Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Primordial Visual Communication

A Thunderbird pictograph located near Jeffers, Minnesota.
Photograph copyright © 2009 David M. Versluis (click image for a larger view).

About fifty miles north of the Iowa state line; near Jeffers, in southwestern Minnesota are the so-called Jeffers Petroglyphs. In a field, and surrounded by prairie grasses, you’ll find a modestly expansive surface of smooth Sioux quartzite bedrock that is exposed flush with the surrounding grade. However, look carefully and you’ll begin to discover carvings of hundreds of petroglyphic forms that are like those found in other places of the world. Many of these petroglyphs represent animals, birds, reptiles, figures, and signs, which prompt you to realize this is an important place. The result is a greater appreciation and respect for this specific site. A similar feeling and sense of place also occurs out West in the desert ecosystem of the Petrified Forest National Park near Holbrook, Arizona (one of my favorite places in North America). You’ll also find hundreds of petroglyphs there as well – surprisingly, they're not as old as some of those at the Jeffers site.

Some examples of petroglyphs at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
Photograph copyright © 2009 David M. Versluis (Click image for larger view).

Although the oldest carvings date from 7000 to 9000 years ago one of the newest petroglyphs at the Jeffers site is the Thunderbird. Apparently, the serrated lines of the wings suggest that Native Dakota people carved it about two hundred years ago. It is believed, this creature is so powerful that it can produce thunder by flapping its wings. The images were made by the subtraction and pecking method of hammering a pointed stone chisel to create incised linear shapes that form pictographs. The pecking technique disrupts the surface patina of the stone to reveal the lighter color and hence, the contrast.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs' site is maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society (click).

Scientific study seems to indicate, although not necessarily in strict linear sequence, that early pictographs and pertroglyphs unfolded in a couple of different ways. In A History of Graphic Design (1983), author Philip Meggs says, “First, they were the beginning of pictorial art. The objects and events of the world were recorded with increasing fidelity and exactitude as the centuries passed. Second, pictographs also evolved into writing. The images, whether the original pictorial form was retained or not, ultimately become symbols for spoken-language sounds” (Pg. 5).

If you were going to write about the history of graphic design would you start with the petroglyphs?

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely. Graphic designers today still work toward the same goal: conveying information in visual form.


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