Why here……

What was it about this spot, a place, at least to my eye that is unremarkable and much like other areas up and down this canyon. Yet here are images of the past etched in and painted on the canyon wall.

Barrier Canyon Style pictograph panel panorama in Sego Canyon, Utah

Standing with the sun warm on my back, my face gritty from dried sweat, still breathing a little hard after hauling myself up to this site, I can only pause and reflect on the why of the thoughts displayed on this rock. Of course I can no more understand what is seen here than most because there is too much distance between the artist and the observer. Well, that is not exactly true… Hopi elders and others from the Pueblo tribes have been able to bring life and meaning to some of the symbols and designs left by their ancestors, the Ancestral Puebloan people (Anasazi). Petroglyphs (carving in stone) and pictographs (painting on rock) are some of the most visible and intriguing remains of the people who lived in the canyons of the southwest for some 8,000 years.

The “Wolfman” panel petroglyphs, San Juan Basketmaker Style found along Comb Ridge in Utah.

We would like to share with you a few photos of some of the rock art we encountered recently in southern Utah. Some of the sites are easy to find, others not so much, but with thousands of sites in Utah finding something is not that difficult. There are a number of rock art styles recognized in the gorges and mesas of the Colorado Plateau, from Barrier Canyon(up to 0 to 500 AD), Fremont(200 to 1250-1500 AD) and the Ancestral Puebloan (Basketmaker II and III, 200 – 750 AD, Pueblo I-V 750 AD – present).

Barrier Canyon Style pictographs in the San Rafael Swell, Utah

While the places where people lived are relatively easy to date the rock art sometimes found in these habitation sites is not. Even that which is found there may not have been created by those who lived there last. Many ruins found today are the last of a sometimes long line of building and abandonment, so petroglyphs and pictographs found in association with these sites may be much older.

Pictograph at Ballroom Ruin in Butler Wash, Utah

Of course the dates of creation and the people that produced these works are of interest, in some ways all of that pales when the reality is right in front of you. The questions began to form, why here, what do these shapes and symbols mean now and what did they represent then? Some of the forms are obvious even to modern eyes, bighorn sheep seem to be a favorite subject of these artists in stone. What do these bighorn sheep images really mean. Are they thanks for a successful hunt, asking for a successful hunt or just placing the image of an important part of the ancients’ lives on view as a celebration of life?

Bighorn Sheep Fremont petroglyphs; Capital Reef National Park, Utah
Bighorn Sheep & Native American hunter Fremont petroglyph; Capital Reef NP., Utah

I really respond emotionally to hand prints, those that are a direct print of the individual, pigment on the hand and pressed to the rock surface, they say so much, not the least is “I am here”. The other method used was to mix pigment and water, sprayed from the mouth to outline the hand, a negative of sorts, but still personal and real.

Ancient Puebloan hand print, dipped in pigment in Mule Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah
hand print pictographs along Road Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah

The human form is very much in evidence from almost all people that recorded their thoughts on rock. Some of those anthropomorphs are bizarre in form while others are almost a recognizable individual, with ornate necklaces and headdress. Everyone finds their own meaning encountering these visions from the past.

Anthropomorph paintings on Barrier Canyon style pictograph panel; San Rafael Swell, Utah
Anthropomorphs, Barrier Canyon style pictograph panel; San Rafael Swell, Utah

Sadly, there are those that feel little for these ancient sites. Vandals have used rock art for target practice, scrawled their names and dates across priceless figures,
there have even been attempts to cut images from the rock face. All of which is now illegal, please help preserve these places by not touching or chalking to make them more visible for photography.

Vandalized petroglyph panel along Escalante Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Stand quietly with the scent of Cliff Rose on the warm breeze, hear the deep rush of air from a Ravens’ wing beat overhead, and know that in this dry canyon people lived and left messages in stone.

Pictograph panel in the Barrier Canyon style, San Rafael Swell, Utah

2 thoughts on “Why here……”

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