Sally Cole was
interviewed by students and teachers on Scholastic.com.
How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be an
Sally: I was about 28. I went back to college to become an
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
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
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
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
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
Is it fun to research civilizations? What do you like most
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
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.