Taking a cue from the provocative approach of historian Annette Kolodny—who suggests in her recent book In Search of First Contact that Algonquin pictographs and even Norse graffiti carved on rocks near the Atlantic coast, in both Canada and New England, should be considered an early example of what is now broadly referred to as "American literature"—it would be tempting to say something similar for Newspaper Rock, outside Moab, Utah, that this inscribed landform is a kind of national literary feature, a mineralogical Moby Dick for the region.
Less a narrative sequence, however, than a multi-generational graphic palimpsest of random carvings—including nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and, sadly, probably twenty-first-century travelers' graffiti, all adding to the historical layers on display—Newspaper Rock nonetheless promises a Rosetta Stone-like moment.
It—or, to be more accurate, the media surrounding this site, including, in an era of blogs, Twitter feeds, and Tumblrs, its charmingly antiquated name—suggests that this should indeed be some sort of monument to translation and contact, an inscribed physical manifestation of cultures predating Anglophone expansion (that is, military conquest) into the complex lands of the southwest.
Having never visited Newspaper Rock before, with its carved wheels, skinned animals, trains of antelope, serpentine geometry, buffalo-headed hunters with insect legs, and horseback riders, the poetic expectation was that a key to the puzzle of inter-cultural contact had been carved here, some mythic insight or moment of wisdom that required terrestrial near-permanence in the form of petroglyphs that scholars have been trying to decipher ever since.
In fact, it's hard not to wish for a kind of Photoshop layers menu, some kind of lensed device or augmented reality that might remove the various inscriptions that have come at different times and, in the process, see who left what where, and why.
Richard L. Bland, an anthropologist with the U.S. National Park Service, writes in a paper for Arctic Anthropology that, "Petroglyphs are a relatively common form of prehistoric communication, in the sense that those who drew the petroglyphs knew what they meant, as no doubt did many of their fellow tribesmen who viewed them."
Unfortunately, however, "The meaning or significance of these images, however, was generally specific to the individual or group that created them. There was never a cross-cultural standardization of symbols and as a result much of the meaning of many petroglyph series has been lost."
There was never a dictionary, we might say, a central database or archive of meaning from which all other petroglyphs were derived. There was no encyclopedia.
The symbols are as much pure graphic design, then, as they are literary expression; they are realized form as much as they are a mere promise of content.
Bland goes on to suggest that the specific petroglyphs he's studied in the Arctic are a form of "hunting magic," a landscape notation with superstitious consequences, but the inscriptions outside Moab seem altogether more casual (perhaps assisted by the fact that they're now found fenced-in at the edge of a state-run parking lot).
In any case, to put more of an emphasis on expectation than on the actual experience of the site, at least half of the Venue team was gearing up to see Newspaper Rock as if coming into the presence of a foundational text, the small print Europeans didn't see upon their arrival on the continent, a grimoire. Or as if visiting Newspaper Rock should be something like visiting the old British Library Reading Room, sitting down amidst a geology of broadcasts, CTRL-S after CTRL-S preserved in rock form—the Earth itself as hard drive.
It is media with a limited range, however—something to come to, rather than something you tune into from afar.
To use an annoyingly timely analogy, it is exactly not a Facebook Wall, exactly not comparable to anything more contemporary—let alone more sacred—than a painted wall sprayed with what soon becomes visual archaeology.
Seen this way, Newspaper Rock is simply graphomania on the scale of an entire landscape. It is a hillside imbued with a hint of literary content and preserved by order of the U.S. government.
Equal parts rock art, literary history, and historically preserved act of vandalism, the monument is now a kind of appendix on Canyonlands National Park, lying outside Park boundaries but acting, nonetheless, as something of an introductory signpost to the writhing and sinuous geological forms to come at the end of the region's old river beds now paved as all-weather roads.
Indeed, amongst many interesting things to consider here is the overlooked narrative genius of road design in the United States—something Venue explores in a forthcoming interview with Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, a history of the U.S. interstate system—which has transformed this site of geological inscription precisely into a kind of entry gate for this most immersive example of the National Parks, casting however minor a spell on tourists driving by.