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The "Painted Rocks" of the Mohawk: History, Art or Graffiti?

graffiti at Little Falls Hi Res Image (52K)

So in the context of the modern world, how should we view the Painted Rocks? Was it a chapter in an as yet undeciphered book of local history? Was it a work of art, created to embellish the riverside landscape? Or was it merely an instance of graffiti; a phenomenon that seems to be an unremitting characteristic of human nature?

Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is simply: "Yes".

We have come to see graffiti as a derogatory term; referring to a form of vandalism, since much if not all modern graffiti is vandalism, if not in its intent then in its outcome.(Note the above example of Mohawk Valley painted rocks on an otherwise picturesque rock cut at a highway junction east of Little Falls.)

However, the dictionary definition is more objective:"Graffito: A drawing or inscription, as one made on a wall in a public place."

Some modern graffiti is meant to be artistic, and perhaps there was an element of that in the images executed on the rock face near Amsterdam hundreds of years ago. But most graffiti is meant to make a statement: I was here!. It provides the author with a sense of establishing some sort of identity, and, depending on the medium used, some sort of immortality.

Sullivan expedition drawingHi Res Image

The type of graffiti created by Native authors in the 18th century, such as the drawings on barked trees recorded in 1779 (above), might be making such a statement as well as recording symbols of more noble cultural significance. We simply do not understand the symbolism well enough to know. Of note is the rendering of the canoe full of warriors in the above example.

Modern graffiti seems to be less pictorial and more language-based. In fact much of it presents names and initials that should be easily understood. Yet in the weathered example at Little Falls (see top of this page), where it appears we are looking at perhaps twenty years or more of words and letters painted on with semi-permanent paints, there is a surprising amount of ambiguity about what exactly much of this inscription is meant to say.

The point here is that in looking at the Mohawk River Valley graffiti at Little Falls in the year 2000, we may be seeing a situation not unlike that faced by travelers looking at the Mohawk River Valley graffiti at Painted Rocks 200 years ago.

graffiti detail

What are we seeing?

What does it mean?

If we wanted to preserve it by repainting it, what would it look like when we were done?


Rufus Grider has presented us with a complex, entertaining, and seemingly significant image of Indian rock painting. We will never know precisely what others saw here centuries ago, but in some ways, the mystery is as appealing as the reality.

the pictograph
 


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