Ancient conversations

Interpreting the enigmatic patterns of Southwestern rock art

  • Archaeologist Carol Patterson points out the archaic line drawings sharing a rock in Shavano Valley with engravings from the Uncompahgre and historical Ute eras.

    Josh McDaniel
  • Ute tribal elder Clifford Duncan has helped archaeologist Carol Patterson interpret ceremonial and mythological references in rock art for the past eight years.

    Carol Patterson
 

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.

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