What did we do before radio—before cell phones, television, newspapers, and books? How did we tell stories, share news, warn of danger, or otherwise communicate with anyone beyond those around us? What did we do with words and thoughts when there was no one with whom we could immediately share them? The wilds of southern Utah can provide one answer—if you’re willing to look.
As far as pictograph panels go, Horseshoe Canyon’s Great Gallery isn’t terribly difficult to find. It’s also one of the most spectacular and well preserved panels of rock art in the state. Naturally, then, it’s fairly well-known and has seen an increasing number of visitors in recent years despite its remote location. Incidentally, I happened upon it by accident—had no idea it was there and would have passed right by if not for a chance glimpse of a ghostly set of eyes peering at me through cottonwood boughs. The Great Gallery’s ‘Barrier Canyon’ style of rock art is characterized by haunting silhouettes of human, semi-human, and animal figures painted on and pecked into the canyon walls of the Colorado Plateau. They are surviving remnants of an unnamed and unknown culture of hunter/gatherers that roamed Utah’s canyon country between 7,000 and 1,500 years ago—pieces of information whose meaning is lost to us now. We may never know why these people painted the “Holy Ghost”—the 8-foot-tall figure with empty, gaping eyes that startled me out of my hiking stupor.
Newer panels of rock art produced by more familiar cultures are a bit more discernible, though. The nameless wanderers who produced the Barrier Canyon style were followed first by the Fremont whose artwork appeared around 1,500 and 2,000 years ago and then by the Pueblo peoples we now refer to as the Anasazi. Both the Fremont and Pueblo styles portray relatively clearer themes—stories of hunting parties and the game to which they gave chase; spirals and directional glyphs which indicate water; people, animals, and the elements whose interactions are now carved into the canyon walls for us to find, decipher, and celebrate.
The author, adventurer, and local rock art expert Jonathan Bailey refers to rock art as “a vision of a…cultural landscape”—a story continuously told by people who lived close to the land long after they’ve passed. Some stories are secret, hidden away in forgotten crevices of the Colorado Plateau, meant only for those who already knew their meaning. Others are more democratic: a water glyph is meant for me as much as the hunter/gatherer that pecked it into the sandstone. It beckons every traveler to come and sate his or her thirst.
Einstein said time is relative. Looking up at the Holy Ghost, the artistic center of the Great Gallery, I felt I could reach through time and connect with the people who wandered this landscape before me—to see it and experience it the way they did.
I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Josh Boling, 2018
Sources & Additional Reading
Mozdy, Michael, Bold Figures, Blurred History: The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Natural History Museum of Utah, October 2, 2016, https://nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/09/29/bold-figures-blurred-history-great-gallery-horseshoe-canyon
Nine Mile Canyon, Natural History Museum of Utah, https://nhmu.utah.edu/places/nine-mile-canyon