Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Petroglyphs and UFOs

The popular memory of California’s prehistory often maintains a close connection between the mysterious and the unknown. The folklore surrounding the petroglyphs of our great deserts and canyons, for example, has often been linked to the folklore surrounding UFOs and extraterrestrials. Many have seen the unidentifiable shapes and curious anthropomorphs to be prehistoric depictions of spaceships and their inhabitants. Ufologists have sought in the petroglyphs proof that humankind has been visited in the past by extraterrestrial beings, and that we continue to be so visited. Some have even desired to prove that these ancient images reveal a direct ancestral lineage between our own species and one more distant.

Why do people look to the petroglyphs for proof of extraterrestrial activity on earth? For one thing, we know next to nothing about the meaning of the petroglyphs and the societies that created them. This leaves them open to a wide variety of interpretations, and, for all we know, one interpretation is as valid as another. Whether a particular anthropomorphic image depicts a shaman or an extraterrestrial is merely a matter of opinion. There is no evidence to support one over the other.

Furthermore, in arid cultures, the open desert is often associated with the otherworldly. Jesus had journeyed into the desert to confront Satan. Early Christian hermits built their homes in the desert to battle demons. Krishna had led Narada into the desert to come upon enlightenment, the Hebrew scriptures find it the ideal place to meet God, and the Egyptian Bedouin consider it to be infested with ghosts and jinn. It is no wonder, then, that our own culture sees the desert to be the prime location for extraterrestrial activity.

But whatever the reason for the connection between petroglyphs and UFOs, my purpose here is to ask that we consider the ufological interpretation of California’s petroglyphs to be part of the life of the petroglyphs themselves. Let me explain. Amy Remensnyder has argued that, in medieval monastic society, “imaginative memory” continuously reimbued objects with meaning, often transforming object into monument. For example, a fragment of wood could first become a relic of the True Cross and then a monument to a particular monastery’s foundation. Medieval Europe had its reliquaries; California has its petroglyphs. The ufologist’s reinscription of meaning has transformed the nature of the images themselves.

Whatever meaning the petroglyphs had to the societies that created them is lost to us. The petroglyphs now possess new—and often contesting—meanings. But this doesn’t mean that the viewer is the only active agent, creating and imposing his interpretations on passive objects, nor that the whole process is a big interpretative free-for-all. Remensnyder reminds us that “in this process of reinterpretation, the physical object itself is not inert; its design determines the range of possible meanings.” Unusual anthropomorphs could have been shamans, gods, spirits, or ceremonial dancers. Or, of course, extraterrestrial beings. They are visibly distinguished from the images of more ordinary human figures, but whether these distinguishing characteristics mark them as spiritual or extraterrestrial can never be certain.

What is certain, however, is that images are never dead. Although relics of past societies, the petroglyphs are also, in a sense, relics of our own. They do not and can not exist in the past, out of time, but are as part of the present as the sun and wind that continuously bombard their surfaces. The meanings our culture inscribes upon the petroglyphs constantly revivify them, reincorporating them again and again into the present.

(image courtesy of Don Gennero)

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