As I walk the trail between cliff and river I search again for the face.
It’s ten inches tall. The eyes and mouth are distinctly pecked, two antenna rise above the head.
I almost walk past it and then I see it again, south-facing, looking out across space and time etched on sandstone 3,000 years ago.
There’s no smile, but no scowl, either. Just a human face, an anthropomorph really, insect-like because of the antenna. I wonder who carved it and why.
Along this stretch of the San Juan River, thousands of petroglyphs appear. Most of the images are Basketmaker II, early cousins of the Ancestral Puebloans with their large torsos, ear-bobs, and duck-style headdresses.
The face I see is from an even older tribal time. This Western Archaic rock art style known as Glen Canyon linear, defined by Christy G. Turner in 1963, was briefly investigated, described, drawn and photographed before the captured Colorado River flooded Glen Canyon with the closure of Glen Canyon dam.
Much of that rock art style is hundreds of feet under water, but traces of it can be found on cliffs along the San Juan River and on boulders at the base of Cedar Mesa.
The artists preferred carving the dark desert patina of sandstone blackened by manganese oxide.
“The animals are fairly representational but the artists added lines or cross hatching. Their sheep and deer are elegant, but there is a layer of abstraction with linear lines,” explains rock art photographer Diane Orr.
“I’m drawn to Glen Canyon linear because it’s so beautiful and so well done. The style is defined by its exceptional quality. The groups had time to do it. They worked on it and improved it.”
She adds, “In hunting cultures you find more individual expression and variation than in agricultural societies. I’m personally drawn to the art of hunting cultures.”
Imagine a world without agriculture and with small family groups perpetually moving through a canyon landscape searching for edible roots and seeds from wild plants.
Always on the alert for meat protein, from small cottontail rabbits to the delectable desert bighorn, these groups of Native Americans tilled no fields and built no architecture.
Instead, they sharpened their stone knives, practiced with their atlatls or throwing spears and hid near springs or stone water tanks, tinajas, at dawn waiting for wildlife.
They found game trails and followed them up canyons through oak brush and pinion-juniper forests like those of Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah.
Quiet, careful, cautious, these Paleo-hunters lived from meal to meal, yet anthropologists suggest that the hunters’ work day may have averaged only three hours instead of our eight or ten.
“The key to understanding the style is in understanding the broad spectrum of diets of the archaic hunters and gatherers. The folks who made both the Glen Canyon Linear Rock Art and shaped the Split-Twig figurines were the people around when, at least in some areas, corn first made its way into the northern Southwest,” explains archaeologist and ancient farming expert Ben Bellorado.
Archaic shamans carved elongated figures with small faces, flowing vertical lines sometimes without hands or feet, and plenty of etched dots, circles, gridirons, diamonds, spirals, wavy zig-zag lines, and the occasional downward pointing penis.
I am captivated by this rock art style. These were hunters who depended upon fresh game. They left their marks on canyon cliffs, but they also twisted Split-Twig figurines as representations of desert bighorn sheep and mule deer. Magical offerings, these figurines have been found within Grand Canyon caves.
“These figurines were ingeniously constructed of a single long thin willow branch, split down the middle, bent and folded in such a way as to create a miniature representation of an animal,” wrote Alan R. Schroedl who added,
“These figurines were probably magico-religious objects that were used in ritual activities to insure success in hunting game animals.” Some have even been found ritually killed, pierced by tiny spears.
Willow twig craftsmanship continues. I bought a pair of figurines at Havasupai Lodge at Supai Village in Havasu Canyon after a dusty seven-mile trek down from the rim.
Archaic hunters folded figurines to bring luck. Grand Canyon river guides bend willow twigs into the same shape to garner tips. All these centuries later, it’s still about making offerings.
I think Archaic hunters would approve. They understood foraging. They liked rivers.
“The Glen Canyon Style 5 is widely dispersed across the Colorado Plateau and appears to be most common along major rivers (Colorado, Dolores, Escalante, Green, and San Juan), indicating a relationship to Archaic populations that used these areas for such activities as gathering, hunting, fishing, ceremonies, and trade,” writes Sally Cole in her rock art classic book Legacy on Stone.
She explains that, “Panels are often loosely composed but may feature precise rows of anthropomorphs and quadrupeds” which “most frequently appear in outline with abstract interior line and dot decorations.”
So Archaic folks colored within the lines. Why not? They still had plenty of time for spirals, zig-zags and snakes.
Even that old desert rat Ed Abbey admired Archaic rock art. He wrote, “Humanlike forms with helmets and goggles wave tentacles at us. What can they be? Gods? Goddesses? Cosmonauts from the Betelgeuse neighborhood?
“But still we ask, what does the rock art mean? Unlike the story of the cliff ruins, fairly coherent to archaeologists, we know little of the significance of this ancient work...
“Perhaps meaning is not of primary importance here. What is important is the recognition of art, wherever we may discover it, in whatever form.”
Abbey appreciated ancient rock art. What he could not abide was Glen Canyon dam which destroyed so much of it.
“Because of the dam the river is gone, the best parts of the numerous side canyons are gone—all hidden beneath hundreds of feet of polluted water, accumulating silt, and mounting tons of trash.
“This portion of Glen Canyon—and who can estimate how many cubic miles were lost?—is no longer accessible to anybody. (Except scuba divers). And this, do not forget, was the most valuable part of Glen Canyon, richest in scenery, archaeology, history, flora and fauna.”
I agree with Abbey’s lament, but I still look for the rock art and I occasionally find it. Far from a river’s winding corridor. At the base of a vast sandstone cliff.
Here a tipped over rock rolled from hundreds of feet above and landed on its side revealing an entire tableau of Glen Canyon linear figures. I tilt my head sideways to see them. The lines, the dots and dashes. The small heads with their playful antenna.
Hunter gatherers, poised at the edge of the transition to sedentism and dependence upon corn, beans, and squash, carved these figures. Shamans etched this great stone slab and then it careened off a cliff to land on its sandstone shoulder. I tilt my head sideways and look again.
Then I scan the horizon as they must have continually done. Looking for movement, looking for meat. Wondering what we gave up thousands of years ago when we traded wild foods and mobility for tiny ears of maize.
• • • • •
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.