Rain-Magic Rock Art of the Canyonlands Ancestors

Written by  José Knighton

The wilderness art museums of southern Utah's canyonlands offer the best of two worlds: the physical exhilaration of a great hike and the mental stimulation of meeting unusual works of art. No matter how much time one spends in the presence of prehistoric rock art, like any other art, it is never enough to comprehend its complexity. Even studying photographs after a visit, one's attention is dominated by imposing elements of the composition.

For some time, I have been creating detailed pen-and-ink drawings as tributes to the imaginative obsession this art provokes. This labor of love has forced me to pay precise attention to details otherwise easily overlooked. As well, with hikes to related rock art, repetitions of similar—seemingly minor—elements have revealed themselves. A trip to a recently re-discovered site initiated a cascade of such revelations.

Tracking a rumor of an ancient rock art panel through the southern Utah desert is an act of faith. From this canyon's mid-level sandstone terrace we scan the potential sites of such a panel as we hike upcanyon. The possibilities seem nearly infinite.

Eventually, though, we find a few suspicious footprints that focus into a path up the main wash and across a sandy bench on its far side. We spot a likely protected overhang in the distance and trek toward it. We're so intent that when we pause beneath the actual site—accident or intuition?—we are still focused on our distant mirage.

The presence of the Unexpected Panel (as it has been called) draws our attention upward and we stand agape in stunned silence. The intricacy of detail in this startling outburst of imagination painted on the sandstone rock face is dumbfounding. Some of its figures are as large or larger than ourselves. And some are 15 to 20 feet above the ground—unreachable and intimidating.

DSC09425I whisper thanks to our great friend who did the forensic extrapolation from a photographer's trip notes on his blog, where he gave the art the name we use. And then hunted down this site which has only become public in the last couple of years. Eventually we break out in a chorus of coyote hallelujahs.

Southern Utah's canyons are as laden with Native American rock art—from historic Ute and Navajo back to prehistoric Fremont, Pueblo and Basketmaker cultures—as the Manhattan railyards used to be with vibrant graffiti. But this is the old stuff, centuries or millennia older than the above cultures and possibly ancestral to some. It's also more elaborate and elegant than any subsequent rock art.

The earliest hunter-gatherer cultures in the Southwest have been prejudicially described by archaeologists as the "Desert Archaic" people. The ancient rock art paintings in Utah's canyonlands have been identified by the world-famous Great Gallery, considered the model of the Barrier Canyon Style (BCS) rock paintings. That renowned and enormous panel is really in Horseshoe Canyon which is intermittently drained by Barrier Creek. There is no Barrier Canyon.

How old is that panel in Horse­shoe Canyon? Unfired clay figurines with design similarities to the rock art's motifs have been excavated upcanyon. Fortunately, that work was done by professional archeologists who could date the clay figures by depositional layers in which they were found. These figurines could have been left behind "as early as 6,000 to 8,000 ago," according to an article by Betsy L. Tipps, "Barrier Canyon Rock Art Dating," that appears in the National Park Service publication The Archeology of Horseshoe Canyon (available free online).

Specific to the paintings, carbon dating of actual paint fragments from stylistically related sites found elsewhere and also described in the article pulls the creation of the paintings forward to between 4,000 and 1,700 years ago.

Older isn't necessarily better. But with rock art there's a point where art starts to evolve (or devolve) toward the iconography of writing. These are two distinctly different forms of communication—one visceral and one pragmatic. Think of the difference between Picasso's "Guernica" and the ideograms of Chinese text in which each character incorporates a simplified representation of what it identifies. Both are symbolically loaded. But one is a punch in the gut and the other may be instructions for hooking up a DVD player.

Most of the chipped-in rock art (also known as petroglyphs) of later prehistoric cultures, Fremont, Basketmaker and Pueblo, seem to be, with their stylized manner, moving more toward those ideogramic representations and away from more evocative forms of art. But, the preeminent thing about BCS paintings (also known as pictographs) thrives in the fact that they are intentionally enthralling—both emotionally and imaginatively, rather than intellectually.

As we stand gawking like museum tourists below the focus of our quest, we are not too distant as the crow flies from the BCS type-site in Horseshoe Canyon. We recognize familiar elements of that style's rock art. Predominating are larger-than-life moon-eyed demigods whose hypnotic stares have, ever since Spielberg, been associated with ET.

These often limbless torsos do have an other-worldly quality. Southern Utah artist and archaeologist Joe Pachak (known from his work with the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding) speculates that some figures from the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon could be representations of "shroud-wrapped bodies," possibly prepared for exposed sky-burials. This might explain the BCS sites' absence of the preserved interments common to Fremont, Basketmaker and Pueblo cultures.

puppetguyWhether or not Pachak's educated guess is accurate, it resonates with beliefs and rituals of one of the oldest surviving southwestern Native American cultures. The Hopi, who have lived for centuries on their defensive mesa tops in what is now northeastern Arizona, may or may not be descendants of the artists of the BCS culture. Being hunter-gatherer, seasonal nomads, those ancient artists left behind little evidence of their material culture except their magnificently durable rock art. Some Hopi clans do, however, have direct lineages or oral traditions going back to the prehistoric Basketmaker and Pueblo cultures (both commonly known as Anasazi or more recently as Ancestral Puebloan).

Some Hopi katsinas (aka kachinas), whether carved cottonwood figurines or ritual masquerades, are representations or embodiments of transcendent ancestors; in tabloid parlance, dead celebrities—think Bogart and Lincoln. Some are recent enough to be associated with remembered individuals. Some have been in oral tradition for so many centuries that they've metamorphosed into demigod myths—think Moses or Ulysses.

Whenever I visit Horseshoe Canyon and stand in front of the figure most often referred to as "the Holy Ghost," I see the Hopi's skull-faced Maasawu. This intimidating demigod, according to oral tradition, led the Hopi clans out of their "third world": out of the Chaco Canyon culture's tyranny at the declining end of the prehistoric Pueblo era in the 1400s and to new lives in their current Fourth World on those Arizona mesa tops. One doesn't need to leap a very wide conceptual gap to recognize proto-katsinas or even Maasawu himself in some of the imposing BCS figures left by the canyonlands ancestors. Perhaps those ancestors are representatives of an even more distantly prehistoric Second World.

Once we free our attention from captivation by the Unexpected Panel's katsina-like, humanoid figures we recognize the wealth of detail in the panel's elaborate composition. Several smaller figures incorporate both animal and human characteristics, abstract winged circles, an arc evocative of a rainbow and, inevitably, symbols too alien to our own cultural foundations to guess the artist's intentions.

Occasionally the most evident component of a suite of elements—subordinate to a BCS panel's dominating anthropomorphic figures—is the presence of a raincloud. My rock art-obsessed companions and I refer to an obscure panel near Moab, otherwise identified by its give-away location name, as the Stormbringer Panel. Our re-naming recognizes both the need for protective secrecy and the presence of unmistakable rainclouds trailing curtains of virga directly over two major anthropomorphs. Although this seemingly ancient panel—with numerous Basketmaker animal petroglyphs superimposed much later—is heavily faded from ages of exposure, the simplified raincloud and rain-curtain would be difficult to interpret as anything else.

Still gazing up at the Unexpected Panel, we recognize nothing as obvious as a raincloud, but the arcing twin lines over five small supplicant or dancing figures looks like a rainbow. Vertical painted streamers below the rainbow and dancers are identical to the virga falling from rainclouds of the Stormbringer Panel and make this identification seem like more than idle speculation.

Often the presence of such a rain signifier is less apparent, as exemplified by two panels—quite different from each other—on opposite sides of a canyon near Canyonlands National Park. The larger one (usually called Snake in the Mouth for the tiny uvula-like snake hanging in a torso-like figure's open mouth) has an amorphous horizontal shape overhead. Pulling one's attention off this dominant anthropomorph, one is likely to notice small streaks and droplets falling from that dark shape toward an attendant figure and a diagonal snake above its head.

The intricately delicate Snake Belly (or Intes­tine Man) panel on the opposite side of the canyon seems to have less potential for rain signifiers. But, above the three main semi-anthropomorphic figures (one of which is a perfect example of Pachak's burial shroud) there are 100 or more fingerprint-painted dots that may or may not represent raindrops.

The real rain signifier here, however, requires familiarity with a minor detail of another panel entirely. Next to the Snake Belly and its attendants is a seemingly abstract six-lobed form with hanging loops joining the tapered lobes. Minutely painted birds that would fit on fingernails fly between each lobe. It seems unlikely that the mysterious lobes are simply clumsy abstractions. Below, are barely visible vertical repetitions that I've heard described as lollipops. What on earth?

Before hiking away from the Unexpected Panel—since the sun is dipping toward the horizon—we comment on another aspect familiar from other panels. Snakes! Many BCS panels have snakes slithering across them or otherwise woven into their designs. There's one above us, with back-and-forth loops partially obscured by a mineral stain, hanging from a moon-eyed figure's arm. Half of the figure's head and most of its single arm are also obscured by the same descending stain. Another figure appears to have a snake sprouting from its shoulder for an arm. There are also two small snakelike designs above and below the double arc of the rainbow.

Many native people see snakes' shedding of their skins and emergence from dens in the earth when the ground warms in the spring as symbols of rebirth. But for the Hopi they are also the guardians of springs. The Hopi snake ceremony, documented by Jesse Walter Fewkes in a report first published in 1897 involves ritual handling of deadly rattlesnakes as well as other less dangerous desert serpents. This was the first Hopi ceremonial "dance" from which outsiders were banned when their sacred rituals started taking on a Barnum and Bailey atmosphere. In his book, Sun Chief: the Autobiogra­phy of a Hopi Indian, Dan Talayesva, after describing Snake Clan priests carrying rattlesnakes in their teeth, states, "They are then released with prayers, to convey to the Rain Deity." It's quite possible that this ancient propitiation ritual of the Hopi was carried from their deep ancestral past as carefully a rattlesnake clutched between their teeth.

9406The Head of Sinbad panel, famous in anthropology textbooks for a shaman figure, includes numerous snakes. One is clutched in a figure's hand and another seems to be whispering in a moon-eyed figure's ear. This figure is partially obscured by mineral stains.

These paintings are extremely old and some, like the Stormbringer panel, have not aged well. The water seepage which has, over the centuries, deposited mineralization may not necessarily have occurred as an oversight or a poor location choice on the part of the artists. It's possible the placement of certain figures in the path of this seepage of gathered rainfall was intentional. That possibility increases to probability when one considers that the intention of some paintings was, very likely, the supplication of ancestral spirits for sustaining rain.

I feel it's worth taking another brief glance at the Snake Belly panel's identifying figure. This figure is small, not much more than a foot high and unusual among its sibling pictographs. It's proportionally wider than other BCS figures and has what appears to be a skirt of feathers along its bottom edge. Another unusual detail, corrupted by erosion and barely discernible in photographs, is a triangular rattle­snake-like head protruding vertically from where one would expect a head to protrude—a faint detail I noticed when working on a pen-and-ink rendering.

A little-known petroglyph in Canyonlands National Park has similar details. In the Storm­bringer panel, another petroglyph has similar snakey internal loops and a trailing edge of tentacle-like fringe similar to the Snake Belly's "feathers."

Author Erna Ferguson in her book Dancing Gods, published in 1931, recounts how each Hopi snake collector "carries a bag of sacred meal with which to sprinkle the snakes, and a buffalo-skin bag to put them in." It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these glyphs represent such a collecting bag or personifications of such bags. Such enclosing bundles are known to calm irritated captives and would have offered safe and respectful transport for dangerous serpents as collaborators in rain-arousing rituals that may have preceded those of the Hopi.

Before finally wrenching our imaginations away from the Unexpected Panel, we take one last, mind-etching look at its focal figure. There is always a dominant figure in these elaborate and always singular compositions who clutches at your soul. I've intentionally left this hybrid figure—so well equipped for clutching —for last.

Smaller than the ghostly torsos it shares the wall with, it has two stubby legs and two reaching arms, turned to one side, with delicate but dangerous-looking claw-like fingers and seems to be flinging four enigmatic winged circles toward the panel's edge. It has a rectangular head, wider than it is high, with two huge piercing eyes. The addition of a pair of moth-like antennae imbues the figure with an insectoid, even alien, quality. Though there is a mineralization-obscured snake hanging in space behind this figure, and a small mammal beneath the winged circles seems to be communing with a smaller snake, it is impossible to trap this figure's essence in the conceptual net of rain-magic that we've been exploring.

No amount of well-founded or dumbfounded speculation can ever dispel the mysteries of these labors of human imagination. But something that is not subject to speculation is the fact that they were indeed labors. These elaborate works of art represented a substantial commitment of time and effort for a hunter-gatherer, subsistence community. As generations of their people swept past, as pigments they worked with failed or succeeded to chemically bond with the sandstone on which they were painted and disappeared, faded or remained vibrant, their mastery of materials and technique evolved. Eventually, they knew—without doubt—they were creating something both important and enduring that reached into the deepest enigmas of human existence and survival. Their mystery is one the passage of centuries has only enhanced.

Visiting Rock Art of the Canyonlands Ancestors

It's a sad dilemma that any public description of rock art locations exposes it to an extreme risk of vandalism. There are, however, three significant, high profile Barrier Canyon Style panels that are essentially in the public domain. Two are within an hour's drive from Green River, the third is a little more with a good hike at the drive's end. All are accessible on well-maintained dirt roads.The Sego Canyon and Buckhorn Wash panels both received major, professional restoration in the mid-90's to remove decades of vandalism. The type-site for this rock art style, Horseshoe Canyon (AKA Barrier Canyon) is part of Canyonlands National Park. A few years ago a chainlink fence was installed for protection of the Great Gallery and a park ranger is usually on patrol.

Sego Canyon

Take I-70 east from Green River for approximately 24 miles, take the turnoff to Thompson Springs (Exit 185). Drive north through town on SR 94 and continue on the dirt road for approximately three miles to a parking area for the rock art.

Buckhorn Wash

Take I-70 west from Green River for approximately 30 miles, take the dirt road (Exit 129) north, backtracking for a little over three miles until the road turns and continues north for approximately 16 miles to cross the San Rafael river bridge. In approximately five miles the the rock art will appear on the canyon walls beside the road.

Horseshoe Canyon

Take I-70 west from Green River for approximately 13 miles, take SR 24 (Exit 147) south for approximately 24 miles to about a half mile south of the Goblin Valley turnoff. Turn east on the dirt road to the Hans Flat ranger station of the Maze district of Canyonlands N.P. Bear right at the first fork, left at the second fork, continuing to a signed junction after about 25 miles. Turn left, and its about six more miles from this junction with signs marking the way to the turnoff on the right and the rim of the canyon. The hike into the canyon and upstream to the Great Gallery is seven miles round trip.

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José Knighton

José Knighton

When José Knighton moved away from Moab nine years ago, someone said (and it was printed in the newspaper), “It’s sad enough when you lose the family dog, but we’re losing the community coyote!” There, you know all you need to know about José. And, also, that he is a highly skilled observer that manifests in poetry, prose and his careful, captivating pen-and-ink drawings.

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