Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

What’s that on the flat rock?

with 16 comments


As intriguing as the rocks themselves are at the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, when we visited on October 24th we found that some of them also offer up traces of human activity from bygone ages. Click the excerpt below for a much-magnified look at the details on the flat rock.


I wonder whether the ancient inhabitants darkened the surface of this rock so they could scrape it away to create those orange glyphs.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 5, 2016 at 4:54 AM

16 Responses

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  1. Desert varnish is natural and affords a viable surface for rock art. This is a beautiful setting. Thanks so much for including it. There is beauty in sparseness of vegetation. The clouds are heavy; I’d guess they contributed to the vividness of the colors of rock.


    December 5, 2016 at 7:36 AM

    • Thanks for bringing up desert varnish, which I’d not heard of. At


      I found a good explanation, with links to photographs.

      On the day we visited Valley of Fire State Park we got intermittent drizzle and for a while real rain. The heavy clouds can indeed enhance color saturation and keep things from washing out the way they tend to do in bright sunlight. On the other hand, I would gladly have played some of the orange rocks off against a richly blue sky, but I never got the chance.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2016 at 7:47 AM

  2. I suspect the dark surface is what’s called desert varnish. As it happens, the Wiki has a photo of carved glyphs at the Valley of Fire. I love seeing such old examples of the human urge to leave a mark, although finding hash tags carved into Kansas sandstone wasn’t quite so intriguing.


    December 5, 2016 at 7:48 AM

    • While you were writing your comment, Dianne also brought up desert varnish, so now I’m doubly apprised of its existence. In my reply to her I linked to a page with a good mineralogical explanation of desert varnish.

      It’s hard to know how far back to go before drawing a line between graffiti and archaeology. At Hueco Tanks, a bit east of El Paso, we visited a panel of rocks that had Indian petroglyphs and also inscriptions by visitors from the late 1800s. Both are now historical. Will visitors to the Kansas sandstone in future centuries consider those hashtags historical?

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2016 at 8:01 AM

    • And what a coincidence that the Wikipedia article on desert varnish should have a photograph from Valley of Fire State Park.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2016 at 8:03 AM

    • It belatedly occurred to me that you would be attuned to different sorts of varnish.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2016 at 11:28 AM

      • Yes, indeed. I spared you the bad puns about varnishing civilizations. I am glad marine varnish is good for only 6-12 months down here, rather than 600-1200 years. Under those conditions, it would be hard to develop repeat business!


        December 5, 2016 at 9:07 PM

  3. Thanks, Steve, for the interesting close-up!


    December 5, 2016 at 9:42 AM

    • I don’t know where I’ve been all these years not to have heard of desert varnish. You’re the third commenter who’s set me straight.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2016 at 11:02 AM

      • i think i learned about it from someone photographing online here at WordPress OR my daughter was an archeology student and corrected me when i was angry about vandals i can’t recall which.


        December 5, 2016 at 11:15 AM

  4. […] Sometimes nature suggests human activity even where there has been none. As soon as I saw these natural patterns at the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada on October 24th they immediately reminded me of the petroglyphs you looked at last time. […]

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