Dean M. Chriss
Hunters and Holy Men

Hunters and Holy Men

(Click image to enlarge)

Shown here is a small part of the most significant rock art site in North America. Approximately eighty larger than life figures stretch roughly 300 feet along one wall of a remote desert canyon. The effort required to create such a large and prominent display was tremendous so the figures must have have great meaning. The creators of this work and their culture vanished thousands of years ago, and with them went our ability to understand any message they were trying to convey. These ancient figures have become time travelers from a different age, carrying a message through the millennia that can no longer be understood.

Archeologists think these pictographs were created during the later part of America's Archaic period, which lasted from around 8000 to 1000 BCE. They are typically five or six feet tall, with the tallest being twelve feet in height. Small figures, only a few inches high are interspersed among them. The figures were created with several different colors, the most fade resistant and durable being red ocher, made from a form of iron oxide. The paints were applied in various ways, including spraying from the mouth, applying with fingers, and carving lines through previously painted areas. Colors like as green and white are still visible, but they have deteriorated more than the red. Although somewhat sheltered, this artwork is exposed to direct sunlight and temperature extremes, in addition to wind blown rain and sand. The fact that they still exist is a testament to the abilities of the artists.

The people who created these images lived in a different world than ours. The bow and arrow was not yet invented and the United States would not exist for another few thousand years. Paintings like this and a few artifacts represent all we know of their world. Unfortunately, unknown numbers of ancient archaeological sites downstream from this one were lost when Glen Canyon was turned into the sedimentation pond Lake Powell, which was built to prolong the useful life of Lake Mead. Because the canyon was not well explored or documented before it was flooded, we will never know all that it contained. The book "The Place No One Knew - Glen Canyon on the Colorado" is highly recommended. With images by Elliott Porter and text by David Bower, it is one of a few attempts to document the large, and then extremely remote, canyon system.

The ancient rock art art present in Horseshoe Canyon and in other areas is irreplaceable, priceless, and extremely fragile. The lightest touch causes eventual staining from oils that are present in human skin. Worse, it can cause immediate flaking of paint. Many people walking too near the art can sometimes erode and undercut the rock on which the art is displayed, perhaps causing it to break and fall sometime in the distant future. Small things have huge impacts over time that spans thousands of years.