Local Hikes

Water Glyphs of Arizona Strip

The Arizona Strip is host to a vast horde of archeological treasures. With a keen eye, it is commonplace to find signs of the ancient civilizations that called the area home for thousands of years before the first Europeans stepped foot here. The hostility of the terrain leads one to question why there are so many remnants of ancient and more modern historical settlement.

Resources are notoriously scarce in this region of the world. In fact, without modern technology, there is little chance that the area would facilitate the population that currently resides here. The former inhabitants engaged with the land differently, utilizing its scant resources in ways that are similar and entirely different than we do. There is, for example, evidence of a sophisticated navigational system that researchers have posited was designed to direct ancient people to water sources across a 2.5-million-acre area.

The first time I encountered one such water glyph was in a remote section of Little Creek Mesa. I had accompanied an uncle of mine to the spot. He claimed that the marks were left by Spanish explorers, either to mark their route or perhaps lead to potential mining spots. Some locals have even done informal studies of their own, mapping out the features, and connecting them via GPS.

Formal studies of this unique glyph suggest that it is associated with Anasazi era peoples, and although there are competing theories as to their purpose, a dominant view is that they mapped out scarce water sources throughout the Arizona Strip, Southern Utah, and parts of Nevada. There are hundreds of known examples of these glyphs, and some are surprisingly close to home. There are two such glyphs within Colorado City limits.

A study of these artifacts conducted by Bob Ford et al., first suggested that they were intended to point out water sources. Ford formulated that hypothesis after recalling a passage from the journal of John Wesley Powell. According to the study, “It was not until 1996, while photographing some water glyphs at sunset, that Bob remembered a passage from the journal of Major John Wesley Powell, in which he commented that their Native American guide would often leave the group around sunset, to walk nearby mesa tops. Then the guide would return and direct the group to a water source.

Powell mentions the incident only because he had to rebuke his men for making fun of their guide—joking that their guide ‘went to pray to the rock gods.’ Powell pointed out that as long as he continued to find water, none of them should care what gods the man worshiped.” The passage from the study continues, “Sitting there, on the rim rock, staring down at one of these magnificent glyphs, in the setting sun, Bob’s mind took a mental leap. What if the guide had not gone to the mesa to pray but had gone instead to look for a message carved into the rim rock—a message cut into the horizontal surface of the rock, like the singularly unique petroglyphs he was photographing.”

The researchers, armed with this theoretical framework, began gathering and interpreting information about known water glyph sites. Along the way, they debunked some of the leading theories about the glyphs which included the assumption that they were of Spanish origin. They used GPS data points to mark where the glyphs were and map them in relation to other geographic features. Among the conclusions they reached are, “There is a predictable pattern of water glyph locations; namely, that they are found near the edge of a cliff with a prominent field of view.” This conclusion is somewhat apparent but foundational. The team also began to look more closely at differences and similarities between the petroglyphs which led them to believe that they were significant.

The glyphs consist of a line, one or more circles, and dots. The study concluded, “water glyphs retain a fundamental shape and size; 24’’ circle with a 48’’ line and dot(s). The line will always run to the edge of the cliff or a crack in the rock.” Other consistent patterns they observed were that the line would indicate a five to ten-mile distance to a prominent landmark. The circle indicates the horizon at that landmark while the dot represents the point of interest.

Researchers came to understand that differences, including multiple circles (and other variations), were there to help the viewer better understand the geography of the destination, making it easier to know where the dot was in relation to the surrounding terrain. In other words, simply drawing a line to the feature leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of what is there, and where it might be located. Without the additional information provided by the circles and dots, the viewer would have the task of exploring the area himself. In the rough environment of the desert Southwest, that would mean expending precious time and energy searching for the area of interest. This leaves out the question of what that point of interest could be.

They interpreted their field data by utilizing computer programs and satellite imagery. They used that technology to map potential resources (water, dwellings, etc.) within a defined area. According to the study, “After running the analysis, nine of the twelve [sample sites] did, in fact, have a known water spring in the appropriate polygon.”

This study captured my attention the moment I found it. The second picture in the article featured the unmistakable outline of Canaan Mountain. I decided to find the area in the image, quickly narrowing down several places I thought were most likely to be represented in the picture.  My primary suspects were too far south and west to be the place in the picture. I was thrown off initially because the mountains looked further away in the picture than in real life.

After trekking about five miles, to no avail, I decided to try my final suspected place. Much to my excitement, I found it! Armed with the knowledge gained from the article, coupled with my understanding of the area, it was clear the glyphs did indeed point to water sources. One of the glyphs points directly to Canaan Mountain, and the dots align with water sources in Maxwell, Water, and perhaps Squirrel Canyons. The other glyph points to an area where Google Maps has labeled a water source called Canaan Springs.

This study was conducted in the late 90’s, and researchers continue to make discoveries about the ways these people were able to carve out an existence, long before the advent of what we consider fundamental technologies. The context and meaning of these artifacts can be destroyed in an instant, rendering a window into the past closed forever with no chance of being opened again. If you choose to seek out these artifacts, use your museum manners—you live in one.


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