Friday, September 19, 2008
El Malpaís and El Morro
The Writing on the Wall
A brief road trip down what-used-to-be Route 66 took us to two adjacent National Monument sites south of Grants, New Mexico -- El Malpaís and El Morro.
On the east side of El Malpaís I clambered up over the boulders for a close-up view of the giant rock arch known as La Ventana.
The visit to the spectacular El Morro site and its Inscription Wall provided some new rock art pictures and got me thinking about the question of why people write on walls. That is something that will be endlessly debated because it concerns what happens inside peoples' heads. What one can easily see at El Morro, however, is how culture shapes expression in the form of rock art, and later graffiti. Over the past few centuries European-inspired messages inscribed in the El Morro sandstone all had one basic message: "I was here". The earliest European visitors, the Spanish conquistadors, elaborated on that by adding "...for God and the Empire". There was some of that in the messages left by the early American explorers and settlers too, but later messages would be merely personal and individualistic. In the earlier rock art left by the indigenous peoples, there is no apparent "I", but only an implied "We" and a reference to the relationship of the people to the earth and the gods of the earth.
It is also interesting to note the changes in the rock art over time of both the indigenous people and the invading Europeans. Themes and techniques of the native people changed very slowly and showed great sophistication in execution. Up to about one hundred years ago, the messages left by European visitors were also characterized by considerable artistry and attention to craftsmanship. The earliest Spanish inscriptions at El Morro are done in a very refined calligraphic style. The brief messages left by Americans around the time of the Civil War show an awareness of typographic styles from that time and are executed with great care. Later visitors, starting around the beginning of the 20th Center leaving the "I was here" message clearly were barely literate, and that trend continues into the present time at such remote sites.