We must keep the art in rock art

Yesterday, Susie and I drove the 75 miles north of Bluff to an area called Indian Creek Corridor on route to Canyonlands National Park.

Our purpose was to re-visit a famous archaeological site known as Newspaper Rock, located in what currently remains of the Bears Ears National Monument.

While rock art, whether it appears as petroglyphs, pictographs, or geoglyphs, can be found all over the Southwest, this extraordinary collection is nearly without parallel.

A large and nearly flat sandstone surface of 200 square feet is covered by a thin coating of a natural varnish consisting of manganese and iron deposits.

For more than 2,000 years, people have chosen this place to engrave their ideas, aspirations, fears, and beliefs by pecking away at the soft sandstone with a harder rock, such as quartz.

More than 650 individual figures of all sorts decorate the surface. Newspaper Rock is both a Utah State Monument and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Navajos call this site Tse Hane, “the rock that tells a story.”

Located in a deep canyon near a permanent spring and a running stream, this location has attracted a variety of cultures over the past 2,000 years.

Images on Newspaper Rock have been attributed to prehistoric people representing the Archaic, Basketmaker, Anasazi, Fremont, and some contemporary Pueblo cultures.

There are also images from the historic period, including creations by Utes, Navajos, and European Americans. The presence of horses and riders indicate some were made after the Spanish arrived in the area.

By no means is this the only rock art panel in the area.

Within a short one-mile walk from Twin Rocks Trading Post, you can hike Cottonwood Canyon and see panels of very large horse figures, almost certainly created by Utes.

Five miles south of Bluff, the vast petroglyph panel at Sand Island campground stretches over a quarter mile in area and some images are high enough to require ladders or scaffolding for the artist to reach.

About ten miles south on Comb Ridge, the small Wolf Man Panel and the overwhelming Procession Panel, with its 187 tiny figures of people seemingly marching into a central circle, can be viewed if you are willing to hike up the 1,800-foot incline to the site.

There is a massive collection of literature from the archaeological community analyzing the rock art of the Southwest and entire scholarly careers have been based on the subject.

Many anthropologists reject the notion that these hand-pecked images on the stone constitute an artistic statement.

They cite the difficulty of dating the images, identifying possible uses, and what served as their inspiration or purpose.

To me they are art, and represent the concerns, visions, or aspirations of their individual creator.

Whether inscribed 2,000 years ago, or more recently, they all say the same thing: “I am alive, and I was once here at this place.”

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