Glyph Dweller

Archaeologist Alanah Woody’s infectious enthusiasm for Nevada’s rock art knows no bounds

Alanah Woody doesn't wear a fedora or crack a bullwhip, but her fans will tell you that the 5-foot-3 archaeologist is to the rock art of Nevada what Indiana Jones is to the Holy Grail. Like her fictional counterpart, she has had gigs in academia, teaching anthropology and archaeology at the University of Nevada at Reno and elsewhere. She also manages the anthropology collections at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. But it's her work as co-founder and executive director of the Nevada Rock Art Foundation that has mobilized a small army of volunteers to educate the public, monitor sites and painstakingly record the state's vast collection of rock art, boulder by boulder.

"I am a rock art evangelist," says Woody, 49. "Give me a soapbox and I'll tell the world. Better yet, give me people who think rock art is nothing more than a bunch of old graffiti on a boulder or cave wall. Let me take them out into the desert to see 10,000-year-old petroglyphs, and I guarantee they'll begin to feel a connection with the people who lived here long before we came along with our cars and cellphones."

Whether pictographs (painted images) or petroglyphs (engraved images), rock art is found throughout the world. The oldest known examples date back 35,000 years, though the concentrations found in the American West are estimated to be quite a bit younger. Scattered across vast and arid lands that seem empty until you take a closer look, Nevada's rock art is hidden and elusive. Only a third of the state's 1,500 known sites have been adequately recorded, and no one is sure how many lie undiscovered. Sites range from a couple of squiggly lines on a boulder to Lagomarsino, an 80-acre treasure house of nearly 10,000 distinct groups of petroglyphs worthy, says Woody, "of world heritage status."

"Nevada may be the last best place for rock art," says archaeologist David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "And I'm amazed at how Alanah Woody has been able to tap public interest in it in a way that nobody in the professional archaeology community could do before."

Although there are some images of humans and animals, most early Nevada rock art "is abstract, and made by hunter-gatherers," says Woody. "Some people are reluctant to call it art, but that's only because they have a limited view of art and its function. The images are symbolic, and even though archaeologists can't interpret most of them, they still had meaning for the migratory people who once lived here." The images may have functioned as territorial markers, as ways of telling stories and documenting events, or as powerful symbols intended to lure animals to waiting hunters. "We simply haven't recorded enough rock art to figure it out," says Woody.

Born in California's Central Valley to a hard-rock miner father and a homemaker mother, Woody and her family moved frequently for her father's work on water tunnels and big construction projects. She traces her interest in other cultures to a stint in Pakistan, from ages 5 till 13. After high school and some college in Connecticut, she got married and had a son, Christopher, who is now a college sophomore. She came to Nevada, she says, "for the same reason a lot of people do—to get a divorce. And being a single mom, I figured I better get my act together. So I enrolled at the University of Nevada at Reno and took an introductory anthropology course. It was an epiphany. I won't say I heard voices, but I knew this was what I wanted to do." She received her doctorate in 2000 from the University of Southampton in England and helped create the Nevada Rock Art Foundation a year later. One of the organization's missions is to teach volunteers how to use photography, scale drawings and GPS data to document rock art sites. "Out in the field, she'll boss you around, but always with humor and affection," says Cheryln Bennett, a volunteer for two years. "And she's always open to suggestions."

Some archaeologists still think that keeping sites secret offers the best way to protect them from increasing vandalism—everything from bullet holes and graffiti to outright theft—and from the damage that occurs when people touch, climb or walk on them. But Woody says that doesn't work. "Word gets out and then what do you have?" she asks. "Rock art that's vulnerable. While I'm not about to tell the public about all the secret sites I know, I think it's vital that we have places where people can go to see rock art in the landscape, not in a museum, and learn about it. If people learn about rock art, they'll respect it."

Not all threats are man-made—nature also conspires against it through weather, erosion and spalling (the flaking of rock layers). "The art is wearing away," says Woody, "and eventually it will all be gone. Indian friends ask why I'm so intent on making a record of it when it's only natural for it to disappear over time. I tell them that it may help us understand what the art means. Also, it's hard to prosecute vandals unless the site has been documented."

On a warm, overcast Saturday, I tag along as Woody leads a tour to a petroglyph site about a 75-minute drive from Carson City. The site, Grimes Point, consists of hundreds of basalt boulders scattered around a slope that was once the beach of a late ice age lake. "Imagine a family group hanging out next to the lake," she says. "Maybe a few times a year they get together with other groups to make these images."

At first we strain to pick out anything from surrounding rock of a similarly dark color. But soon our eyes adjust, and we see hundreds of the man-made pockmarks known as cupules on the tops and sides of boulders, and abstract line drawings of every conceivable shape—spirals, grids, zigzags, squiggles, circles, crescents.

"Rock art is the perfect hook to get people thinking about whether and how we're all so different," Woody tells me on the drive back to Carson City. "Only humans do art, and people respond to rock art in emotional ways. It connects you directly with those who came before, and you realize you have something in common with folks who lived here 10,000 years ago. In that way it can broaden how we think about others. That's the power of this art, and that's why we need to protect it."

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