Ceramic bowl from Macon County, North Carolina, ca. AD 1500.

Intrigue of the Past

From the UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology

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In their study of rock art, the students will:

  • use regional rock art symbols or their own symbols to cooperatively create a rock art panel;
  • use a replica of a vandalized rock art panel to examine their feelings about rock art vandalism and discuss ways to protect rock art and other archaeological sites.



Deface: to spoil or mar the surface or appearance of something.

Petroglyph: a design chiseled or chipped out of a rock surface.

Pictograph: a design painted on a rock surface.

Vandalism: willful or malicious defacing or destruction of public or private property.


People living over the entire world and in virtually every culture made rock art. It has been found in caves, on cliff walls, and on boulders. Some rock art is as old as 30,000 years.

Rock art occurs in modern America as well, although some people may not think of it as art. The most common modern rock art is painted on the concrete and brick walls in our cities and on bridge abutments and rock faces along highways. In modern America, as in all societies, this art expresses the values, attitudes, beliefs, and desires of the people who created it. As members of the artists’ society, we may or may not understand what the representations mean. While American society is based on common ideals and beliefs, many different cultures form it. On the other hand, even if we understand the art’s meaning, we may or may not like it or agree with the values or sentiments it represents.

Regardless of our views of modern rock art, however, the art means something to whoever put it there. The archaeological/historical issue of the future is this: if some piece of the art survives into the future, will the ideas people have about its meanings even come close to what it originally meant?

North Carolina is fortunate to have fine examples of prehistoric rock art as part of our rich archaeological heritage. Six petroglyphs and one pictograph have been recorded so far in western North Carolina. The history revealed, however, is threatened by people who vandalize sites by collecting artifacts or defacing rock art. The unscientific digging of sites and other forms of vandalism are harmful because they destroy data about the past. Additionally, vandalizing and disturbing sites violates the cultural heritage of Native Americans. These sites are the burial grounds, homes, and sacred places of their ancestors, and destroying these places is the equivalent of someone vandalizing your home, church, or cemetery.

Setting the stage

Distribute a copy of the “Rock Art Symbols” master to each student and display it on the overhead projector. Give students time to observe and talk with each other about the symbols.


  1. Explain to students they will be using symbols to make a group “rock art panel.” They may use the symbols from the “Rock Art Symbols” master for their artwork, or they may create their own.
  2. Divide the class into groups no larger than 10 students and give each student a marker or a paintbrush and paint. Cut one 5-to-7-foot-long piece of butcher paper for each group of students or give each student a brown paper grocery bag on which to create an individual rock art panel. Lay the butcher paper pieces on a table or floor. The paper can be crumpled and re-flattened at this point to more accurately depict real rock surfaces.
  3. Space students a few feet apart if working on the large butcher paper sheets. If students use brown paper bags, have smaller groups work at a time; several may tape their bags together to create a longer panel.
  4. When students have completed their panels, have them share the meanings of their rock art.
  5. Exhibit the “rock art panels” in the classroom. Hold a can of paint or a marker in front of one of the panels, ask the students, “How would you feel if I were to paint my name over your rock art panel? Would that harm it?” Connect their feelings about their rock art being damaged to how Native Americans, archaeologists, and the public might feel when they see vandalized sites.


Ask students to think of ways to prevent the vandalism of archaeological sites. Draw upon “Protecting the Past: Things Not to Do.”

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 3

  • Goal 1: The learner will characterize qualities of good citizenship by identifying people who made a difference in the community and other social environments.
    • Objective 1.05: Suggest responsible courses of action in given situations and assess the consequences of irresponsible behavior.

Grade 4

  • Goal 1: The learner will apply the five themes of geography to North Carolina and its people.
    • Objective 1.04: Evaluate ways the people of North Carolina used, modified, and adapted to the physical environment, past and present.

Visual Arts Education (2001)

Grade 3

  • Goal 4: The learner will choose and evaluate a range of subject matter and ideas to communicate intended meaning in artworks.
    • Objective 4.04: Interpret freely work by other artists, cultures or time periods to create original art.
  • Goal 5: The learner will understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
    • Objective 5.05: Understand there have been many different cultures in the world and each culture has produced art.

Grade 4

  • Goal 5: The learner will understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
    • Objective 5.03: Compare works of art from different times and cultures.
    • Objective 5.06: Discuss themes which are most important to a particular culture.

Grade 5

  • Goal 5: The learner will understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
    • Objective 5.01: Begin to recognize that art is the visual record of the history of mankind.
    • Objective 5.02: Identify selected characteristics that make art of a particular culture unique.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Visual Arts Education (2010)
      • Grade 3

        • 3.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 3.CX.1.1 Exemplify how visual arts are used by various groups for artistic expression within the local community. 3.CX.1.2 Understand how art documents the history...
      • Grade 4

        • 4.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 4.CX.1.1 Understand how the visual arts have affected, and are reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of North Carolina. 4.CX.1.2 Recognize key contributions...
      • Grade 5

        • 5.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 5.CX.1.1 Understand how the visual arts have affected, and are reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of the United States. 5.CX.1.2 Recognize key contributions...