Native American Cultures HomeScholastic Explorers

Skagit River explorers
Prehistoric Pueblos explorers
Native American Cultures HomeEarthwatch
    Sally Cole was interviewed by students and teachers on

How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be an archaeologist?
Sally: I was about 28. I went back to college to become an archaeologist.

Why did you major in English and philosophy first?
Sally: Because I liked those subjects when I was in college the first time. It helps with archaeology because you have to write and interpret your information and communicate that to other people. It gave me important communication skills. And philosophy is helpful because it teaches you how people think, and how they thought in the past by studying ancient philosophies.

How do you learn to understand what the rock-art symbols mean?
Sally: In the Southwest where I work, we look at the way the descendants view the rock art and how it fits with their history and traditions and in the Southwest. One of the reasons archaeologists want to work here is because we have these living traditions.

What kinds of rock art have you studied?
Sally: I study rock art in the greater Southwest, which includes the Rocky Mountains, and the great basin and that's generally rock art of the hunters and gatherers such as the Ute and Piute. I also study rock art of the agricultural people, for example the Pueblos and then the ancestors of all these people.

Where was the first place you studied rock art?
Sally: California. I studied mostly coastal rock art of the Chumash. They are hunters and gatherers of central California. We found really beautiful paintings. You can learn about some of these findings in the museums around Santa Barbara.

Where else can you find rock art?
Sally: Pretty much all over the world. In North America, you can find rock art in almost any place where there are large outcroppings of rocks or caves. You can find rock art in Europe, Africa, South America, Meso-America, and Asia. We actually learn more in our schools about the rock art of other places than we learned about our Native American rock art here in the United States.

How do you know which tribe made the rock art?
Sally: In the case of prehistoric people, we don't call them tribes, we call them "cultures." We look at the artifacts, and compare them to the rock art (pottery designs, basketry designs). We also estimate the age of the rock art by looking at different examples from different ages. We are able to look at historic records from those tribes and compare.

Can you describe your favorite rock art?
Sally: I guess my favorite rock art is the very old rock art. That is very mysterious to me because it's very difficult to go that far back in time and try to interpret it, or precisely date it.

Have you studied rock art in any other countries besides America?
Sally: I've studied in east Africa, in Tanzania. I also studied rock art in France.

Would you consider today's graffiti a kind of "rock art"?
Sally: Yes, in so far as it represents the thoughts and symbols of specific groups in modern culture. For instance, neighborhood drawings and wall murals really speak to questions of style and how the community wants to present itself. And it's public art.

What is the greatest threat to the rock art? How widespread is graffiti?
Sally: The greatest threat is probably just weathering. Vandalism would be the second. Archaeologists expect some weathering. And it helps add to our knowledge because it helps us date it. But vandalism is just destructive.

How do you know if something you find is rock art or just graffiti?
Sally: By using the same processes we just mentioned. Graffiti can usually be identified by its appearance (for instance, writing in some known language — like English, or symbols like modern gang graffiti) and graffiti looks more recent than rock art.

Have you ever made mistakes when interpreting rock art?
Sally: Sure! One common one is that some groups copy old symbols, so you have to make sure you really examine all the different aspects of the rock art to make sure that your interpretation is consistent with the culture and the time period.

How long does it take you to figure out what the symbols mean?
Sally: You never really figure out what symbols mean unless you're in the culture that made them. For example, the McDonald's symbol and the Apple computer — those symbols would be difficult to recognize outside of our modern culture. So if you have to project back 1,000 years into another culture, it would be really hard to understand those symbols. The best we do is try to recognize the significance or importance of the symbols.

What was the oldest petroglyph or rock art that you have found?
Sally: Probably 4,000 to 6,000 years old. That rock art was attributed to hunters and gatherers. The older petroglyphs tend to be very weathered and dark in color.

What was your greatest discovery?
Sally: To be able to go into very early rock art and find images that I can directly relate to artifacts, particularly among basket-maker culture, which is the oldest in the Pueblo tradition. Specifically, I was able to relate the rock art to a face mask artifact. It's difficult to make those connections the further you go back. So that made that an important discovery.

What is the latest thing you found?
Sally: Rock art in Mesa Verdi that was made by the Ute Indians; it was actually made by the last traditional chief.

Our class has been reading a story about Mary Anning and I would like to know if you, like her, use special tools when looking for rock art. My classmate Joseph would like to know if you search for fossils.
Sally: I don't search for fossils, but I think they're really cool. Special tools for rock art are just good visibility in order to find the rock art and your eyes need to be trained — you have to be able to really see the rock art and artifacts on the ground. Your eye has to be trained to pick those out.

Why would the ancient Native Americans carve animal tracks?
Sally: The carving of animal tracks is mostly related to social groups. They're symbols of groups such as families and clans and special hunting groups. They are symbolic of the actual animal and the clan that is associated with it. For example, the bear clan or crane clan or badger clan.

Have you ever faced danger in any of your expeditions? What happened?
Sally: It's always potentially dangerous when you're out in nature. Rockfall is one danger. Flash floods are another. Also, rattlesnakes. If you're alert, physically fit, and you understand your environment, it's pretty safe.

Is it dangerous climbing on the rocks?
Sally: It can be. Loose rocks and rockfalls make it dangerous. You need to have the skills to climb and scramble around.

Have you found any dinosaur bones?
Sally: Yeah, we do find them. I'm not a paleontologist, so I'm not specifically looking for bones. Paleontologists look for bones. Archaeologists look for cultural and human artifacts.

How do you work with current Pueblo Indian groups, both to understand the rock art and also to preserve the sites?
Sally: I work as part of a consultation process. I take traditional elders (people with a knowledge of their pueblo's history) to the actual rock art sites, and we share information. And I use that information in my interpretation. And that allows more protection for the site. If it's on public lands, then the agencies have greater knowledge of the importance of the site. And then they try to provide more protection for the site.

What do you do after you leave the field site?
Sally: We do laboratory work. We fill out our paperwork (the dull stuff!) and we then draw out the maps (convert them from field quality to final quality) and we label all of our film and drawings; then we organize the data into a way the data can be used for interpretation.

What does rock art look like?
Sally: The markings are pecked into the rock or scratched into the rock — those are called petroglyphs. Some rock art is painted or drawn on using colors. Those are the two basic types of rock art. They occur either on cliffs or boulders, or in caves or rock shelters.

Are samples of rock ever placed in museums?
Sally: We discourage that. Basically, it should remain where it is, because that's how we understand its meaning and significance to people of the past. It's part of the archaeological record, and if it's moved, we lose all of those connections.

Are Pueblo Indians today continuing to add rock-art drawings to the same sites that their ancestors used?
Sally: Yes. As far as we know, there are rituals that are still observed that involve rock art. So Pueblo Indians today still make rock art as part of their rituals.

What type of paint did the Chumash use for their rock art?
Sally: Mostly mineral paints (derived from minerals in the soil). Most of the yellows and reds come from iron oxide; white comes from calcium carbonate (a type of chalk — similar to what you use in your classroom); white is also derived from gypsum, which is a type of salt. Black is from manganese, and charcoal was also used (charcoal is not a mineral, though).

What else can you tell us about the Chumash?
Sally: They built wonderful plank canoes. They used natural tar deposits that occur on the beaches for making the plank canoes. And they made beautiful shell bowls. They also drew very colorful, intricate, and complex rock art. They also had wonderful condor dances. You can find an exhibit on the Chumash at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

How could I become an archaeologist?
Sally: You need to go to school. There are now high schools that provide programs for training in archaeology. From those, you can go into college and study anthropology and archaeology. It helps if you like to be outdoors, too!

What is the best way to expose kids to rock art and archaeology?
Sally: I would say field trips. Contacting agencies, museums, or colleges in your area and get them to provide field trips and background information.

Is it fun to research civilizations? What do you like most about it?
Sally: It is fun! You have to like history, and the mystery of it all. It's like being a detective, where you're interpreting the past.

Sally: Thanks so much for your interest, and I hope you're all going to become good preservers of the past. I'd like to encourage all of you to continue to develop your interest in archaeology.


Sally Cole, archaeologist