Hints on How We Do It - Part 1

Books, Reference Materials, and Other Stuff

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Over the years we have had numerous requests on our main rock art website “Southern Nevada Petroglyphs” for hints on how to find rock art sites. The next few pages – Hints 1, 2, and 3 and our reference section - will give you a starting point from where you can build.


Time in the field will hone your skills and it won’t be long before you will start “seeing” things that you may have walked right by in the past; you may soon discover that "a pile of rocks is not always just a pile of rocks".


A few ideas to get you started

These suggestions or ideas are applicable in Nevada, and may or may not be accurate in your particular area.


(Links to Example Photos are in Red)

    General Ideas:


  • When you are in the field, don't assume anything. You probably have read or been told certain things dealing with rock art, such as, it is always on big flat vertical rock; it is only on certain colored rocks; it never occurs above a certain height in this canyon; it is never this or that. Never assume anything and keep an open mind or you will miss a lot, I can almost guarantee that.


  • When you are walking any area, be sure to stop every once in a while and look back. Many times I have walked right by some really great stuff and if I had not turned around, I would have missed an incredible panel.


  • Not only look up at the sides of a canyon / wash, but look down as well. Many times rock art is almost buried because of the rising levels of silt and debris in a wash.


  • Don't assume that the petroglyphs are going to be on just one side of the rocks. Check all sides including the tops, especially if you can't see the top from your level.


  • Check alcoves and under ledges. These areas can be the home of pictographs.


  • Many times have I heard "rock art only faces east to the rising sun". A lot of it does, but that leaves the rest of it facing any darned way the creator of the petroglyphs wanted it to face. Don't forget -- sometimes rocks do fall and won't be in their original locations, and when they do, who knows which way the petroglyphs will be facing.


  • Try to imagine why someone would be in that area. Unless the area is sacred - which could be anywhere - remember that people a 1,000 years ago needed the same things that we need today to live (minus Starbucks, cell phones, and SUV's): water, food, and shelter. Keep those things in mind when doing your research or when in the field.


  • Keep in mind that 500 or a 1,000 years ago that now-dry wash may have had water in it. Also, some dry areas had / have seasonal water flows, so… seasonal habitats. Another thing to think about when searching, if you were caught out here, where would you put your camp for the night or for the short term, considering you will need fire, shelter, and food and water?


  • One of my old hiking partners from a few years back always told me that “you will never find anything after a certain height above valley floor or above the wash” and that is correct to a point. The original peoples in southern Nevada were neither lazy nor stupid. They may have built a habitat near what is now a dry wash, but if there is a hill nearby, you will many times find a rock ring on the top of the hill where a sentry or lookout would have had a view of the valley below.


  • One old saying about rock art does prove to be true many times: You will find rock art at the entrance of a canyon. Obviously it is not at the entrance of every canyon, but I have found rock art at the beginning of many canyons.


  • Make sure to check both sides of the entrance to a canyon. Sometimes there is no real entrance because the width of the canyon is so large. In that case, look for large freestanding boulders, especially the odd-shaped ones. More than once at the entrance to a very wide canyon mouth, we have come across large free-standing boulders that were either habitats or had rock art on them. Always check any very large boulder or oddly-shaped rock that’s in the middle of a valley. Many times, not always, I have found habitats and/or rock art in these locations.


  • If you are in a wide valley, most of the time (but not always) you will find habitats and petroglyph sites along the edges of the valley, near large washes running through the valley, near large rock outcroppings, or natural springs if they exist.


  • Many times, but not always, habitats or rock shelters are built / placed where they can take advantage of early morning sun, but are protected from the hot afternoon sun.

    Rock Rings and Ridgelines:


  • Ridgelines and rock rings, many times these two go together. For years I only looked for rock art sites and it was not until the last few years that I started seeing the things that I had walked right by for years and never saw. Rock rings in southern Nevada come in all sizes and shapes. Average sizes range from 3’ in diameter to 6’ in diameter, but they do get much larger. Shapes range from closed circle, circles with openings, to square and rectangular - both closed and with openings.


  • In southern Nevada rock rings are located just about anywhere from next to a wash - where I would expect them to be – to high up on a hill, and those are possibly where the sentries or lookouts camped. The most common place in southern Nevada, however, is on low ridgelines about 10’ or so above the surrounding area. This kept the rock rings out of the washes and gave them a little more visibility.


  • Many times the smaller circles (rock rings) with openings have the openings facing a prominent object or point, North Star, or rising sun. These are thought to be ceremonial or prayer circles.


  • The larger rock rings are possibly habitat areas and may be the base stones for a wikiup-type of structure or the base for a lean-to structure. Some rings have adjoining rings which may have been storage areas.


  • It is common in southern Nevada for rock rings to be located on limestone or some other type of bedrock, and the rest of the time just wherever they were needed.


  • It is not uncommon to find a bush growing in the center of a roasting pit or rock ring. My guess is, especially in roasting pits, that the soil is nutrient rich because of the nature of what was cooked in the pit. In rock rings we sometimes find bushes that are growing in the center of the ring. This may have been a small cooking area within the living area or a place where foodstuffs were stored.


  • Rock Rings - Old vs New:


  • In the deserts of southern Nevada many times the under side of a rock will form a white residue on it. Normally when a person makes a fire ring or other type of ring today, they place the rocks in the needed pattern without much thought about whether the white side of the rock is up or down. In our area there is a pretty good chance if you see a rock ring with the white residue side up it is a new or newer ring. I have not seen any test results on how long the residue lasts when exposed to the desert elements, but I imagine it is a long time. So, with that said, the ring could be old historic.


  • More Ideas - Old vs New:


  • Count the number of Bud Light cans. Even if there are no beer cans in the fire ring, but they are scattered all over the area, it’s a good chance, but not 100% chance, that this is a historic fire ring. This is a little extreme, but you get the idea.


  • Another possible tell, but again not a 100%, is charcoal in the ring. Charcoaled wood can be in very old fire pits and can be dated by archaeologists using radiocarbon dating. The type of charcoal that I am referring to is what looks like burnt lumber from the local Home Depot.


  • For me it can be very difficult to tell the age of the rock ring, especially when you get lucky enough to find one that is pristine and looks like it was made day before yesterday. To keep yourself out of trouble, I would highly recommend that you not go digging through the rock ring looking for evidence to prove its age one way or another. Get up close and personal with the ring, but don’t disturb it.


  • Rock Piles, Stacked Rocks, or Cairns:


  • We have all seen rock piles and cairns many times when we are hiking and the question for me has always been whether they are old or new.


  • Cairns in Nevada are used as trail markers by hikers on a regular basis. Back in the heyday of Nevada mining they were used to mark the corners or a center of a mining claim and we still come across them today. We see stacked rocks or cairns used in Geocaching, and by the BLM and other government agencies to mark an old historic place or whatever.


  • What we do know is that Native Americans have used stacked rocks or cairns since the dawn of time for everything from a hunting blind to ceremonial purposes. So I am guessing that some of what we see today are really old, but for how to tell the old from new… I don’t have a clue.


  • This is one of those areas that if anyone has knowledge of some PDF’s on this subject, I would really like to see them.


  • Rock Alignments:


  • Alignments can be as little 3 rocks laid in a straight line, to rocks lined up for a couple of hundred yards or more. Most of the alignments that I have seen are either ceremonial or directional in purpose. I am sure there are many other reasons for alignments, but the two mentioned are the ones that I am familiar with.


    Rock Formations - Natural or Man Made:


  • Periodically when we are in the field we see rock formations that resemble either a human or some type of animal form.  The rock formations, whether natural or man-made, may have been significant to Native Americans living or traveling in the area.  It’s thought that these types of places might have been used in ceremonies, or as a locator or pointer to another site.


    Example 1: This natural formation is known as Duck Rock and there is a petroglyph site about a ¼ mile up the wash from here.


    Example 2: These rocks appear to be two tortoises overlooking the wash below. They are right near the entrance to a large petroglyph site.


    Example 3: This natural formation is known as Elephant Rock and there are petroglyph sites in the general vicinity of this formation.


    Example 4: This rock formation looks like a single tortoise and it just happens to be right over a really nice rock art site.


    Example 5: I don’t have an example of this, but I have been told if you come across a stone that looks like a human head and if it has what could be eyes, follow the direction that the eyes are looking.

    Old Trees:


  • One of the places that I always check is near, around, or under old trees especially when they are near a wash. Keep in mind that in many areas of southern Nevada and other desert areas, trees are sparse so people would have taken advantage of them when ever possible. The trees would have provided shade from the harsh sun and the wash may have provided water for a seasonal or temporary habitat. In areas such as these, I have come across temporary and seasonal habitats, artifacts and occasionally a metate, and sometimes an isolated petroglyph or two.


  • Trails:


  • When searching topo maps and Google Earth look for the natural corridors that run through the hills. The people who traveled the canyons and washes from one area to another were looking for the smartest route, not necessarily the shortest route. An example of this would be the natural corridors through the mountains separating the Colorado River from the Piute Valley in southern Nevada. Some of the likely places to look are at both ends of the corridor (canyon or wash) and maybe part way through it. These are the types of places where I would look for both rock art and habitat areas.


  • Depending on where you live, check old maps for the Old Spanish Trail because many times it follows old Indian trails . Check old maps for river crossings. Many times the old ferry crossings turned into old roads which were built on, you guessed it, Indian Trails.


  • Sometimes when you are hiking, you will come across a trail leading to a prominent peak, bluff, waterfall, or just some beautiful place. Keep in mind if you think it is a beautiful area, people hundreds of years ago may have thought the same. For them, it may have been a spiritual place, and because of that, you probably will not find any rock art or habitat areas at the site. A good example of this is Spirit Mountain in southern Nevada. I have been told that there is no rock art or archaeological sites on the mountain or the trail leading up it. What I do know for a fact is that there are habitat and other sites in close proximity to Spirit Mountain, and these are the areas where I would search. Once again, this is not true all the time.


  • Look For Patterns:


  • This has worked for me several times in the past. If you have visited several sites in one canyon or valley, make sure to GPS them and put them on a topo map. Then look for subtle or not-so-subtle patterns such as, they (sites) are all on the same type of rock, they are all on the same side of the valley / canyon, they are all on points, they are all on the inside or outside bends of a canyon or river, etc.


  • If you have one area that you hike a lot or are familiar where several sites are located, start looking for patterns for where things seems to be, but don’t fall into the trap that things are always going to be in this exact way.

    Researching the Internet:


  • As everyone knows, there is a wealth of information on the Internet. Some of it is real garbage, but there is some really valuable information in the form of websites (such as this one), also websites dealing with university and archaeological papers, and personal and professional sites dealing with archaeology, just to name a few. Once you find a website of interest, email the person who runs the website. As an example, I get a fair amount of emails every week and I answer all of them. Sometimes I cannot give out the information that people want, but many times I can be of assistance. My favorite saying that I inherited from my wife is, "If you don't ask, you don't get".


  • When searching the internet use combination of words beyond the obvious (petroglyphs, southwest, rock art), which will work, but take it one step further with things like: "petroglyphs Nevada trails", or "rock art Nevada trips" or "back country byways" or “old west trails”. Look for personal logs, blogs, or Facebook pages dealing with the outdoors, off road groups, hikers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers, kayakers, river guides, etc.


  • An example: A couple of years ago when researching “mountain bike” websites I came across a site showing a mountain bike trail near Mt Charleston in Nevada. The map showed a marker along the trail labeled as “petroglyph”. I downloaded the map and hiked the trail and you guessed it, I found several rocks with petroglyphs.


  • Another example: I came across a mountain climber’s blog. In it was a photo of him in front of a boulder with rock art. It took a while before he gave me the location, but he finally did and it’s now on my website.


  • If you are willing to put in the time, the rewards may be small, but they are out there.



  • Don't overlook libraries; they can be your best friend -- especially university libraries. At our local university I go to “Special Collections”, but good info can be found in “stacks” (normal library sections). Special Collections has requirements to look at books / papers / maps, so check the requirements at your local university before you visit.


  • Also, information on your local area is not always housed locally. I have a friend who is a researcher and lives in Washington State. He has located some very valuable info dealing with southern Nevada at the University of Washington.

    Maps and Books:


  • Two of the things that I use a lot are topographic (topo) maps (the CD versions) and books. Topo maps will occasionally have "public rock art sites" listed on them. When I was doing research for our websites, I was told by a Nevada archaeologist that "many times public rock art sites are listed on older topo maps" and yes, there are a few on them on the topo's in Nevada. Hint: Many times when you see the word “ruin” on a pre-1978 map and it’s not always a dilapidated building or mine. Sometimes it is a roasting pit and that is important.


  • Delorme and Garmin (CD) topo maps are not the old maps so they don’t have rock art sites listed on them, except for an occasional major site. National Geographic Topo’s are no longer being made and they had a wealth of information on them. “All Topo” maps are great because they have a lot of the old mines, along with the occasional petroglyph site.


  • There are many good reference books available. The ones that I own are listed under the “Reference” section link. If you live in the greater southern Nevada area, I highly recommend them. The books - in combination with topo maps, Internet research, networking, avocational groups, libraries, and a lot of just plain "old fashioned leg work" in the field - may lead you to a new rock art site that is seldom seen or has never been seen by others.

    Google Earth:


  • Is a very valuable tool. I check out Google Earth every time I am planning a trip or just checking out an area for a future trip. If you know what to look for, it’s an incredible tool. Granted in heavily-forested areas, it’s not so valuable, but in the southern Nevada area it’s great. I look for many things, but some of the most important things are roasting pits and backcountry structures and corrals.


  • Structures: Structures and corrals in Nevada are often near or at a water source such as a spring or seep. Most structures are probably on a well, but there may be a seasonal spring or seeps in the area. Seasonal springs in our area are a good place to locate habitat sites and/or rock art sites.


  • Roasting Pits aka Agave Roasting Pits: Roasting Pits are fairly common in southern Nevada and present themselves as gray-to-white circular spots to donut-shaped circles when viewed on Google Earth. The smaller pits cannot be seen on the consumer version of Google Earth, but the larger ones can be seen. The pits can lead to a shelter or habitat area.


  • I also use Google Earth to check roads in and out of our search area.  When researching a trip in 2013 I noticed that the road I was planning to take was washed out for about ½ mile.  Knowing this ahead of time save us a lot of time and miles.

    Organized Groups:


  • One of the easiest ways to get involved in rock art is with an avocational rock art group. Joining this type of group in your local area is one way to get an introduction to rock art and to meet other people with similar interests. Many times rock art groups have tours of various public rock art sites in their local areas. After a few meetings, you should be able to ferret out a person who would be willing to take you out or give you a starting point in your local area.


  • Other groups that may be of value are off-roading, hiking, and rock hound clubs.



  • The people who know me realize that I am not a "baby and puppy picture" kind of guy and because of that I never ever thought that I would have a Facebook page. Now that I have become enlightened and I realize the value of Facebook, my page – Nevada Petroglyphs – is not only a link to my regular website, but a way to communicate with others who have a similar interest that may be located down the street or a half a world away. There are also groups within your interest area that will give you more access to people who you would normally never come across. For example, by belonging to a “rock art” group on Facebook I am able to view not just rock art, but all kinds of archaeological sites from all around the world. It is incredibly interesting to see rock art from the Middle East, South America, and Australia and see how similar it is to what we have here in the southwest.


  • Below are a few of the groups or pages that I belong to or monitor. You can find the links to these are other sites on my "Links" page:


  • In-Sites Pre-Columbian Architecture


    Rock Art Planet


    Ancient Sherds


    Old Spanish Trail Archaeology


    Rock Art of North America


    Sherd Nerds


    Explorers of Native American Rock Art




  • Other Facebook pages that may be worth checking into are ones dealing with “Artifact collecting”. I realize collecting under most circumstances is a big “no-no”, but there are a lot of people who are collecting legally and can be a wealth of information. For instance, if you locate an artifact (take a photograph only) and you have no idea what it is even after checking all your resource materials, then the next step may be checking with one of the collecting sites. I belong to two Facebook sites in which many of the members are collectors. I know that I can post something on their sites and get answers to my questions almost immediately.

    Artifacts Identification:


  • In most areas, collecting artifacts is a giant no-no and can lead to serious fines and penalties; however, we all should have an idea of what we are looking at when we see it in the field. Knowing what you are looking at can give you an idea if you are standing in the middle of a milling site, or maybe a habitat, or a lithic manufacturing site. Knowing a projectile point from a knife point, or a mano from a pestle is a handy thing. Another area to have some knowledge in is ceramics, as knowing the difference between different pottery sherds can tell you a lot.


  • Below are few ways to gain some of the basic knowledge that can be helpful:


  • Facebook - There are sites that are dedicated to collecting and they have some very knowledgeable people contributing to those sites.


    Internet - A simple Google search can come up websites dealing with the subject.


    Community Colleges - May have classes about artifact identification.


    Books on artifact pricing - These will have a lot of photographs with descriptions.


    Depending on the state that you live in, the BLM and some museums can be of great help.


  • Please Note: Assume that it is illegal to collect or remove artifacts, so the best way to identify it is to photograph the artifact. Photograph an overview with the coordinates if possible. Take pictures of the front and back and sides or edges. Place something in the photo to judge the size of the artifact. One caution - you will probably be chastised for moving the artifact to photograph it, especially if you show it to the BLM.

    One Last Thing:


  • It is always a good idea to report your find (within reason) to the proper agency - BLM, Forest service, or whoever. They all have archaeologists on staff and most will be grateful for your report. Unless you live in the area covered by the Las Vegas BLM and they will probably ignore you.

    One Other Last Thing:


  • Between the Internet and Facebook there are a lot of sites out there dealing with collecting, artifacts, and pottery sherds. Don't judge them for what you may feel is wrong or a little iffy, instead - and if you are able - use them as a resource.



  • Do not walk, stand, climb on, or touch any rock art -- especially pictographs.


  • Do not chalk or place any substance on the petroglyphs or pictographs.


  • Do not remove any archaeological material from any site; the fines and jail times are simply not worth it.


  • Please report any damage observed at a site to the BLM or responsible agency.


  • Watch for critters and other harmful things that can do damage to your body.


  • If you come across rock art in a remote area and you feel that it may not have been seen before, take the time to take photos and record the GPS coordinates. Report it to the BLM or other responsible agency; if it is a new site, you may get a chance to name it and that is pretty cool. Then if you want, you can always email me because I would love to see it!

    Links to Other Informational Websites:


  • On our "Links" page we are providing links to sites that specialize surviving in the desert, Youtube videos, and other useful links.