Peering deep to read the writing on the wall
Leaving downtown Moab, the road slips through The Portal into a Stygian corridor of varnished sandstone and billowing waters. Soaring cliff faces rise above a river called the Colorado, a Spanish word for "red"& though the ancient waterway has been known by other names in other ages.
Flanking a vast Wingate wall, I pass the mouth of Pritchett Canyon and begin the climb into a rugged, wind-haunted upland. The muddy dirt road hugs the cliffs above a sinuous gorge. Grainy winter sunlight filters down through a low ceiling of clouds.
I round a curve, see what I'm looking for, pull over. The road is empty: no one out here glyphing today but me. On the horizon, a white slickrock fin shaped like Moby Dick breaches the crest of a rocky swale. Much closer, a huge boulder rests on a bedrock shelf. The shelf is scattered with riprap and scree, but the boulder stands apart, eye-catching in its isolation.
Though I'm less than six miles from Moab's main drag, I may as well be 60 miles into the howling wilderness. Sealed off by naked sandstone and plunging canyon, my only companions are the lonely wind and a murder of crows, who mock me from the rimrock as I stumble down a mantle of talus onto the bedrock shelf.
The boulder, settled deeply into its moorings of red dust, has been set adrift against the flow of time. Rock art panels decorate each of its four exposed surfaces, a dreamscape mix of horned animals, serpents and visionary beings.
An apparent breech birth dominates one scene. Pecked through the weather-varnished overlay to expose the softer, brighter sandstone beneath, the figure of a woman lies with arms and legs outstretched. The legs of an infant protrude from her womb. Mother and child seem caught between two worlds, suspended between life and death, between the warmth of the womb and the cold of the outside world, where centipedes writhe near the baby's exposed feet. Emblematic or anecdotal, one cannot help but feel that this petroglyph, called the "Birthing Scene," tells an important story.
Elsewhere on its surface, the boulder swirls with other, equally enigmatic images, a cross-cultural and cross-epochal mix of prehistoric cosmology: hollow-eyed spirits, bear paws, horned imps, amoeba-like geometrics and chevrons, a sandal trackway, a snake, a horse. Following stylistic canons, scholars trace these glyphs to the San Rafael Fremont and their contemporaries, the San Juan Anasazi. Later bands of historic Utes added to the imagery. In comparison with the more abstract, playful Anasazi iconography, the Fremont glyphs are numinous and forbidding. Of the hosts of aboriginal peoples who made a home of Utah's fault-block basins and river-carved plateau-lands - Clovis, Folsom and Plano paleo-Indians, Archaics, Anasazi, Fremont, Great Basin Paiute, Ute and Navajo peoples, among others - the bulk of Utah rock art is generally understood to be of Fremont origin. The Fremont culture was an amalgam of Colorado Plateau and Great Basin cultural traits and peoples: the first uniquely Utahn culture, culture that flourished for centuries, centuries before Brigham Young set eyes on the Salt Lake Valley. In contrast with the Anasazi, whose spiritual practice revolved around the use of ceremonial kivas, the Fremont placed a great spiritual emphasis on their rock art, which they related to the shamanic or vision quest experience. Thus, many Fremont paintings and petroglyphs were made within the context of sympathetic magic: ancient devotions frozen in stone.
The Moab area appears to have been a kind of prehistoric melting pot, a nexus between the semi-nomadic tribes of northern and western Utah and their Puebloan neighbors to the south. Historian Richard A. Firmage suggests, "The Moab region of the Colorado Plateau . . . throughout historical time has been a meeting ground or area of interaction among various groups," with Fremont, Anasazi and Ute bands making "use of the streams exiting the La Sal Mountains, especially as they neared the Colorado River. Mill Creek and Pack Creek in the sheltered and relatively lush Moab Valley must have seemed good areas of habitation for many millennia; the possibility exists, however, that the locale was just too good and too lacking in natural defenses to be held for long - group after group succeeding each other on the land . . . Whether the country was a furious battleground or instead became a sort of neutral territory for many groups to peacefully share is not known."
The only evidence that remains of the relationship between these ancient tribes - marks made in yielding, soft sandstone - suggests an artistic and perhaps cultural synergy. The majority of Moab rock art is of mixed Fremont and Anasazi origin, dating from the Formative period when these two cultures overlapped, though Barrier Canyon-style pictographs, the work of the much older Archaic culture, exist side by side with or underlay many of the Formative panels. The haunting anthropomorph figures displayed so prominently on almost every Moab panel suggest an ongoing, powerful ideological theme embraced by a majority of eastern Utah's prehistoric people for several thousand years. What this theme was - what these gods or demons or shamans or spirits meant to the artists who crafted them - remains elusive.
While the meaning has been lost, the impulse is familiar. The need to express the ineffable has been a fundamental driving force in every culture throughout human history; for the Anasazi and Fremont, the exposed rock faces of the Moab area must have seemed an especially appropriate medium. As Keith Davis writes, "Stones, according to Jung, possess a particular power for man in and of themselves, even before they become bearers of primal marks. Jung wrote of stones as symbols for the Self, each one distinct and mute, 'as if the stones held a living mystery,' and were 'containers of the life-force.' Stones symbolize the 'experience of something eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable.' In Jung's view it was this feeling that motivated primitive cultures to create stone monuments as signs and totems . . . . Even in their unhewn form stones were often seen . . . as the dwelling places of spirits or Gods, or as mediators between man and the eternal."
As mysterious as an interstellar broadcast from an alien world, rock art speaks to us across the ages. "We were here," the images seem to say. Like Tibetan prayer flags, they are intaglio prayers raised eternally into the wind.
If you go
Information: Rock art sites near Moab Pecked into sandstone or painted onto its surface, the mysterious rock art panels surrounding Moab heighten the area's already powerful sense of place. The following sites are within easy access of town and offer a great introduction to the possibilities of the area.
Remember, rock art is fragile and is protected by federal law. Don't touch the figures or climb on the rocks. Much damage can be caused by people making "rubbings" of the images. Enjoy, but don't touch!
Kane Creek Boulevard: Turn west at the intersection of Main and Kane Creek Drive (there's a McDonald's on the southwest corner) and proceed .8 mile to the intersection of Kane Creek Drive and 500 West. Stay left and continue 2.3 miles along the banks of the Colorado River to the mouth of Moon Flower Canyon. A protective fence marks a rock art panel dating from the Archaic to Formative periods, with a Barrier Canyon-style anthropomorph, animals and abstract elements. Continuing 1.2 miles (watch the mileage closely), locate an unmarked pullout on the cliff side of the road; an exposed wall covered with desert varnish faces the river. Here you will see pictographs of bighorn sheep, snakes and human forms. Continue down Kane Creek Drive past the cattle guard, where the pavement turns to an improved gravel surface. Approximately 5.3 miles from the Kane Creek/500 West intersection (or 1.7 miles from the previous site) you will see two unmarked pullouts on the western shoulder of the road above a broad terrace. Down the slope to the west, approximately 75 feet from the road, lies a large boulder covered in rock art. Figures and designs range from the Formative to the historic Ute period and include the well-known "Birthing Scene."
Courthouse Wash: On Highway 191 just north of the Colorado River, locate a large parking area on the north side of the road near the mouth of Courthouse Wash. A .5 mile walk leads to a large petroglyph and pictograph panel located just within Arches National Park. Scattered glyphs can be found on talus slabs at the base of the panel. The site was heavily vandalized in 1980, but conservation work has since restored a part of its former glory. You will see large ghost-like forms typical of the Barrier Canyon style, including human figures, bighorn sheep, shields, scorpions, dogs, long-beaked birds and abstract elements. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as representative of Barrier Canyon-style rock art.
Utah Scenic Byway 279 (Potash Road): From Highway 191 just north of the Colorado, take Utah Scenic Byway 279, which winds southwest along the north bank of the river. Drive five miles to the "Indian Writing" interpretive road sign and pull-outs on either side of the road. A rock art panel dating from the Formative period hangs suspended on the cliff face about 30 feet off the ground; the panel extends along the road for 125 feet. You will see a line of "paper-doll cutouts" and horned anthropomorphs holding shields, as well as a wide variety of animal and abstract images. Continue south 200 yards to the next "Indian Writing" sign. Scramble up the talus slope until you are flush with the cliff wall; assorted images lie along a narrow ledge that peters out below a large bear petroglyph.