Storytelling Across Cultures — Rex Buchanan on the Petroglyphs of Kansas
How carvings from the Native American community showed a researcher what the world looks like through different eyes.
This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of seeing Rex Buchanan speak about his book, Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.
Buchanan, a former director of the Kansas Geological Survey, worked with Professor Burke Griggs of Washburn University School of Law and Joshua Svaty, the fourteenth Kansas secretary of agriculture, to create this photographic guide to the images left behind by the Native American populations of Kansas and the surrounding areas. Before seeing him speak, I hadn’t known that any of these amazing sites existed, and I was fascinated to learn what they meant and who had put them there.
I quickly discovered that this wasn’t Mr. Buchanan’s purpose at all; instead, his work and the work of his colleagues served a longer-lasting ideal held by multiple cultures of humanity through centuries of history.
What is a petroglyph?
A petroglyph, according to Buchanan, is a carving made in stone of some description. He distinguishes petroglyphs from pictographs by simply stating that a pictograph is made by drawing with pigment on a surface, while a petroglyph is made by carving from the surface to leave an image behind.
The petroglyphs he showed were, according to his study, separated into three different general categories:
- Anthropomorphs, or human-like figures
- Geometric figures such as angled lines and circles
They were left behind by the local tribes — in this instance, often by the Pawnee and Wichita tribes — on the sandstone of cliffs, ridges, and caves. Sandstone made for an excellent medium for this particular artform because of its softness; it was easy to carve and chip into shapes, and is plentiful in the state.
Unfortunately, this also made the stone prone to erosion and damage, as well as vandalism — it’s fairly easy for “collectors” to carve out chunks of stone with images they found particularly appealing.