When we do a survey for a project, we have to go in to the SHPO (state historic preservation office, rhymes with “hippo”) and do some research to see what sites have been recorded in the past.  Usually you get nice, complete site records that an archaeologist has filled out in the last 10 or 15 years.  Sometimes, you get a one-page summary that an archaeologist wrote up 30 to 50 years ago.  And, very occasionally, you get an odd entry from roughly the 1930s, where someone walked into a government office somewhere and said, “Hey, I found a cool archaeological site.”

We had one of those.

A card describing the location of a rock art site in the Paria River Canyon.  Claiming it was one of the biggest panels in this part of the state.  With some rough directions.  And we had to go check it out.

While this was my first rotation in the field this season, the rest of our crew has been surveying and recording sites for this project all summer long.  But they couldn’t check out this site, because it was at the bottom of a canyon, there was water in the river, and for part of the time there was a serious risk of flash flooding.  But now the river was finally low enough (read:dry) and the weather was clear enough that we could hike in and see what all the hoopla was about.

We got to the BLM trailhead around 8 or 8:30 am and started hiking in along the riverbed.  There was no river whatsoever, and in most spots the bed had either dried smooth and hard as asphalt, or the clay top layer had crackled and crazed and dried into thousands of curls of baked earth.  We all had a great time taking photos of the amazing rock formations, some of the flowers that were still blooming, including the huge, white trumpets of jimson weed, and just the beauty of our surroundings.

striped wall

canyon bend


hiking in




Partway down the canyon, we spotted a panel of historic rock art.  It’s what my old boss would have called a “hello rock,” meaning it’s a spot where people carve their name and the date, and you know who has been through that area.  It didn’t seem very interesting at first, and then I noticed my current boss’s last name, which is very distinctive, was up there!  Turns out, her kin are from down here, and she was related to a few of the names on the rock.  There were also a lot of what looked like old brands carved in place of names, and some carved animals and figures.  I think the earliest date we saw was 1908.

hello rock

H. Pollock and dove

a horse and figure

Orlo Baldwin

When we finally got to the right spot, we couldn’t see anything at first.  There was a large earthen bank built up in front of a huge rock wall, covered in tumbleweed and other prickly plants that stuck in our pants and socks and skin.  But when we got over the bank, we found a narrow strip of sand along the base of the wall, and some rock art.  It was faded, and hard to see.  We were all pretty disappointed, to be honest.  But then we started walking, and realized it kept going.  And going.  And going!  I would estimate that the total length of the rock art panels was about 120 meters long, or about 400 feet,with very few breaks.  There were, of course, tons of little family groups of goats and bighorn sheep.  As is common in the area, there were also plenty of squiggles, wavy lines, circles and spirals.  The art was all petroglyphs, which means the designs were pecked or carved into the sandstone.  (Pictographs are made with paint)  Because they couldn’t just make a handprint with paint, there were several tiny hand shapes carved into the rock, or marks that looked like indentations for fingertips.  Everything was water-worn and in some cases covered in dripping mud and water stains.  Some places where you find rock art on sandstone, there is a thick, dark layer of patina on the stone that the artist chips through, making it easier to see the petroglyphs, but we didn’t have much patina here.  One section in particular had wild, crazy figures and monsters on it.  It took us several hours to draw and photograph everything, with some of the time spent just waiting for the sun to move and put the end of the panel in shadow, which is easier to photograph.  Because there wasn’t much contrast, it was really difficult to get good shots.  But I monkeyed around with the photos on Picasa, and even though the colors are completely different from real life, I hope you can see the designs now.

before tinkering

demon rainbow caterpillar

sun and moon with goats

goat family