Indian people throughout North America created rock art in ancient times. Rock art comes in may forms, such as prehistoric petroglyphs, pictographs, cave mud glyphs, and historic carvings. Its meaning is mysterious and sometimes controversial. Some archaeologists think rock art is a type of storytelling. Others believe it depicts religious or spiritual beliefs, while still others regard it as solely an artistic expression.
North American rock art is not a true writing system that can be read like Egyptian hieroglyphics or a phonetic alphabet, although some rock art specialists attempt to decode rock art symbols. Archaeologists analyze rock art figures and patterns, and they frequently find that different cultural groups made different styles of rock art. Other researchers analyze legends and information from Indian people to draw conclusions about rock art meanings.
Some American Indian tribes have oral traditions about rock art and its meanings. Many American Indian people believe that the spirits of the makers reside in what they have created. Therefore, rock art is living and it has a spirit. Whatever our responses to or interpretations of rock art may be, it stimulates our thoughts and imaginations. It expands our awareness of cultural expressions. Rock art can mean something different to each person who ponders it.
North Carolina is fortunate to have fine examples of prehistoric rock art as part of our rich archaeological heritage. Six petroglyphs and one pictograph have been recorded so far in western North Carolina, and over 50 rock art sites have been documented around the state. Unfortunately, many examples of rock art in our state has been negatively impacted by time, weather, and human activities (and consequently, many pieces have been removed from their original location). The history revealed through rock art is especially threatened by people who vandalize sites by collecting artifacts or defacing rock art. The unscientific digging of sites and other forms of vandalism are harmful because they destroy data about the past. Additionally, vandalizing and disturbing sites violates the cultural heritage of Native Americans. These sites are the burial grounds, homes, and sacred places of their ancestors, and destroying these places is the equivalent of someone vandalizing your home, church, or cemetery.