while the very nature of their creation and beauty appears to us to be very 'artistic', at the time they were created the artifacts were most often made specifically to perform some useful role.

The pottery was not seen as a decorative sculpture - it was in use every day to cook or store food.

The inlaid figurines were not sat on a shelf just to be admired for their beauty, they were understood to embody special powers to heal, bring good fortune, or help in the hunt.

The rock art was not painted so people could come by on a Sunday and admire the artist's talent - they were painted to tell important stories, record important events, or bring good fortune to hunters. There seems to have been great purpose and intention behind the beautiful ancient artifacts; they were not just decorative items as we often see art today.

In fact, in many ancient languages, there is no word for 'art', but there is great artistic skill embodied in their artifacts.

Rock Art

One of the most mysterious traces of the ancient people of the Southwest are the remarkable rock art paintings and carvings that have lasted the centuries. These images might be one foot across or forty feet long, and they are found in nearly all areas of he Southwest. The painted images are called PICTOGRAPHS and the carved images are called PETROGLPHYS. Some seem to mark celestial occurrences in the sky - stars, planets, even a supernova (star exploding). Others may tell the story of the universe's creation, and the spreading of the galaxies. Still others depict the animals so important to the people's survival. Some depict the water creatures who represented different types of weather or knowledge. Let's take a look at examples of these impressive visual communications and compare the Anasazi images to their counterparts across the Southwest. What do YOU think they were intended to communicate ?

How do they differ from place to place ?


When the Mogollon peoples to the south of the Anasazi learned to make pottery around 200AD, it is thought their teachers were potters from Mexico who showed them how to find natural clay deposits, gather the clay and shape it, how to paint it with mineral pigments using yucca brushes, and then how to fire it under high heat to make it water tight and long lasting. As knowledge of this craft spread up into the Southwest, each people developed their own style of pottery - specific shapes, colors, textures, and patterns are now found in different areas, helping archeologists associate different styles with different ancient peoples. In Chaco Canyon for example, there is evidence that clay pots replaced baskets for culinary usage between A.D. 400 and A.D. 750.


As utility vessels, ceramic pots have a number of advantages over baskets. Pots take less time to construct, they can be placed directly on the fire and used for cooking, they can be left on the fire for simmering food, and they do not deteriorate with age. The appearance of pottery in a culture is related to a settled lifestyle. Because pottery is heavy and fragile it is not easily moved from place to place. When the people of Chaco began to depend on agriculture as a primary food source, they became more sedentary. A sedentary life style was conducive to the building of more permanent structures as well as an increased use of ceramics.



As archaeologists work ancient town and village sites, they discover clay and carved figurines that most often depict animals and can be decorated with beads, amulets or other objects that reveal how precious the object was to its owner. In Mesa Verde a carved turquoise frog was found and all over the region the black and white pottery will at times have an animal handle or shape.

Jewelry and Clothing

Personal adornment was as important to the ancient ones as it is to our culture today. Their jewelry was made from materials found in the four corners area - blue and green turquoise, black jet from volcanic rock, copper - and from the far reaches of the Southwest - seashell and coral from the Gulf of Mexico, sea shell from the Gulf of California and the Pacific coast. Carved stones, soft enough to be shaped, were created out of steatite from Catalina Island and the Sierras. They did not mine silver or gold, they gathered natural minerals form the lands around them to carve and string on twine. They made necklaces for men and women, earrings and ear plugs for men and women.

Feathers of the parrot were brought up from moist tropical central Mexico. Hawk, eagle, woodpecker and other native bird's feathers were also worn on clothing, in the hair, hung from the ears.

When the ice age subsided, and the big game left, the need to wear thick fur clothing changed. The climate warmed, plants began to grow, and new sources of clothing appeared. By the time the Anasazi were living in the Ancient Southwest, they were growing cotton plants to harvest the soft fibers and spin them into yarns. Certain villages became known as the producers of these fine cotton goods, and their highly valued soft, warm, and resilient work was traded clear over to the Pacific coast and down into Mexico. Camp has been able to acquire a remnant of a real Anasazi sandal, and it shows how they used local plant fibers to create the soles and connecting straps for foot coverings.


At some of the archeological sites in the Southwest, remnants of painted walls and colorful murals have been found. These paintings are similar to the painted images on their villages pottery, and are often similar to the images on clothing, painting, carvings, pottery and jewelry still created by their descendents today. Some of these prehistoric paintings have been found in the ceremonial kiva structures, others on the walls of their living or storage structures. What they communicate is still a mystery, but they are a rare insight into the way these ancient people saw the world .. and themselves in it.