There’s a lot of rock art at Chaco. It’s present in varying densities the whole way along the cliff face, from one end of the canyon to the other. There are a few places within the park with rock art that is particularly noteworthy, either for being very numerous, very spectacular, or otherwise distinctive. These areas are marked on the maps we give out and indicated with signs.
One thing visitors often notice, and ask about, is that there are two different but similar terms used to denote these rock art sites: “petroglyph” and “pictograph.” These are terms used to distinguish two types of rock art by the way they are made.
A petroglyph is pecked, carved, or incised into the rock surface, and can be considered a type of very-low-relief sculpture. Most Anasazi petroglyphs are pecked, but some are incised or even raised in bas-relief. Navajo petrolyphs are typically incised, and tend to be shallower in relief and therefore less obvious than Ansazi ones. Petroglyphs of various sorts are quite numerous, and most of the rock art in the park and elsewhere is of this type.
Pictographs, on the other hand, are painted onto the rock surface using a variety of pigments and fixatives. This means that they are very vulnerable to weathering, and they typically only survive in sheltered locations such as in caves and under rock overhangs. As a result, they are much rarer today than petroglyphs. There’s no way to know how common they were originally.
One way the two do not differ is in the ease of interpreting them. It’s very difficult, in practice usually impossible, to tell what, if any, meaning a given petroglyph or pictograph had for its maker. Many of the petroglyphs at Chaco have been examined by modern Pueblo consultants, who often identify clan symbols in them. They are not, however, able to assign meanings to all of the signs, and most remain very mysterious. Some seem to have astronomical alignments, the Fajada Butte “Sun Dagger” being the most famous, but most don’t seem to have any detectable alignments.
In the end, it’s probably best not to worry too much about the meaning of rock art. It’s nicer just to appreciate it on an aesthetic level. It is important, however, not to touch it or damage it in any way. While pictographs are obviously extremely fragile, petroglyphs are quite vulnerable as well, and both can easily be destroyed by too much attention. It’s best to keep a safe distance and quietly admire these beautiful but mysterious artworks.