San Rafael Swell, Utah
Of the thousands of Indian rock art panels in the Southwest, none are older than
Barrier Canyon pictographs found throughout the San Rafael Swell. From tiny
five-inch animal figures to stunning seven-foot tall human shapes with no arms
or legs and alien-like bug eyes, Barrier Canyon style images are almost always
a dark blood red color. They may have been painted 8,000 years ago; many panels
are at least 5,000 years old.
For a week friends and I drove 4WDs and then hiked into remote locations in Emery
County, Utah to photograph these spectacular ochre red paintings. The images of
eerie, elongated figures with shortened arms and legs are hard to decipher. The
anthropomorphs, or human figures, often have overly large eyes, no ears or
noses, and no way to distinguish gender. Snakes writhe in their hands or above
their heads. Yet circling these fierce, faceless creatures are delicate
menageries of exquisitely painted birds, ducks, geese, deer, and occasionally
free floating eyeballs with wings
Our guide Steve Allen, who wrote one of the first guide books on the San Rafael
Swell, said, “There may be 1,000 rock art sites in the Swell, but only 20 of
them are truly spectacular.” We set out to find a few of those sites, and in
side canyons and small slot canyons, we found them.
I’ll not forget the blustery spring day with a storm front moving across Utah and we
seven hiking all morning to finally find a few red symbols high on a cliff face
shaded by a small alcove. We scrambled up and there in the silence of the Swell
the few symbols seen below blossomed into small panels of intricate images
expertly drawn in the Barrier Canyon style’s signature red paint.
Standing just a few feet from the panels, we could study the masterful brush strokes,
the lyrical zoomorphs or animal-like creatures, and the red paint’s perfect
preservation. The artist had added a few white dots and faint white streaks.
Seated on a sandstone ledge, looking south across a vast canyon landscape, rare
pictographs just behind my shoulder, the 21st century melted away.
Time ceased. I thought if we waited,
with luck the artist might return. Instead, there was only the wind.
Another afternoon hike up an unnamed canyon seemed fruitless. Perhaps one of our guides
had made a mistake. Then when we were
almost across from it, we saw a panel of human figures with the largest one a
somber red almost brown that may have been eight feet tall. We stared in
wonder. The ghost-like images without arms or legs could only be shamanistic
art created by medicine people/artists who were powerful shamans communicating
across time, space, and different realities.
The most famous Barrier Canyon panel is the Great Gallery in a remote section of
Canyonlands National Park named Horseshoe Canyon. But we wanted to hike in
wilderness study areas to see ancient art generally not visited. In the
vastness of the Swell we could do that.
On the fifth day we came across a finger-painted panel of four figures
that looked as fresh as if it had been painted that week. One of our party
quipped, “If this paint can last 5,000 years, why can’t the paint on my house?”
Barrier Canyon paint is only one of the mysteries. Probably mixed from vegetable and
mineral compounds, the paint is 10% blood but whether human or animal is
uncertain. The sophistication of the art, which seems to represent a vibrant
and complex spirit world, is made more mystifying by the fact that the artists
were Archaic period (8,500-2,000 B.C.) mobile hunters and gatherers who did not
plant corn and who lived a precarious subsistence lifestyle. They hunted with
spears, and yet when we returned to the famous Buckhorn Wash panel to study it
in afternoon shade using binoculars and long camera lenses, I felt I was in the
presence of sacred art as powerful as anything on the ceiling of the Sistine
“My grandfather put his name here on the panel and I spent thousands of hours
restoring it,” said Utah coal-miner and rancher Bert Oman, who acts as the
site’s official greeter. “I wanted to see this art like it was when the
pioneers saw it,” he added. In 1995 in
an award-winning Utah State Centennial Legacy Project, dozens of citizens and
volunteers worked to remove bullet holes, graffiti, crayon, and chalk from the
Buckhorn Wash Rock Art sites eight panels. They moved the road farther from the
site, added fencing, parking, landscaping, an interpretive trail, and
restrooms. Special erasers, jeweler’s tools, watercolor paints, and pastels
were used in panel restoration. Now visitors can see scenes of rituals,
celebrations and homage to Native American gods painted thousands of years ago
by artists using brushes of hair, feathers, and yucca fibers.
Oman tipped back his cowboy hat, rubbed his two-day-old beard, and said quietly,
“This is one of the most sacred panels in the Western United States. I have 20
great grandchildren and I want them to see these panels just like this when
they’re in their 70s.” I respect his
wishes and admire his stewardship, but all is not well on the Swell, which is a
BLM Special Recreation Management Area of 938,500 acres.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and ATV groups continue to squabble over
wilderness designation and wilderness boundaries for seven wilderness study
areas. ATV use and illegal roads increase yearly. The under-funded Bureau of Land Management
has few staff to enforce regulations on back country travel, and rock art
vandalism is an ongoing problem. Far too many panels have been shot at or scratched
One site we visited, not as impressive as the Buckhorn Panel, but still possessing ancient
Barrier Canyon Rock Art, was beneath a small cliff face at Molen Seep. For many yards the base of the cliff was
covered in cow poop. Steve Allen became visibly upset and commented to our
group, “This site represents rock art thousands of years old and yet visitors
have to walk through cowshit to photograph it! Under federal law the BLM is
mandated to protect cultural resources. Looks like we need fences within our
I’d like to forget that afternoon but I can’t; just as I can’t forget the rare feeling of
hiking into remote canyons to discover 5,000 year-old paintings. Exploring the
Southwest is why many of us live here, and yet personal self-discovery isn’t
enough. We must advocate for public lands and do our best to protect the
natural and cultural treasures we enjoy.
I wrote a letter to the BLM. I told them I’m happy to put on leather gloves and volunteer
to string fence at Molen Seep. No one ever replied. Meanwhile, I keep thinking
of those blood-red Barrier Canyon figures in the unnamed canyon wash. How much
longer will they be safe?
Gulliford is a professor of History and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis
College in Durango. He can be reached at Gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu