Utah Rocks – Really!

Human and Snake Pictograph, San Rafael Swell, UtahHuman and Snake Pictograph, San Rafael Swell, Utah

While camping at the San Rafael Swell I had the pleasure of seeing and photographing some of the petroglyphs and pictographs in the area. The Fremont and Barrier Canyon cultures created this rock art on the face of the rock wall, the Barrier Canyon culture about 2000 years ago and the Fremont culture about 1000 years ago.  All the images here were taken with my point and shoot Nikon Coolpix S550, if I return to that area I will photograph them again with one of my DSLR’s in better light.

Snakes were common figures on rock art, the image above shows a single snake and a single human figure. The snake may represent a family group or clan, but no one knows for sure.

Sheep Petroglyph, San Rafael Swell, Utah Sheep Petroglyph, San Rafael Swell, Utah

Petroglyphs are pecked into the rock while pictographs are painted onto the rock. The figure in the petroglyph above may be a sheep, at the time this petroglyph was created there may have been many herds of Desert Bighorn Sheep in the area. Petroglyphs were usually carved on dark rock faces so for me this one being carved on a light colored rock wall is unusual.

The Alcove Paintings, San Rafael Swell, Utah The Alcove Paintings, San Rafael Swell, Utah

The collection of figures on the rock art wall above are known as The Alcove Paintings. The artist or artists appear to have used a natural curve under the figures that almost makes it look like they are on a stage. 

Petroglyphs and pictographs are protected by state and federal laws and fines are very high for those who deface them.  You can clearly see the word “Dan” chiseled into the wall below the figures as well as other initials. It is a shame that whoever left those names and characters on this wall didn’t see the value of the treasure before them.

Rain Angels Pictograph, San Rafael Swell, UtahRain Angels Pictograph, San Rafael Swell, Utah

The artists and the culture present when the image above must have known and understood what the long fringes on the head and arms of the figures above stood for. There is speculation that it may have represented lightning, lines of power or rain. The long lines were painted on purpose, they weren’t just drips of paint. The tallest figure has holes pecked in the torso. When I look at this I see a family; the tallest figure representing the male, the shorter figure on the right as a female and the small one on the left could be a young child. 

The Buckhorn Panel Pictograph, San Rafael Swell, Utah The Buckhorn Panel Pictograph, San Rafael Swell, Utah

The intricate shapes and designs of the Buckhorn Panel are fascinating to me. The human figures are elongated, there appear to be sheep, birds flying over the heads of the figures and on the lower section perhaps an early fence. I’m just speculating on that though. The longer you look at this panel the more details you will see.   

Pictographs with pecked holes, San Rafael Swell, UtahPictographs with pecked holes, San Rafael Swell, Utah

The figures above were painted and then holes were pecked into the chests. I’ve wondered if those holes represented the heart of the figures. There is a small figure second from the right that made me wonder if it was a coyote, it also has a hole in the chest. Some of the human figures appear to be holding spears or tools of some sort. What story did this panel tell? We may never know.

We are losing this valuable rock artWe are losing this valuable rock art

Wind, water and ice are having their effect on rock art. Wind picks up particles of dust that can slowly wear away the surface of the rock art, removing the paint of pictographs and softening the lines of petroglyphs. Water from rains can leave mineral deposits that will eventually cover the art work. Ice in cracks of the rock can cause sections of panels to fall away because of the freeze – thaw cycle.

Humans touching the art work can also cause harm to the petroglyphs and pictographs by rubbing on the art work, leaving oils from our hands which can degrade the paints used and as you saw in an image above some careless individuals can’t resist leaving their initials behind.

We need to protect these national treasures so that perhaps one day we might understand the meaning behind the art. At the very least they should be protected so that generations to come can visit and admire the works of these Native American cultures.

Panel of Petroglyphs and Pictographs, San Rafael Swell, UtahPanel of Petroglyphs and Pictographs, San Rafael Swell, Utah

I always wonder what the lives of these ancient peoples were like and these petroglyphs and pictographs always feel like openings in small windows of the past to me.


One Comment

  1. Rich Ditch November 20, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Good stuff.

    I’ve always been fascinating by rock art like this and have visited many of the known sites in AZ. We live very close to South Mountain Park here in Phoenix and it has a lot of – there’s even a thick scholarly book documenting most of the art at South Mountain that is on my reading stack.

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