Rock Art Lingers as Ancient Communication

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By Dixie Brunner

As you study the rock face, it comes alive with ancient depictions of people, animals and symbols. You’re struck with a sense of awe, reverence and question... are these whispered secrets from a time long ago?

Petroglyphs : Kanab, Utah Area Guide :

Petroglyphs at Cave Valley in Zion. Photo by Steve Williams.

“We believe petroglyphs were not considered art to those who put them there, but rather communication, because of the use of symbols,” explained Archeologist Doug McFadden.

While archeologists believe rock art existed all over the United States, the West is a treasure chest for it. Rock art is commonly found in sheltered locations, on rock faces, and usually away from where the people were living at the time.

Two distinctions separate rock art. A “petroglyph” is a picture or symbol pecked into the rock’s surface. The majority of rock art found in our area is of this variety. Petroglyphs remain more enduring since indentations can better withstand the elements.

A “pictograph” is a painted symbol. Different sites can offer a surprising variety of painted colors. The colors were made by mixing different natural minerals.

Rock art is often found clustered, with groups found together. Three types of rock art common to Kane County are Kayenta, Virgin and Fremont. But were the pictures and symbols the mark of a certain Indian tribe?

“Not necessarily,” said McFadden, “while the differences in the symbols are obvious, the similarities are harder to identify. But some symbols were common to certain tribes. We have found figurines which are similar to rock art styles, especially in the Fremont Indians.”

Some symbols were meant to warn others. One Escalante site near Calf Creek Falls has life-size pictographs. McFadden said it’s thought the large, forbidding, horned symbols were meant to warn people to stay away.

The importance of rock art as an archeological clue has emerged in recent years. It is believed that rock art may hold valuable clues to the life of people long ago.

Sites 2,000 years B.C., the Anasazi’s “Barrier Canyon Style,” have been found in Kane County. Utilizing tree ring dates, the Basket Maker’s rock art has also been identified and dated. These people occupied this area from 100 B.C.-400 A.D. McFadden said Basket Maker’s art is stylistically definable.

The most recent style found here is “Eastern Kayenta,” which is late Pueblo and dated 1100-1200 A.D. One rock art style exclusive to Kane and Washington Counties is the “Cave Valley Style,” identified by symbols triangular in shape.

For tourists wanting to view rock art with only minimal hiking, there is a site in South Fork Indian Canyon, northwest of Kanab in the vicinity of Coral Pink Sand Dunes. (Get a BLM map for directions.) Visitors are encouraged to photograph, but not touch, any rock art.

As you gaze upon the mysterious drawings from long ago, do you hear the whisper of a secret?

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