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Introduction to Rock Art of Utah
and the Four Corners Region

Grand Gulch Rock Art- Page 1
Grand Gulch Rock Art- Page 2
Escalante Rock Art- Page 1
Moab Area Rock Art
Fish Slough Petroglyph Panel, Bishop, California (blog post, December, 2009)


Anyone who has visited the Desert Explorer website or read our blog posts will know that finding and photographing rock art is one of our passions. Photos and references can be found throughout our writings. This page will be the beginning of the compilation and publishing of all our rock art information in once place. Our goal is to show photographs of rock art, and discuss the elements and theorised meanings in them. We do not provide specific locations of panels or sites. We will begin with a general discussion of rock art including dating, viewing, and possible meanings. As with most of our pages, this one will be updated and added to as we have time.

Our primary reference for the rock art of Utah and the region is Sally Cole's Legacy on Stone. She has a revised edition that came out in 2008 with full color photos throughout. Additionally we use Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Utah, Vol 2 , both volumes (link is to Volume 2, covering southern Utah), Patterson's A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, and Barnes' Canyon Country Prehistoric Rock Art. Also on the list are both of Schaafsma's volumes- Indian Rock Art of the Southwest and Rock Art Of Utah. All of these titles are available through Amazon by clicking on the links above.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

The rock art of Utah is found in two forms- petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are scratched, pecked, engraved, or abraded into a rock surface. Petroglyphs are the earlier form of art, but are found from the Archaic through the Historic Period. Pictographs are painted images applied to rock surfaces. Pictographs are found with paint either directly applied to a natural surface, applied over a prepared (often smoothed) surface, or in "subtractive" form, rather than additive, where some of the applied paint is removed to create the final image.

Viewing Rock Art and Preserving it for the Future

While it may seem that symbols etched into stone are indestructible, this is definitely not the case. Time takes its toll on the exposed surfaces. Human visitation adds to the breakdown of rock art. In the past it was not uncommon for photographers to use chalk to outline rock art. Today this practice is absolutely unacceptable. Rock art should not be touched for any reason, with chalk, paper, or by hand. The oils in human skin add to the breakdown of the rock surfaces. Deliberate vandalism of rock art is also a problem. Anyone who has visited even a few sites has probably seen modern additions to panels- attempts at reproducing what is there, additions to ancient elements, and of course initials. Please do your part by only looking and taking photographs, never touching or making etchings of rock art. For more information on how you can help preserve archaeological sites visit the Colorado BLM's Anasazi Heritage Center website, and the utah BLM's Cedar Mesa web page (scroll to the bottom.)

The Meanings in the Symbols

Although there are established meanings for many rock art symbols and elements, and most archeologists seem to be in agreement about most of these presumed meanings, in the end there is much speculation. We do have ethnographic evidence and historic documentation to support the meanings of some later rock art, and those meanings can be applied to similar, earlier works. I will add commentary to photographs when possible regarding presumed meanings.

Chronologies and Dating

The placement of rock art within temporal boundaries follows established chronologies- from Paleo-Indian and Archaic through Historic. Temporal boundaries do vary with region and regional rock art styles, but tend to follow established local sequences. For example, the general phase sequence in Canyonlands varies from that of Mesa Verde. Rock art dating varies accordingly. Rock art styles are often given their own regional names- referring to the Fremont Culture in the Escalante region, you will encounter the Southern San Rafael Style of rock art. It is important to remember that not all regions made the same cultural advancements or accepted the same stylistic elements in their art as did their neighbors. There are overlapping stylistic elements within and across regions, for example, San Juan Basketmaker, Fremont, Abajo-La Sal and Barrier Canyon styles of rock art overlap or share certain characteristics, but certainly not all of them. The Anasazi phase sequence as presented here is rather general, and is focused on the archaeology of the Colorado Plateau and the Four Corners region. They are taken from Cordell (1997:190) and Cole (1990:9-13). For more on specific rock art sequences, Fremont, Ute, Navajo, and Shoshone rock art, Cole's book is the best resource. As time allows I will add summaries of the above sequences to this page.

Paleo-Indian and Archaic
According to Cole, there is no Paleo-Indian rock art found in Utah (1990: 9).

The earliest rock art of Utah comes from the Archaic period which begins about 6,000 B.C. and ends somewhere between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 150, depending on which source you read or exactly what part of the southwest you are looking at. Cole places the Archaic from about 5500 B.C. to A.D. 1.

Basketmaker, Pueblo and Historic
The Basketmaker II period begins about 1500 B.C. and ends about 500 A.D. Cole dates Basketmaker II from pre-A.D. 1 through about 500- 700 A.D. Basketmaker III dates to about 400 to 750- 800 A.D. At one time there was a Basketmaker I period, but it has now become part of the Archaic period.

The Pueblo periods being with Pueblo I spanning from about 750- 900 A.D., Pueblo II from 850- 1150 A.D., Pueblo III from about 1100- 1300 A.D. and Pueblo IV from about 1300- 1500 A.D., or until Spanish contact. Pueblo V, or the Historic Period dates from about 1540 to the present.


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