There aren't too many places that are more famous for their rocks than Utah. The state gains millions of dollars per year in tourism revenue largely thanks to the fascinating sandstone structures scattered around its five national parks. The arches and hoodoos are seen on license plates, billboards, and even the labels on locally brewed beer. One often overlooked aspect of these rocks, however, is that for thousands of years indigenous people have been using these very stones as their canvas and creating some phenomenal works of art in the meantime. Utah is covered with fantastic examples of native American rock art from several distinct eras of their history, and most of it is really easy to see for yourself. Sometimes painted and sometimes carved, Utah's arid and remote landscape has helped preserve the native artwork for us to see today.
The Barrier Canyon Style is a distinct form of pictograph found mainly in Utah and is known for its large and strange anthropomorphic figures painted onto the sandstones surface. Named after Barrier Canyon, where the most prominent and dramatic examples exist, the area was later renamed to Horseshoe Canyon and in 1971 was added as a prefecture of Canyonlands National Park. The Grand Gallery, located within the newer satellite park, is quite a wonder to behold and is one of the largest and best preserved art collections of any ancient culture. It can be difficult and expensive dating the pigment in rock art, but accepted science dates the origin of these drawings as far back 4,000 years ago*. Whoever made these mesmerizing pieces of art far predated the later Fremont but still figured out how to create a "paint" that remains surprisingly brilliant and vivid after 4,000 years.
Made from an unknown mixture of powdered minerals, charcoal, blood, oxidized iron, ground-up plant material, oils and countless other natural sources of pigment, the Barrier Canyon Style is primarily displayed as painted pictographs, but it does include some petroglyph work as well. A popular stop while hunting for the Barrier work done by the Archaic people is Sego Canyon. The unusual figures are thought to be representations of human/animal hybrids possibly from ancient legend, or perhaps shaman in ritualistic head dress. While the humanoid figures are often smaller than life-size, in the case of the Grand Gallery and Sego many are much larger than most humans. They often appear to be floating or ascending as depicted by the tapered and faded lower portions of the figures. Their ghostlike appearance can easily be interpreted as spirits, wraiths, or even as space aliens. The television show Ancient Aliens uses images from Sego Canyon in their opening montage, for instance. One of the things that makes viewing rock art so fun is all the speculation, theories, and ideas that are inspired while viewing these strange wonders.
You will find the highest concentration of Barrier Canyon Style pieces around the greater San Rafael Swell and Moab. The Head of Sinbad is not only a world famous pictograph, it is also the name of the surrounding area and home to the Lone Warrior Panel. In 1980 National Geographic ran a feature on the Sinbad panel and declared it one of the best preserved of all our national treasures. Not too far east is the fascinating and utterly unique Black Dragon Panel located just off the I-70 freeway west of Green River. It is a large and imposing figure that looks like a dragon, phoenix, or even a swan with its wings outstretched and its beaked head raised. A completely unique piece, it is a must-see and easy to get to. Head northwest from there to the Buckhorn Wash Panel near the Wedge Overlook, which offers another small panel with strange figures and serpents.
Sometime around 2,000 years ago, thousands of years after the Archaic people who painted the Barrier pieces, the Fremont began to farm the nearly inhospitable desert of the southwest. This was the first time laying roots for these people and a shift from what previously had been a purely nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. While they never fully lost their nomadic ways, they did subsidize their meals with maize, squash and beans by growing them in the rich, silty river bottoms of the Fremont river. With more time spent in one place the people began building pit house villages and decorating the steep cliffsides.
The Fremont were frequent carvers of petroglyphs, which are created by digging, scratching, chiseling and generally using abrasives to carve out a figure or symbol. Penetrating into the sandstone layers reveals a different color beneath and produces a second tone without adding any coloring agent, especially when the top layer is covered with black desert varnish. The Fremont were a loosely organized people that were spread over a very large territory, and thus you can see terrific panels literally all over the state. Nine Mile Canyon has one of the greatest concentrations of Fremont work in Utah and is located near the town of Price. In the eastern part of the state toward Vernal and Dinosaur National Monument is McKee Springs and it's imposing figures. They are large, well preserved, and were carved with great skill and precision. While you are out there, you can't miss the privately owned McConkie Ranch Panel in Dry Fork Canyon; these last two sites seem to have larger figures than most. The easiest place to see the most Fremont art in one place is no doubt the Fremont State Park near the town of Sevier, where I-70 and I-15 meet. This site is far to the west of these other examples and shows how vast their territory really was.
As you view several panels you'll notice an evolution of style and form. We can find symbols and depictions that some scientists think the Fremont used as a calendar, such as at the Parowan Gap, where the unique geography was possibly used to track the changing seasons. One major difference in the three eras would be how prolific the artists were in the later years. Newspaper Rock and the Rochester Panel are good examples of just how many more petroglyphs the Fremont decided to put on one rock compared to their ancestors. A similarity, on the other hand, is that all three time periods used antennae, head dresses, horns, helmets and other protrusions coming off of the heads of their figures, as seen at the Fruita Panel located in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. While exploring these panels, keep an eye out for the famous kokopelli, the wild-haired flute playing god of fertility. The Fremont were putting their stamp on the local stone for a few thousand years until they began little by little to depart to other lands between 900 and 1400 A.D., possibly due to prolonged drought.
The final and most recent examples of rock art were done by the Ute, a tribe that still exists today. One easy way to identify Ute work would be seeing depictions of subjects that would have been known only after the Spanish arrived such as horses, muskets, and the wagon wheel. Like the Fremont, they usually used petroglyphs over pictographs, but all three major groups used both techniques and even combined them on individual figures. Along the Delicate Arch Trail in Arches National Park is a Ute panel. Many of the sites already mentioned have Ute carvings mixed in with the Fremont and Archaic, but due to mimicry and recurring themes, it's very hard for non-experts to know the difference.
There are literally hundreds of other panels in Utah from the mountains to the desert, with more waiting to be found. We can learn a lot about ourselves when we spend time viewing these ancient works of art. They help give us perspective about our long and arduous journey to civilization and bring us back in time to imagine ourselves in the foreboding landscape of the southwest before cars and bottled water. Alas, it is a simple fact of life that all cultures come and go; will people be looking at our artwork in thousands of years scratching their heads as they try to make sense of Picasso or Pollock? Only time will tell, but what we do know is these pieces have already stood the test of time and stand ready to do so for another thousand years if we continue to protect and revere these national treasures.
*Some news reports indicate that the Barrier Canyon Style is actually a much younger creation than previously thought. Check out this article released in 2014 to learn more about the controversial yet intriguing claim.