By Pam Miller and Blaine Miller
Utah rock art was described in National Geographic magazine as a "wilderness Louvre," a world-class outdoor art museum. The quality and quantity of Utah's prehistoric rock art is unmatched anywhere. From the mummy-shaped human figures of heroic proportions in the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon to the incised stones from Hogup Cave, Utah's rock art is beautiful and varied.

In its most basic definition, rock art is any design on stone. Those which are incised, scratched, rubbed, or pecked into the surface of the rock are called petroglyphs. Painted designs are referred to as pictographs. Occasionally the word petrograph is used as a generic term for both pecked and painted designs. Other terms used for rock art, such as picture writing or Indian writing, attach a significance to the design that may or may not have been intended by its creator.

Who created the rock art? While it is speculated that a petroglyph in the Moab area and a pictograph in Ferron Canyon--both of which may represent mammoths--may represent work by Ice Age artists more than 10,000 years ago, the earliest rock art can be more safely attributed to the Archaic Culture of more recent times. Hunters and gatherers who were successful at harvesting a wide variety of plants and small game animals in various ecological niches, these people were probably responsible for the red-painted, mummy-shaped figures in eastern Utah known as the Barrier Canyon style as well as other (primarily abstract) rock art images found throughout the state. Scholars generally agree that the earliest rock art is at least 2,000 years old.

Much of Utah's rock art has been credited to the Fremont Indians, who practiced a farming-based culture and occupied most of the state between 800 and 1,500 years ago. In the southern area of the state rock art was produced by the Anasazi, also a farming culture, from slightly before the time of Christ to 700 years ago. Numic-speaking groups such as the Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, and Goshute, who replaced or absorbed the Fremont Indians, also engaged in creating rock art. More recently, historic inscriptions were left by explorers, trappers, pioneers, and freighters.

Proven techniques for dating rock art directly are not yet available, but research is progressing in the area of dating petroglyphs by measuring or analyzing rock patina, or varnish. Rock art currently is dated by relative dating techniques involving the use of tree-ring dating or radiocarbon dating of structures, artifacts, or soils that cover or provide access to rock art. The age of the rock art is then related to that of the soils, structures, or artifacts. In some cases a particular style or design may be determined to be older or younger than another by the study of its placement in relation to the other rock art.

Particular representations in rock art may give clues as to its origin or general time frame. The atlatl, a carved, hand-held wooden tool used to throw spears, was used in Utah before the introduction of the bow and arrow, approximately two thousand years ago. A panel containing an image of a hunter with a bow and arrow would be less than two thousand years old. One depicting an atlatl or spear could be much older. Images of horses would not appear in rock art until the seventeenth century, after they had been introduced to the area through contact with the Spanish.

Questions about the purposes of rock art and reasons for its creation are asked by both casual observers and scholars. Unfortunately the questions usually cannot be answered with certainty. Rock art today exists out of its living cultural context. Rock art could have been created for a number of reasons. It may be the result of haphazard scratching or the irresponsible product of an unskilled novice. Some rock art may have practical origins, a product of sharpening implements by rubbing them on the convenient stone surface. Perhaps some indentations were used in playing games. A regular series of parallel lines suggests a count, similar to notching sticks or knotting cords. More easily recognizable are representations of human and animal forms; yet it is more difficult to determine the purpose of the form--whether it depicts a particular person or animal or a life form in general.

Some rock art may have been strictly decorative in nature, accounting for crosses, rectangles, circles, spirals, and other designs. Other rock art representations could actually be a form of picture writing, recording dates, titles, names, ceremonial symbols, or great feats. Warnings, directions, or the posting of territorial limits could explain panels that appear to be maps. Notable events in local history, mythology, or tradition may be represented, as also could routine habits, customs, or lifeways be depicted. Symbols such as mountain sheep or bear tracks may represent a group of related people, similar to a coat-of-arms in western heraldry, indicating the territory of the group.

Scholars have tried to identify "styles" in rock art by recognizing temporal or cultural distinctions. In most cases the rock art designs were not repeated as art on utilitarian articles such as pottery, textiles, or baskets. Preliminary studies of the production of historic rock art indicates that men created the rock art while women produced the designs on other items. The practice of creating rock art may even have been part of a religious function, limited to a few skilled artists. In some cases, rock art may have been created by artists visiting an area for an important social or ceremonial occasion. Artists may even have specialized in particular designs, especially those of some importance to the common group.

Some rock art may identify cultural relationships, patterns of communication, evidence of trade, or other cultural contacts. All of these possibilities contribute to the difficulty of understanding the meaning or purposes of rock art.

The original intent or meaning of rock art may never be determined, but there are many things it can tell us about the people who created it. Depictions of human figures often include articles of clothing such as kilts or skirts. Examples of ornamentation include earrings, necklaces, belts, armbands, bandoliers, and a great variety of headdresses. Some faces and bodies are painted in red, black, white, green, yellow, and blue pigments. Hairstyles also may be seen, some similar to the squash-blossom style worn by girls of marriageable age in historic Pueblo cultures. Another style has the hair tied in "bobs" at the shoulders, similar to a style found on some Fremont figurines.

Figures with shields, spears, or bows and arrows relate these weapons and hunting tools to the artists. Closer examination of some of the hunters may show them dressed in animal skins to stalk their prey--tails and ears of the animal skin are identifiable on the hunter. Because many rock art scenes depict hunting, shield figures, or signs of warfare, it has been speculated that they were done by males recording male activities.

The close relationship between prehistoric cultures and nature is apparent in the depictions of animals in rock art. Bighorn sheep may be the most commonly represented animal in Utah rock art and researchers believe that familiarity with the animals' behavior is reflected in the way the animals are organized in the rock art. Grizzly bears can be identified by their large feet and the hump on their backs. Rattlesnakes have a triangular head and may even have rattles depicted on the tail. One panel, called the "pregnant buffalo," in Nine Mile Canyon shows a small buffalo with horns within a larger buffalo. Deer and elk are depicted alone or in herds. Other animals identified in rock art include owls, birds in flight, turkeys, scorpions, lizards, coyotes (or wolves), and dogs.

Native American cultures in Utah, whether they were hunters and gatherers or farmers, had a great understanding of the seasons and the plants or animals that would be available for food during each season. Some researchers propose that specific panels or designs, in conjunction with the movement of sun or shadow across the panel, could have provided the ancient ones with a calendar of the seasons. Summer and winter solstices or the spring and fall equinoxes may have been marked in conjunction with rock art panels. Called archaeoastronomy, the study of Indian ruins or rock art in conjunction with the movement of heavenly bodies has produced some interesting theories on the ancient Native Americans' use and knowledge of the sky. At the very least, some rock art designs resemble the stages of the moon, sunbursts, and stars.

Because rock art is one of the most visible and fragile cultural resources in Utah, it has also been subject to vandalism and destruction. Guidelines when viewing or photographing rock art are: First, rock art must never be touched; oils from human skin can discolor or eventually obliterate the designs. Even though one touch may remove only a few grains of sand, the multiplication of that by many years and many visitors will cause the eventual destruction of the design. Never use chalk, crayon, marker, or any other additive to enhance or highlight the rock art for photographs. They compromise the integrity of the rock art and become a permanent part of the panel, paving the way for its eventual destruction. Do not try to make a mold of the rock art. Some panels have been obliterated by the effort when the mold materials adhered to the surface of the rock and could not be removed. Do not cut, chip, or try to remove rock art. Rock art is protected by antiquities laws, but every viewer must take the responsibility to treat it properly that it may be preserved as a memorial to its creators and for the benefit of future viewers. Do look closely, photograph carefully, and appreciate deeply.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.