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Ancient conversations

Interpreting the enigmatic patterns of Southwestern rock art

 

Clifford Duncan likes to sing.

The 76-year-old Ute tribal elder sings a rhythmic chant under his breath as we slowly make our way up a steep, winding trail near Montrose, Colo. We are climbing to a series of petroglyph panels on the rock rim above Shavano Valley. Carol Patterson, an archaeologist and rock art specialist, leads the way, stopping occasionally to help Duncan negotiate a particularly tricky section.

"When we walk to these rock art sites, a song always comes into my mind and I start humming that sound," explains Duncan in a soft voice when we pause to rest. "It kind of clears the way for me. So, it's like a prayer."

Shavano Valley was important to early hunter-gatherers and later Utes because of its artesian springs and the game that moved through the valley. Ancient Ute trails converged here, running across the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau down to the Uncompahgre River. Today, the 20-acre Shavano Petroglyph Park is squeezed between private farms and ranches. The property was bought in 2002 by a nonprofit group, the Montrose Community Foundation, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rock art remains one of the great mysteries of the West. Anyone who has seen the alien, phantom-like beings painted in the canyons of southern Utah, or the elaborate geometric shapes of Hopi rock art, knows the lure of these sites -- and the difficulty of comprehending their meaning. For the most part, archaeologists have simply recorded and described the images, without diving into interpretation. But Carol Patterson, with the help of Duncan and other Native American elders, has gone beyond that. Rock art is not art for art's sake, she says. It was designed for communication, and can be read as a system of picture writing.

The symbols in rock art often provided important practical information to anyone traveling through the area, showing where to find water, game or easy trails for passage. In other cases, they reflected oral history -- battles, migration, floods and droughts. Some sites depict images of warfare and may have served as ceremonial gathering places for warriors. And there are religious sites that illustrate creation stories, healing ceremonies and mythology.

Ceremonial references and mythological stories are common and often make interpretation more difficult. Patterson frequently relies on the insights of tribal elders. She has been working with Duncan for eight years, and the two are currently completing a book on the rock art of the Uncompahgre Plateau. 

As we approach the top of the trail, petroglyph panels become visible along the rock rim. The first panel is centered around a wide, foot-long crack in the rock face. Patterson explains that there are three sets of petroglyphs superimposed on the panel, from three different eras. The oldest set, from the Late Archaic period (500 B.C. to 500 A.D.), is a map. The rock crack is incorporated as the valley and lines leading from it are actual trails on top of the Uncompahgre Plateau. A second set of glyphs is protohistoric Ute (1500 to 1700 A.D.) and represents the mythological origins of the Bear Dance. In this set, the rock crack is a cave from which Bear has emerged in the spring. Pecked dots coming out of the crack lead to Bear standing on his hind legs scratching on a tree. A more recent set is historic Ute (1800s) and includes a depiction of a horse, a tree and another bear.

"The Utes hold the Bear Dance in the spring after the first thunder, which is Bear rolling over and growling," says Patterson. "They hold the dance to honor and celebrate Bear. In the old days they would be moving into the high country with Bear as the weather warmed. They would have to get along and share resources." She smiles and looks to Duncan. "Is that the way you heard it?" He chuckles and nods.

At first, Patterson didn't understand the significance of the trees in the panel. Duncan explained that trees are important in many Ute ceremonies and are always included on the Bear Dance grounds. In the mythical story, Bear leads a boy to a tree with five branches representing the levels of the universe. At the tree, the boy learns Bear's songs, which he takes back to the village to use in the Bear Dance. Those songs are the key to the dance's healing aspects.

"I just listen," says Patterson. "The ideas in his head give you a glimpse into the mind view behind all of this­ -- as close as you can get for sure."

Patterson, who has written two books on Pueblo rock art, did her Ph.D. research on Aboriginal rock art. (She notes that the Aborigines she met sang at rock art sites, as Duncan does, and told her that "every site has a song.") She was mentored by Levan Martineau, an early researcher who applied his Korean War training in cryptanalysis, a military code-breaking science, to petroglyphs (carved images) and pictographs (painted images) across the West. Martineau painstakingly recorded symbols, noting their context and relationships, at hundreds of sites. He built frequency lists and consistency checks that allowed him to decode some of the basic grammar used in the picture-writing system.

Martineau had an important insight: He employed the universal Native American sign language, which was used for trade by tribes from Alaska to Mexico, to decode the meanings embedded in the symbols. He realized that the symbols for passing through, near, hidden, water, in front, going up and coming down were almost identical to the hand movements used for the same concepts in sign language. These initial discoveries opened up the possibility of uncovering other links.

"Gestures are the verbs in the stories," Patterson says. Messages are communicated through the gestures of figures, which often evoke sign language movements. Arm, hand and foot positions can indicate action -- driving game or following a trail, for example. Other shapes and lines are abstract depictions of sign language; upward and downward spirals indicate going up and down. Patterson says gestures are used with animals, humans and deities, and are consistent from site to site across large geographical areas. She has found the same signs for movement, stopping, looking and talking in Colorado and Peru.

Jonathan Kent, a Metro State College anthropologist, says that Patterson has uncovered something that other researchers had completely overlooked.

"There is absolutely no question that gestures are important in the meaning of the symbols," he says. "The trick is knowing when you are looking at a symbolic gesture or something that simply reflects the whimsy of the artist. Carol has provided the corroborating evidence that makes the connection."

Despite her growing understanding, Patterson says that many of the embedded messages are metaphorical and require a deeper cultural knowledge to comprehend. For that, she turns to Duncan.

Duncan is one of the last of the Utes "raised in the old ways," Patterson says. His mother was active in the Sun Dance and his father led peyote ceremonies. "Sort of a mixed marriage," he jokes. Duncan carries on the family's religious traditions, holding peyote ceremonies on the Uintah-Ouray reservation and leading the Sun Dance, a rigorous ceremony involving three days of prayer without food or water. As we examine the Shavano Valley panels, he takes a spiritual and decidedly unscientific approach.

"What I am looking for is a thinking pattern," he says. "What is hidden in that picture? Those drawings are depicting something that is still there -- still faintly there today. They have a spirit that throws out a certain feeling if you are looking for it. It is just a matter of unlocking yourself from the inside to read it."

Her work with elders such as Duncan has earned Patterson praise in the archaeological community.

"Many archaeologists have mistakenly believed that Native Americans do not understand rock art, but they have unique knowledge, especially in terms of mythology," says Larry Loendorf, a New Mexico State University archaeologist.

To demonstrate, Patterson and Duncan lead me to another Shavano Valley panel that Duncan was instrumental in decoding. The petroglyph -- a tree and an abstract symmetrical figure that resembles a winged creature -- had stumped Patterson for years. Then she brought Duncan up to have a look. "I even asked if the Utes had a story about butterflies in their mythology," she said. Duncan took one look and said that those were not wings; they were the arcs of the universe. He then pointed to the horizon and explained that the Utes viewed the earth and universe as existing within a series of arcs. He noted the small tree at the center with tiny roots. In Ute religion, trees allow communication between the upper and underworlds. Duncan thought that this had been a place for a spiritual teacher to sit with an initiate and explain Ute cosmology. "Those are just the types of insights you can't get from the archaeological literature," says Patterson.

We move on to a panel that Patterson has had no luck in deciphering. Some of the older, abstract mythological sites are "beyond her realm," as she puts it. She looks to Duncan and says, "Maybe Clifford knows what it is and just won't tell me." 

Duncan chuckles and begins singing as he makes his way slowly back down the trail.