Thomas Doty – Storyteller

Rock Writing Symbols

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About the Symbols

Ancient rock writing symbols are fairly universal across North America, even throughout the world. Some have their origins in sign language, others are inspired by natural phenomena, still others dramatize aspects of traditional native culture. Some tell complex stories of history and myth. Others are very practical, locating trails, villages, sacred ceremonial places.... Some rock writings are personal, telling stories of dreams during vision quests or of adventures in particular places. Symbols at a popular fishing place remind us to share our catch with those who need food. The story of a deadly flash flood down a desert wash not only memorializes an actual event but adds this warning: this is a not a good place to be if it starts to rain.

It is best to learn the general concept behind each of the symbols rather than memorize specific meanings. For instance, the symbol for small things (lots of dots) might mean rain or snow or dust or stars, depending how it is used with other symbols, or even where it is located. Learning the concepts also makes it easier to recognize local variations.

Symbols are combined to create more complex messages. Many symbols tell a story. Rock writings are considered by native people to be the wise words of the oldest of the Old Ones, the Rock People.

Here is an introductory directory of symbols. Enjoy!


Locater Symbols

These symbols locate things of importance that might not be noticed from the trail ... a freshwater spring in the desert, more rock writings in a cave, a shortcut to a nearby village.... They don't usually identify what they are locating, just where they are. Looking around at the landscape enhances the meaning. There is a good reason a specific symbol is located in a particular place.


Movement & No Movement Symbols

Only when a human or animal is portrayed realistically does it represent that particular human or animal. These human stick figures and generic animals indicate movement in a particular direction, or no movement at all.


Selection of Basic Symbols

Thousands of rock writing symbols are found throughout the world. Here are a few from the American West.


Combined Symbols

When symbols are combined they create messages. Here are some simple combinations.


Rock Writing Panels

Here are translations of panels with multiple symbols.