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Rock Art

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Rock Art Myths and Facts
Myths Facts
• Rock art is not really art the way we think of it. The images and designs were not done for their aesthetic value or as an individual expression of an artist. In reality, rock art is not a good name at all. It is more appropriate to use the phrase “images on stone.”

There are two types of rock art images: pictographs and petroglyphs.

• Rock art is not writing. The individual designs do not stand for sounds or words. They cannot be read like text.

• Hohokam rock art images do not tell a story. They are not narrative. Many images appear side by side but were probably done at different times by different individuals. We see the cumulative result of many individual acts.

o The grouping of many images is due to the limited space on rock surfaces that have the appropriate characteristics for rock art: a flat surface and a dark “patina” or outer layer on the rock.

o Rock art is often found in areas that were visited frequently, such as along a trail, in a good camping spot, near a village or by a source of water. 

• Rock art is made up of visual symbols. These images carry coded messages but the code to decipher them has long been lost. Contemporary Native Americans have meanings for some of the symbols, but these meanings may have changed as they were passed down, generation to generation, through the centuries.

o The cultures to which we belong are full of visual symbols: types of clothing, hand gestures, product logos, street signs, etc.

o We understand these layers of meaning because we are members of a culture. If a Hohokam person was alive today and saw those symbols, he or she would have no idea what they meant.

We know very little about the meaning of most rock art. It is as if the prehistoric peoples who created these images are speaking to us in a language of visual symbols that we do not understand. We must accept the fact that we probably will never be able to completely break the code and decipher what they mean.  


PICTOGRAPHS or rock paintings, are found on light-colored surfaces in rock shelters, or overhangs. The paint was made from mineral pigments such as hematite and ochre.

PETROGLYPHS are the most common type of images on stone found in the Southwest. They were made by pecking, incising, scraping, or rubbing away the dark surface of the rock.

A SYMBOL is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention.


The prehistoric rock art in Tempe and the rest of the valley was made by the Hohokam, who were the inhabitants of this area between A.D. 1 and 1450. Hohokam rock art images are inscribed into the surface of rocks and are referred to as petroglyphs. The best place to view Hohokam petroglyphs in Tempe is along the trail on the south side of Hayden Butte Preserve (also known as Tempe Butte or A Mountain).

There are over 500 individual petroglyphs pecked into the rock outcrops on Hayden Butte, the majority of which were made by the Hohokam. Like most Hohokam rock art images, they include many designs such as spirals, concentric circles and wavy or zigzag lines. Some of the petroglyphs depict human-like figures, lizards and other four-legged animals resembling deer. The petroglyphs on the butte date between A.D. 700 and 1450, and are probably associated with a large village that stood where Sun Devil Stadium is situated.

If you visit Hayden Butte Preserve, make sure to use good rock art manners and follow the regulations for Tempe preserves listed in Chapter 23, Article V, Division 2 of the Tempe City Code.

Stay tuned for an online photographic gallery of petroglyphs from Hayden Butte!


Many images on stone can be found in parks and on public lands. Everyone has the opportunity to see them and consider their meaning. Remember, they are a treasure from the past—follow these guidelines:

1. MAKE SURE YOU ARE WELCOME. Enter private property only with the landowner’s permission.

2. SAVE THESE IMAGES. Respect the images on stone the same as you would a museum artifact, a sacred object, or a precious heirloom.

3. PRESERVE THE PAST FOR THE FUTURE. Do not touch, sit or walk on, move, or disturb the images on stone.

4. ENJOY YOUR VISIT! Take time to reflect on the images and their meaning to you.


The Leonard Monti Trail in the Hayden Butte Preserve will lead you past a large panel of Hohokam rock art within easy walking distance of the trailhead. For more information on the preserve, visit the Hayden Butte Preserve page or call (480) 350-5200.

Deer Valley Rock Art Center is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the Phoenix area. For more information, visit

South Mountain Park offers guided walks to petroglyph sites within the park. For current opportunities, visit

For additional information on rock art sites in Arizona see A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, 1992, by Alex Patterson, Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado.

You can also visit the American Rock Art Research Association website at to learn more about rock art.


What can you do to save rock art?

Rock art is disappearing. Once it is gone, there is no getting it back. What can we do?

Rock art on Hayden Butte is being damaged and some has been destroyed.

• A lot of the damage is due to people who don’t follow rock art manners.

  • Make sure that you, your family and friends follow rock art manners when visiting an area that has rock art.

    • A significant amount of damage and destruction is due to intentional vandalism such as painting over images with graffiti or scratching them with a sharp point. Some images actually have been removed by being chiseled out of the bedrock.

  • Remember that rock art on public lands belong to everyone, now and into the future. It must be left intact for future generations!

  • If you witness someone damaging or removing rock art on public lands, call the agency in charge of the land or the local police. Do not confront the vandals!

    • Rock art sites need to be monitored regularly so that any signs of damage can be discovered as soon as possible. Graffiti also should be removed as soon as possible.

  • Become a volunteer Site Steward and get trained to do this type of work.

    • Law enforcement can deter vandalism and theft through possible consequences. Hayden Butte (Tempe Butte or A Mountain) has been designated as a preserve and destructive acts now carry a legal penalty. 


  • Make sure you follow Chapter 23, Article V, Division 2 of the Tempe City Code which defines preserve regulations when climbing the butte.