National Geographic : 1980 Jan
Utah's Rock Art Wilderness Louvre A PICTURE ESSAY BY GARY SMITH WITH MICHAEL E. LONG NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SENIOR STAFF TUCKED IN CANYONS, carved on boulders, the rock art of Utah has led me on an odyssey through time - from a 19th-century Ute Indian's rendition of the passing of the pipe near Ouray (above) to sandstone masterpieces that may be thousands of years old. As a former backcountry ranger in Canyonlands National Park, I had not forgotten those gems in a wilderness Louvre. Two years ago I returned to photograph them and to try to fathom their meaning. In Cottonwood Canyon, I viewed a hunting scene (foldout, left) carved about A.D. 1000 and credited to an artist of the Fremont culture -named for artifacts found along the Fremont River. His bowmen still confront their quarry of bighorns, but why are the sheep linked to a mysterious horned figure? Consulting rock art experts, I found myself entering a world of hypothesis and speculation, an unfamiliar universe of primitive peoples guided by shamans who possessed remarkable magico-mystical powers. The mysterious figure in the hunting scene, I learned, could represent a shaman with the ability to ensure the hunt's success. West of Green River I photographed a snake and a fantastic beast in the company of an anthropomorph (following pages). The figure's haunting, bulbous eyes are characteristic of a rock art style defined by art historian Polly Schaafsma as Barrier Canyon, where a treasure trove of such figures is found. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that Barrier Canyon artists may have put brush to rock more than 6,000 years ago.