TIL #2—Waterglyphs

3 min readFeb 7, 2022

You may have seen or heard of petroglyphs and pictographs, but how about waterglyphs?

Illustration of a waterglyph pointing towards a water source.

Allegedly, John Wesley Powell—known as Kapurets or “one-arm-off” among the Shivwit band of Paiutes—once told of a “very old indian guide” who had a way with knowing where to find water in and around the Arizona Strip.

Every so often, the guide would ascend some butte or bluff to look around for a while before returning with information as to where to travel next for water. As to what he saw or was looking for is still unknown.

“[P]erhaps he goes up to talk to the rocks,” Powell ostensibly recounted.

Before Mormons and other sedentary expansionists asserted their “dominance” over the west by introducing invasive methods of irrigation, the untamed deserts of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona were governed by the nomadic Paiute tribes and Ancestral Puebloans (Anazazi) for centuries.

Due to the vast array of petroglyphs and pictographs in the region—left both by Paiutes and Ancestral Puebloans—it is evident that the means of communicating among traveling tribes and bands was similar to our way of communicating the nearest rest stop on I-15.

In lieu of GPS, spatial awareness was essential to survive, and it is theorized that these prehistoric “signs” and “markers” were foundational to understanding the landscape.

And because the landscape at issue was so arid, it makes sense that a subtype of petroglyphs would be entirely devoted to the most valuable resource of all:


petroglyph (noun) = petra (“rock”) + glyph (“carving”); a prehistoric rock carving used to communicate simple or complex ideas.

pictograph (noun) = picto (“paint” or “picture”) + graph (“writing”); a prehistoric painting or picture used to communicate simple or complex ideas.

waterglyph (noun) = water (“water”) + glyph (“carving”); a petroglyph that communicates — in theory — nearby water sources.

Although it is likely that local ranchers or farmers had come across these peculiar carvings before, it wasn’t until 1996 that a team of researchers started paying heed as to their meaning. The obscure connection between these carvings and the location of various water sites was first made by Robert “Bob” Ford, an experienced photographer and amateur archaeologist from the area.

As he was photographing some glyphs (see definitions above) one afternoon, Bob noticed that a certain glyph was pointing toward a single tree that sat within a “saddle” on the horizon. Considering how few trees exist on the strip, what struck him as odd was the fact that he was sure to have photographed another glyph some 25 miles away that pointed towards the same “saddle.”

Could there be a relationship?

Over the next several years, Ford and his team gathered evidence supporting the theory that a direct correlation existed between these so-called “waterglyphs” and nearby water sites. To date, some 200+ waterglyphs have been recorded, and a summarized publication of the team’s findings can be found in the references below.

As a resident of Southern Utah, I am grateful to Ford and his team for attempting to piece together a cultural practice that has been permanently removed.

And while the full extent and use of these glyphs may never be known, their existence goes to show how committed the indigenous were to learning, understanding, way-finding, and respecting the land they called “mother” and we call “real estate.”