Writing with Stone…by Brad Marks

Greetings All! Was able to reproduce Brad’s “lost” post so able to bring you post on another form of blogging. As you are reading this, Linda I will be on the road heading back to the tundra..I know, I know, trust me the call of South Padre Island is getting stronger cold mile after cold mile (and looks like snow and ice in our path). Keeping with Brad’s theme, created my own silicaglyph intro (you might have to hit the link to view the larger version to make out the craptastic figures)

Brian's Texas Gulf Coast Glyph from Galveston Island State Park

I’ll catch back up with you in February, for now, enjoy Brad’s much more entertaining read…take it away Brad…

Long-time readers of Intrigued know that Brian takes many trips in the US to catch photos of rare, and not-so-rare, birds.  His life list credits include many birds that barely make it to US soil.  Jan and I like to take vacations to really cool places that may or may not have birds.  Recently we have begun making more attempts to find wildlife wherever we are on holiday.  I think the Intrigued team takes slightly different types of vacations.  Though this may be a subtle difference (bird vacations to cool places vs. cool places that just happen to have birds).  Now that I’ve got you all warmed up for birds or cute furry animals, I’m not going to write about either of these.  At least as far as I know I’m not.  This tale is about petroglyphs. 

Hit the jump to read more about this early method of blogging!

A petroglyph is a form of writing, so it’s ironic to be writing about . . . well . . . writing.  Except this writing (or drawing) happens to be done in stone (not very portable if you ask me) instead of paper or on the computer.  The word “petroglyph” is made up of two parts:  petro means stone, and glyph means writing.  At least it’s writing in a sense.  Well, it’s writing by skillfully banging rocks together to make images.  Those that lived in the small social groups that created petroglyphs probably understood what they meant.  Petroglyphs (and their cousin the hieroglyphs) are found all over the world, except Antarctica.  However, since there’s no Rosetta Stone for petroglyphs, we have to make educated guesses about the original intent.  I’m going got take you on a journey spanning five locations in three US states and several years of our travels.  Buckle up!

The first group of petroglyphs, or “ki’i pohaku” (kee-ee poh-ha-koo in Hawaiian), in our story are located near Chain of Craters Road in Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.  They are thought to have been created between 1200AD and 1450AD.  The field of more than 23,000 petroglyphs, known as Pu’u loa (poo-oo low-ah), is the largest known concentration in the entire Hawaiian island chain.  Fortunately, all of the lava flows since the petroglyphs were created have missed this part of the island.

My daughter named this one “Big Daddy carrying suitcases”.  It just happens to be one of the very first petroglyphs we saw after hiking ¾ of a mile, or 20 minutes, from the parking area.  There is no sidewalk; we hiked across the lava fields being careful to follow the cairns, or “ahu” (ah-hoo) in Hawaiian, along the trail. 

The twisting trail is nothing more than a faint path across the lava field.  The ahu are nearly every 100-150 feet to help guide us as the path twists among the older lava flows. The set of petroglyphs are fairly well protected.  And by that, I mean they are not directly along the road within easy reach of the “I must damage everything I see” tourist crowd.  It did take a little effort to reach them.  Once we arrived, we strolled around the elevated boardwalk and marveled at the petroglyphs.  The elevated boardwalk area only covers a very small portion of the petroglyphs in the park.  You can just see the edge of the boardwalk in this photo showing what most of the path feels like.

This path to reach the petroglyphs is not beyond the capability of anyone in reasonable condition.  Truthfully, it is a fairly easy hike, just a bit meandering.  Though on this last visit, someone made their grandma walk through the lava field.  We don’t remember passing anyone on our way back from the petroglyphs, and there was Grandma sitting all by herself in the lava with her two canes.  We asked if she needed help, and she said “no, but thank you.”  She told us her daughter and family were coming back for her.  We looked around and only saw only one other car nearby.  Suspicious, we asked again.  She told us they had forgotten something in the car and went back for it (leaving her alone in a lava field is a craptastic way to treat your grandma).  BTW, no grandmas were harmed in writing this story.

OK, back to the petroglyphs.  I may have fudged a little bit at the beginning.  There will be photos of wildlife.  At least photos of representations of wildlife rendered in rock.

Sea turtles are featured every now and then in petroglyphs on the Big Island.  The unusual thing about this one is its location, IMHO.  This petroglyph is the same lava field a mile or more from the ocean.  Still, we were very glad to see a turtle etched in stone “close” to a seashore.  There’s still a 110’ high cliff to navigate once you reach the ocean.  Green sea turtles feature prominently in Hawaiian mythology and the occasional petroglyph. (See the article Turtles all the way down on Wildlife Intrigued)

There aren’t any living authors of the original Hawaiian petroglyphs so we really can’t ask what they mean.  But there are plenty of historians with some pretty good ideas.  Oh, and books in gift shops with modern interpretations.  Some of the symbols are obvious (people, turtles, a boat every now and then) but we really don’t know what their authors meant by them.

Near Waikoloa Village, on the west side of the Big Island, is a fairly large collection of petroglyphs.  The petroglyphs are found along the King’s Trail*.  These are thought to be as old as the 16th century, quite a bit newer than the ones at Volcanoes National Park.  Unfortunately, some idiots (not sure the Intrigued Legal team will let me use a stronger word here) have defaced many of the original petroglyphs, as well as adding quite a few of their own.  I can say with certainty, the heart emoji petroglyph had NOT been invented hundreds of years ago in Hawaii.  Road and resort construction on the popular coast has also disturbed many original petroglyphs.  This is one of the untouched (as far as we can tell) petroglyphs near Waikoloa Village resort area.

Thankfully, there is another, much better preserved, field of petroglyphs close by in Puako (poo-ah-koh). To see them, we had a choice of either walking two miles along the King’s Trail over lava chunks, or driving 4 miles to a very nice parking lot and then take a 20-minute hike through a forest.  Guess which route we chose?

The Puako petroglyphs are close to the parking lot, but not really so close that the aforementioned “idiots” can easily deface them.  The only way to reach them was to hike 20 minutes through a twisty forest path with many low hanging branches. 

There was plenty of opportunity to find a root or hunk of lava to snag a toe (watch out Brian) or bang a head on a low-hanging branch (me).  Once we arrived, we were astounded at the sheer number of petroglyphs in this relatively small area.  It was almost as if everyone that was skilled at creating petroglyphs went to school here and used the “lava blackboard” for practice.

The lava here was brown instead of black like at Volcanoes National Park**.  That means the lava came from a different volcano than those at Volcanoes or was made of different mineral content (or both).  These petroglyphs are generally thought to date from about 1200AD, a couple of hundred years before the Waikoloa petroglyphs just a few miles away.  (I could probably spend a whole article, or series of articles, on the geology of the Big Island, see notes below.)

This could have been the village bulletin board.  Petroglyphs were drawn nearly on top of each other; as if there was no other lava suitable on the entire island.  None!  (By the way, if you hadn’t guessed, the entire Big Island of Hawaii is made of hardened lava.)

At Puako, the turtle makes much more sense as a petroglyph.  The ocean is a short distance away (under 1/2 mile as the nene flies) and is nearly at sea level.

All of the petroglyphs we were able to see were carved in pahoehoe*** (pa-hoy-hoy) lava. 

Back on the mainland, there are also petroglyphs, but they are formed slightly differently.  Oh sure, rocks were eventually pounded on other rocks, but with a slightly different effect. 

Several years ago, we were on a raft trip through Class 0 rapids on the Colorado River.  OK, OK, don’t be too impressed.  We were on the Colorado River as it leaves the Glen Canyon Dam near Page, AZ (well upstream of the Grand Canyon portion with the Class 5 roller coaster waves).  An about an hour into the trip, the guides pull us all up onto a sand bar at a bend in the river.

These petroglyphs are at the base of a cliff of Entrada sandstone (at least that’s what I remember the guide telling me), steps away from the ice-cold Colorado river flowing swiftly by.  My “expert” interpretation is that this petroglyph shows a herd of bighorn sheep.  (Does that count towards the Wildlife part of Intrigued?)   The images are thought to be between 3,000 and 6,000 years old.  Thankfully, these are fairly well protected because the only way to access them is via the Colorado River starting at the dam (which is a secured area), or rappel down the 1000-foot cliffs from the plateau above.

These petroglyphs are similar in that they are communicating via images etched into rock.  However, the Glen Canyon, and Valley of Fire petroglyphs below, aren’t etched deep into the rock as much as scratching off the darker rock “varnish”, or patina, on this particular type of stone.  The varnish is a manganese-rich coating on the stone, micrometers thin.  Some think the varnish is left over bacterial waste product.  Others think the micro-thin layers are manganese-rich dust interacting with moisture and then deposited by the desert winds.  Either way, something happens between the type of base rock and the manganese in the environment (blowin’ in the wind or bacteria pooped on the rock).  Desert “varnish” takes a couple of thousand years to form.

OK, OK, I can hear you through the screen:  Where are the birds?  Here’s a gratuitous bird photo from the bottom of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River.  This was taken just before we stopped to see the petroglyphs.  The Great Blue Heron was just hanging out watching tourists float by.  The white blob at the edge of the photo was unavoidable.  It is a rather annoying tourist who would not sit down or be quiet so we could hear the tour guides tell us about the heron.

Last summer while Jan and I were in Las Vegas, we were interested in visiting the cool red rocks in the desert.  We took a guided tour to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.  I can hear Brian now “but you missed all of the birds!”  True.  At least partially true.  We climbed a 30-foot stairway to get to this “blackboard” of petroglyphs at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Again, I’m not an expert, but I can see bighorn sheep and desert iguanas captured here.  I’m also certain that at least one of the petroglyphs here represents a bird (just don’t ask which one).  At the very top of the “blackboard” is an image of an “atlatl”.  The atlatl predates the bow and arrow and was used to create extra leverage for throwing spears with greater velocity.  It’s the long line with the circle near the left end.  Again, my “expert” interpretation tells me the squiggly line represents a snake.  Though in the next image, I’m not sure if it’s a recent addition or an interpretation of some event.

I’m pretty sure roulette wheels weren’t around when these petroglyphs were created, so I’m betting (get it, roulette wheel . . . betting . . . tough crowd) this is a recent “idiot” addition.  However, the circle with the four little lines coming out of it near the top left may be a desert tortoise.  The petroglyphs in Valley of Fire are thought to be 2000 years old.  The bright red rock at Valley of Fire (hence the name) is red Aztec sandstone from the Jurassic period.

Well, there it is.  Jan and I hiked across hardened lava, strolled through the desert, and took a raft ride through Class 0 rapids to bring you these petroglyphs.  We even brought home brass representations of some of the petroglyphs to decorate our “room of retirement”.

If you want to see more photos of petroglyphs or our travels in general, please visit our Hawaii photos or our Glen Canyon photos or our Valley of Fire photos. Thank you for reading.


Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan for some of the photos in this article.


*King’s Trail is a footpath that linked communities, temples and fishing areas on the Big Island.  This was also the route the ali’i (pronounced ah-lee-ee) or chiefs used to visit people for ceremonies or rituals.  The trail runs for almost 175 miles from the northwest side of the island all the way around to Volcanoes National Park on the east side.  For this story, we only hiked about a mile out and back.  Seven miles of the original trail have been restored.

**Magma (unerupted lava) has many different compositions.  Most of the lava on the Big Island of Hawaii is basalt.  That means most of the cooled lava in Hawaii is black, or slightly grey as it ages over hundreds of years.  Some eruptions on the Big Island are brown.  Yellow-brown or rust colored lava is caused by abundant hematite in the erupted rock.  That means the lava has literally oxidized (or rusted) with age.  The “newer” parts of the island are mainly very black basalt lava. 

Even the “newer” lava has different colors over hundreds of years of eruptions.  Every now and then we would see a small patch of brown lava at Volcanoes.

The older, furthest northwest, side of the island seems to be mostly a brown color, partly from oxidization over tens of thousands of years, and partly from the different mineral content in the lava.

***There are two main types of lava (erupted magma) on the Hawaiian Islands:  pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy) and a’a (ah-ah). 

(This photo was taken on the Kilauea volcano, but is the same content as the older northwest side of the island)

Pahoehoe (left-hand side) is the “smoothest” of the hardened lava.  The surface tends to look ropey, or kind of like pudding left a bit long in the fridge.  Some describe it as pillow lava.  A’a (right-hand side) is the chunky lava that looks like a big pile of rocks.  Believe it or not, the lava below those chunky rocks can flow fairly quickly, up to 10 MPH or more under the right conditions.  Nothing stops moving lava.  Nothing.  Do NOT be in its way!  And don’t misunderstand when I say pahoehoe looks “pillowy” – there’s nothing soft about either of these types of lava.  Both are very hard and very sharp; nearly cheese grater sharp on exposed skin.

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