I gingerly stepped over a tiny cholla cactus only to land on scraggly cat claw hidden by the dried grass. The hooked thorns dug into the side of my foot, but I decided I could deal with it later — more important to keep up with the group.
I had joined up with Dusty Miller to hunt for petroglyphs south of Payson on the rolling hills next to Rye.
Each Tuesday morning, Miller and other leaders in the hiking group Payson Packers, head out to explore the trails and off-road sites around Rim Country.
Usually I have other assignments to cover, but this time petroglyphs called.
The figures ancient inhabitants shaved through the “desert varnish” on stones have left pictures that generate more questions than they answer.
“What do the designs mean?”
“Why were they etched into the rocks?”
“Why did the artists pick that spot to etch their pictures?”
“What were those ancient people doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
On this warmer than-usual-day in January, our group headed out using GPS coordinates Miller had from a previous Packers’ trip.
Good thing because I would have immediately gotten lost in the hillocks: But that’s the joy of hunting for Rim Country treasures with the Packers — seasoned guides that make sure you’re free to just enjoy the scenery.
Those ancient people must have had an uncanny sense of direction. The petroglyphs we found waited far from any marked trail: Nor did they sit by a stream, or other natural place of interest.
Instead, they seem to simply litter the landscape, turning it into an ancient art gallery.
As we meandered through the brush, our group ran across piles of desert varnished stones atop hills surrounded by pinion pines and juniper trees. Birds flitted and called, mimicking our excited cries as we found piles of ancient art.
“Hey! There’s some over here! — Look at these designs — That looks like a lizard — There’s a coil like a snake or those designs on pottery,” we chattered back and forth in a delirium of discovery.
Petroglyphs cover the state of Arizona. Scientists can provide at least rough estimates of the dates of the designs because of the “desert varnish” phenomenon, experts say.
Desert varnish happens when airborne particles of minerals such as iron and manganese oxide fall on the face of rocks. Then microbes and bacteria work on the minerals to form the varnish. The varnish sticks to the rock like cement.
Experts believe the ancients used rock chisels to peck out the petroglyphs.
The varnishing process explains why the pictures remain so clear 500 to 1,000 years later.
The varnishing process can date the designs, since the varnish begins to form afresh on the chiseled out designs.
Experts say the designs changed over the millennia. According to Arizona Ruins.com, there are some distinct styles. The Anasazi Style, from the Four Corners’ region was produced from A.D. 300 to 1300, as were the Hohokum Style from the Phoenix area and Salt River region.
The much older Archaic Style lies scattered throughout the state and dates from A.D. 300 to 5000 B.C.
Some petroglyphs depict animals, such as big horn sheep, elk or deer. Others have people dancing, hunting, or adorned with elaborate headgear. Yet others have geometric designs that seem to be simple decorations, but if placed right, mark the solstices.
The Forest Service prefers that people not publish the exact location of ruins or petroglyphs to deter thieves. It’s illegal to remove such artifacts from public lands, with stiff fines for violators. Even the Arizona Ruins Web site uses cryptic descriptions of where ruins are located because of looters. Once again the handful of vandals and thieves have made it more difficult for everyone else.
As I climbed back into my car, cunningly found by Miller with his trusty GPS thingy, I looked up at the hills we had just wandered. No way would I find those petroglyphs again without the coordinates from Miller, but he promised I could get them from him any time.
I plan on it.