This is canyon country, a landscape defined by the forces of nature that have carved their way through the red sandstone for millions of years and still continue to perform their work. The human history of this landscape carries a similar throughline: Rock inscriptions carved on canyon walls over thousands of years lend whispers of the history of the people who came before.
Petroglyphs and pictographs across the region preserve thousands of years of human history, spanning many cultures over time. There is much to be learned from these marks pecked or painted onto canyon walls, and they remain important sites for Native communities today.
What is the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs?
Petroglyphs—which are generally more abundant in this area—are images created by carving, engraving, or scratching upon the surface of the rock. Pictographs are painted, consisting of pigment applied to the surface of the stone. While certain panels may have originally been a combination of petroglyphs and pictographs, the windswept sandstone now primarily reveals petroglyphs.
What is known about petroglyphs and pictographs?
There are numerous ways to interpret meaning, and inevitably, much of it remains a mystery to visitors today. Native groups with Ancestral ties to the region can offer perspective and interpret meaning from rock writings left many generations ago. Archaeologists also offer a set of ways to interpret these sites.
In the summer of 2021, the Moab Museum presented a temporary exhibition called “Stories on Stone: Interpreting & Protecting Moab’s Rock Imagery” in collaboration with Utah Humanities. The exhibit showcased perspectives about four prominent Moab-area petroglyph panels from Hopi guide and interpreter Bertram Tsavadawa and archeologist Don Montoya.
“There’s always variations of understanding of how sites will be utilized by the Ancestors,” Tsavadawa explained in the exhibit, adding “as a Hopi person, coming from northeastern Arizona to visit and see these sites here, it is reconnecting.”
In a video made with the Museum and the Utah Humanities Council’s Humanities in the Wild initiative, Tsavadawa drew connections between petroglyphs of wavy lines at Moonflower Canyon to the abundant water nearby.
“Water sustains life. Wherever there’s water, you’ll find maybe an Ancestral site, occupation location, or where they were visiting or making their pilgrimages to conduct ceremony, or connect back to nature,” Tsavadawa explained.
Archeologists also offer ways of understanding these traces of the past. A variety of scientific dating methods, including carbon dating, may determine the ages of pictograph pigments. In the absence of pigment, archaeologists can use optically-stimulated luminescence, which tells how long quartz sediments have been exposed to light. Archeologists also recognize distinctive aesthetic styles associated with different periods, such as the Barrier Canyon Style, which allows them to determine the spatiotemporal extent of cultural groups.
Rock imagery sites remind us that history exists beyond the bounds of a museum collection space. Stewardship of sites remains an ongoing topic of community conversation. In April 2021, Birthing Rock, a prominent rock imagery site along Kane Creek Road, was vandalized, inciting community outrage. The vandalism was the second publicized instance in 2021 of petroglyphs in Moab being damaged, the first being a rock climber bolting a route near a 1,000-year-old petroglyph panel near Arches National Park.
Why does it matter to protect rock imagery and Ancestral sites?
In the words of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition: “To the untrained eye, these archaeological features can sometimes be hard to recognize, but their importance to science, as well as tribal descendants, is immense…More than just a library of human history, this place remains vital to tribal communities across the Colorado Plateau as a place of subsistence, spirituality, healing, and contemplation.”
When visiting these sites, make sure to observe proper visitation etiquette to preserve this history and pay respect to the enduring connections these places provide for Native communities today. These tips, from the Museums of Western Colorado, provide guidance to visitors today:
- Visit rock art sites with respect. Many cultures today see rock art as being just as sacred as it was when it was created.
- Do not touch images. The oils on your hands cause damage that cannot be fixed.
- Take only pictures. Paper rubbing and latex molds cause irreversible damage.
- Respect private property rights.
- Leave archaeological clues found near rock art panels in place. Artifacts such as projectiles can help archaeologists better understand and date the age of panels.
- Report any vandalism to a local land agency such as the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and Park Service.
The Moab Museum is dedicated to sharing stories of the natural and human history of the Moab area. To explore more of Moab’s stories and artifacts, find out about upcoming programs, and become a Member, visit www.moabmuseum.org.