Rock with petroglyphs of animals
History,  Lens-Artists

Reading messages from the past

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.

Marcus Garvey

When I travel I am always curious about the people who inhabit the places I visit. I seek to understand their way of life and observe how it differs from, or is similar to, my own. But there are other people who populate my travels, the people who ONCE lived in these lands.

Those who were here most recently are easy to find. But even those from distant times have left messages for us; signs that tell their stories. Donna, of the wonderful Wind Kisses blog, has joined the Lens Artists team and this week takes messages as her theme. I’ve chosen to focus on those messages from the past that I’ve been able to ‘read’ on my travels.

Note: some of these images have featured in other posts looking at their location more generally. I’ve included links to those posts for anyone interested in seeing more of the settings for these messages

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Twyfelfontein means ‘doubtful fountain’, so-called because the natural spring in this valley proved too unreliable for the farmers who settled here in the mid 20th century. To the indigenous Damara this place is Uri-Ais, ‘jumping fountain’.

Today the valley is famous for its many rock paintings (pictographs) and rock engravings (petroglyphs). Most of the engravings and probably all the paintings were made by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, some as much as 6,000 years ago. Later the San people (also known as Bushmen) occupied the valley and added more petroglyphs.

Most of the images are either of animals or are hunting scenes, with the hunters using bows and arrows. Other images are of geometric shapes, and these are the ones added by the Bushmen. They may relate to their herder groups or to shamanist rituals. Some of the animal images too are thought to be related to such rituals. They appear to depict the transformation of humans into animals.

New Mexico

At the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico we saw pictographs left by the Mogollon people who once inhabited these caves.

Figure of a man painted on rock
In a cave at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, NM

Elsewhere in the state, in the Tsankawi section of Bandelier National Monument, it was the Anasazi who had left their messages for us to read, in the form of petroglyphs.

The trail leaflet explained more about them:

‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’

Newspaper Rock, Utah

The petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock were carved by Native Americans. They date from both prehistoric and historic periods, reaching back as far as 2,000 years ago. The images include various animals such as deer, buffalo, and pronghorn antelope.

There are also human figures and symbols. Some depict riders on horses, while others describe past events as in a newspaper, hence the name. The Navajo call it Tse’ Hone’, the rock that tells a story.


In Uzbekistan our driver stopped the bus on the road that runs from Karmana to Nurata, near its highest point known as Black Crow Pass. A short scramble up the rocks brought us to several rocks where we saw these Bronze Age petroglyphs. They are reasonably well-preserved considering their proximity to the road.

Rock with petroglyphs of animals
Petroglyphs in Black Crow Pass, Uzbekistan

There are better ones, and many more, in the Sarmysh Gorge but unfortunately that wasn’t on our itinerary.

Register Cliff, Wyoming

Of course it wasn’t only ancient peoples who left their marks on the rocks. In Wyoming, just south of the small town of Guernsey, we found Register Cliff. Pioneers travelling west on the Oregon Trail would regularly stop here as it was a convenient day’s wagon ride (11 miles) beyond Fort Laramie. At Register Cliff they would carve their name and town of origin in the soft sandstone. Many of these carvings are well-preserved to this day.

I found it moving to read all the names and to imagine who these people were and what brought them here on such a difficult and dangerous journey.

Muscat, Oman

On a rocky islet across the bay from the oldest part of Muscat sailors would traditionally paint the name of their ship. The names today form an unofficial log book of visiting ships.

Legend has it that Horatio Nelson, when a young midshipman, himself scrambled up these rocks to leave the name of his ship here. Although most of the ‘signatures’ are old, a few are more recent. The name RELUME on the rocks just above the small fort which guards the entrance to the bay is that of an offshore supply vessel that has helped in a number of recovery operations in the Gulf. Others in that photo may be harder to make out but include several from New Zealand including HMNZS Canterbury.

Other names I spotted included HMS Perseus, painted just above the water line in the middle of the island with the added detail of a Union Jack. This is probably the signature of HM Submarine Perseus which was built in 1929 and struck a mine off Italy in 1941.

Also HMS Falmouth which visited Muscat in 1974. This ship was built at the Swan Hunter yards on Tyneside in the 1950s. I guess Chris can claim some connection to it, having been born just a couple of miles away in the same decade!

And so my messages reach almost to the present day. What is it that drives us to leave our mark on the world in this fashion? And will markings that today we consider vandalism become tomorrow’s historic record?


  • rkrontheroad

    I too am fascinated by petroglyphs made by indigenous people so long ago. They have left us stories of their time and place. Wish we could understand them in more detail.

  • equinoxio21

    Wonderful post. The Indian petroglyph of the hunter on a horse with a bow might question again the introduction of horses to America by the Spaniards? Or was that a “recent” add-on?
    Happy Sunday

  • Leya

    Brilliant, Sarah! Excellent photography as usual and such a varied post. It really is one of the most important things before going on a new journey – reading and researching to get the most out of it. When we were in Egypt we also got something more that was very valuable – excellent guides. Two Egyptologists explaining the painted and carved figures and signs in every place we visited. They stayed with us for two weeks along the Nile too, Abu Simbel and Karnak aso.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Ann-Christine 😊 Yes, a good guide is invaluable (and a bad one far worse than none at all!) Your Egyptologists sound excellent. And I envy you Abu Simbel. We did a trip to Egypt decades ago when money was tight and so was time off work, so we only managed Cairo and Luxor. I found Karnak stunning, and I’d love to go back to see it again and add Abu Simbel and Aswan 🙂

  • leightontravels

    Amazing photos and a fascinating collection of various locations as always, Sarah. I love the ship names in Oman and find your revelations about HM Perseus particularly moving. It is remarkable to behold images made thousands of years ago, to consider their meaning, and what destiny befell the ones who left them and their community.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Leighton 😊 I found it interesting to look into the history behind some of those ships, I just wish I could have read more of the names, but some were far too faded to make out from a distance.

  • bluebrightly

    It’s nice to pull these together from so many parts of the world and see the commonality. I didn’t know about Register Cliff – there’s a similar cliff in Utah’s Capitol Reef NP that we saw last year and I had the same reaction as you to seeing those names and dates. History brought to life.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I believe I read that there are several places along the Oregon trail where settlers left their mark. I wish I’d known about the Capitol Reef one when we were there many (very many) years ago.

  • photobyjohnbo

    Rock art and graffiti are messages for the ages. I have heard people express that rock drawings were possibly the work of ancient alien beings from outside our solar system. I am sure, though, that beings who have conquered space travel would have far more sophisticated methods of leaving messages for us. 🙂

  • SoyBend

    So we both thought of long ago messages we’ve seen in the rocks. I liked your first picture and the ones of Newspaper Rock, which I’ve visited. Isn’t it AMAZING?!

  • ThingsHelenLoves

    A great set of pictures, but something particularly fascinates me about the ship names up on the cliffs. A cheer for the mention of Swan Hunter, I grew up not far from those gates. A different world, then!

  • Anna

    I love this!!! So many carvings from the past throughout the world! I loved seeing the ones in Jordan, and of course our aboriginal rock art here in Australia is pretty special too! Lovely post Sarah x

  • Suzanne

    Yes, it is a thought provoking post, Sarah. Funny, how we still use that form of communication in a supposedly well advanced communication in most societies. Luckily, most countries preserve their history if only for tourism it is still good to see it being preserved.

  • Alli Templeton

    The Garvey quote at the top here says it all. Without a knowledge of history, culture and origins, it’s almost impossible to understand the present. That’s why these messages from the past, ancient and more recent, are so important. I love the petroglyphs, as stone art would be a good medium to make your message permanent. It does seem as though the people of those ancient civilisations were driven to leave their marks to show that they were here, and that they, and their way of life, should be remembered for all time. The Wyoming cliff carvings remind me of graffiti from the same era that I’ve found in several castles, and again this seems a way to immortalise one’s name or identity in stone. For me, it all adds up to a sense of longevity and lasting memory. Fascinating stuff, Sarah. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Alli 😊 I’ve seen bits of graffiti in castles too, and Margaret below mentions some in Beverley Minster. They really add to the experience of visiting, yet if you were to do the same you’d be charged with vandalism.

  • Alison

    You’ve really thought outside of the box Sarah with these images and messages. It’s amazing how they have been found and preserved. Very different from murals of today which will fade before long

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Alison 🙂 A lot of today’s murals get painted over before they have the chance to fade, I reckon. When I go to Brick Lane or Shoreditch I usually find some walls have a new mural where an old favourite had been. I think the artists recognise that they are transient – maybe that’s something they value???

  • salsaworldtraveler

    Pictographs and petroglyphs are found all over the world even in very isolated places like Easter Island. The instinct to make art must be ingrained in the human brain like the instinct to make music.

  • Wind Kisses

    Sarah, like you, I am always intrigued with people who have walked ahead of us. Petroglyphs and pictographs were a great vision for this weeks messages. I am glad you included Bandolier as it is one of my favorite places. We often hear, in AZ, that no one “really” knows what the ancient writings mean, but Newspaper Rock in Utah seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? I loved the history you shared of Muscat. My husband, as a military historian, would love exploration there.

    To answer your questions. I think “in the day” the people who traveled across our country left “check in” messages in the event they didn’t make it to the next popular stop. We found evidence in Capital Reef too. And vandalism seems to have made street art more prominent. I hope that isn’t in case, especially as we work so hard to “leave no trace” in our forests for future generations.

    And I think you did cover up to present time. Aren’t all the marking you show just ancient …blogging? Thank you for joining.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh that’s an interesting way of looking at it Donna – ancient blogging! I think there’s a drive in all of us to leave a mark, whether actual or virtual. Thanks for such a thought-provoking theme, you’re going to be a real asset to the LAC team – but then, I knew you would be!

  • Tina Schell

    Very clever response Sarah – I loved the closing sentence as honestly I do see many of today’s messages carved or painted on walls or statues as more destructive/distracting than historic. Only time will tell I suppose. Those that are well done of course are the exception but it seems so many have gotten truly carried away with their own importance. Your images of the rock paintings and carvings makes me rethink my opinion however, and that is what a good photographer does – makes us think. Beautifully captured and well chosen for the week!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina 😊 I think you’re right – time will judge which messages are pure vandalism and which deserve to be heard. I’m glad to have made you think!

  • Rose

    Fascinating images of messages from the past. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know who wrote or drew those stories and why, what do they really mean? When you ask: “What is it that drives us to leave our mark on the world in this fashion? And will markings that today we consider vandalism become tomorrow’s historic record?”. I think of my own letter-writing, card-sending, journaling, blogging… I’m driven to share love, caring, admiration, to offer lessons or history or a different view, to guide or protect. But my writing is not carved into caves or mountains or buildings. It gets lost, ignored, thrown away, forgotten. Does that mean it matters less than the hugeness of these historical hieroglyphs? And what if, as you suggest in your question, those images were ‘vandalism’ of their time? Would they be of less value than they are now, while we think of them as historical records? A lot to ponder on a Sunday morning, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful response Rose 😊 As you say, lots to ponder. I think generally we live in an age where messages are transient. We don’t treasure emails as people in the past treasured letters. We don’t carefully mount our family photos in albums. How will our descendent piece together their family histories as people do today if blogs etc. aren’t properly archived and social media accounts deleted after we die?


    Like you Sarah, I always like to research the history of a place and its people, I am convinced that it helps us travellers to understand a place. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s essential in some places at least, in order to get the most out of a place.

  • Anne Sandler

    Great response to this post. You’ve given us a tour of historic messages. I think that if preserved, tagging will be looked upon hundreds of years from now as a message. Especially if tagging becomes more sophisticated and meaningful. Also murals are another way of leaving messages. Now that gives me an idea!!

  • margaret21

    What a fascinating and thoughtful post. I have had few opportunities to see in situ evidence of human life from a period before written history, so I really enjoyed this tour. And isn’t it interesting that the signature carved yesterday on an ancient tree is vandalism, but marks scarring over, and with the date eighteen-something attached is history?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret 🙂 Yes, that’s exactly what struck me as I compiled this post, especially looking at the more recent examples. If you were to daub white paint on a cliff or scratch your name on a rock, you would be called out as a vandal, yet in the future someone might treasure your marks as a link to the past!

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