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Hiking Happenings September 2005

Interactive Rock Art
by Rory Tyler

Way back in the twentieth century some gay blades on the cutting edge of the avant garde carved out a niche known as ‘interactive art’; art that either requires participation by the viewer or interacts directly with the environment to activate its aesthetic merits. It all seemed quite novel at the time, but I think the concept may have existed, in one form or another, for as long as the concept of art itself. For example, in his book “Mind in the Cave,” David Lewis-Williams, presents a series of reasonably plausible hypotheses concerning potential interactive qualities in the paintings and caves of southern Europe.

It shouldn’t be too surprising then, if interactive characteristics show up in the rock art of the American Southwest. The most spectacular and (now) obvious examples come in the form of archeo-astronomical panels. These are ancient Indian petroglyphs that use light, shadow, and landscape to commemorate specific astronomical phenomena; particularly solstices and equinoxes. (If you already have some knowledge and interest in the subject, I’ll remind you that this autumnal equinox occurs on Thursday, September 22 at 2:24 p.m. MDT.)

Two views of the Owl Panel

But, and some might say I’m treading on a thin ledge here, I think there may be other examples of interactivity in the gallery of Southwest rock art that don’t rely on astronomical events to inform them. What they require is the proper viewing perspective, and some imagination, to reveal elements of their intended content. In this column I’ll present this idea by discussing three panels on Kane Creek Road. If you visit these panels and conclude that I should have spent more time in the shade this summer… well, at least you’ve had a nice walk.

To get to Kane Creek Road drive to the south end of town and turn between McDonald’s and Burger King, the Scylla and Charibdas of Moab haute cuisine. The road hugs the cliff on the left, meets the river, then comes to a cattle guard about five miles from town where it turns to dirt. The first rock art I’ll point you to is one of Moab’s better-known little-known displays; the Owl Panel on the Amasa Back Trail. This trail starts about a mile from the aforementioned cattle guard. Directly across the canyon from the trailhead there is a large eye-shaped alcove. The Owl Panel is about 100 feet to the left of that alcove.

This panel is a real beauty and the Owl is the best-made of several in the area. The little vulture glyphs are, to my knowledge, regionally unique although they bear a striking similarity to vulture figures at Catal Huyk, Turkey, site of the world’s oldest excavated temple; a resemblance I hope is coincidental. My best guess is that the Owl Panel was made by Fremont Indians somewhere between eight hundred and eleven hundred years ago. The Owl Panel consists of three facets. The first, a narrow wall offset on the left, has a single bighorn sheep. The central panel includes a very large human figure, the owl, the vultures, and a line of sheep.

The third, also offset from the central panel, has a single figure holding a drawn bow and arrow
Now here’s the fun part. Go thirty feet to the right and step up on the stone pedestal there. Take a look at the hunter now. You can see he’s just waiting for that first sheep to come around the corner then…Wham! And you’re right there in the hunt, anticipating the imminent attack. So is the little sheep down by your right ankle as he watches every move the hunter makes.

Frankly, I don’t think that hunter is going to get the first sheep in the line. See how alert and nimble it is? Literally on its toes. My guess is that the second sheep, the crippled runt behind it, will have the honor of greasing the fingers of the hunter’s family tonight. However, I do believe the artist wanted us to stand behind his hunter and get that feeling of being part of the action, or interaction, if you will.

Two more possible examples of interactive rock art are on the cliff walls of the side canyon at the bottom of the hill you just came up. I think these panels were probably pecked out by the Basketmaker Indians whose culture prevailed here for about eight hundred years before the Fremont took over. These interactions are not, I’ll warrant, as obvious as the Owl Panel’s. Therefore, I suggest a visit to the Owl Panel first to get a feel for the possibilities. To get to these panels, start at the parking lot a half-mile from the cattle guard, cross the road, and take the trail up to the point above you. When you reach the shelf, you’ll see that the fractures in the rock wall have created a vertically folded or pleated topography. This pleating is the geological feature that the next artist used as an interactive foil.

About thirty yards down the wall from the first rock art panel is an enigmatic shield-shaped glyph filled in with horizontal lines. Two of the lines leave the shield, going left. When they meet the edge of the stone pleat, they stop. Or do they? If you get next to the wall and look down a few yards past the shield, you’ll see two lines over there on another pleat that have a close sense of visual continuity with the lines that leave the shield. Both of the distant lines start with a large dot. Now go back to the shield-figure and look around the corner. See the two dots? I’ll admit, it’s flimsy evidence, but I suspect that there’s a strong connection between the two panels that you probably wouldn’t get if you didn’t put yourself in the right place and frame of mind. Unlike the Owl Panel, however, I don’t have any notion at all about what this represents.

The last example is another fifty yards or so down the same wall. A line of sheep, going left to right, walk toward a very distinct vertical crack in the rock. A foot or so to the left of the crack the petroglyphs begin again with some amorphous peck-marks, as if someone began making a sheep’s body but stopped. The next figure is also incomplete, though it has enough details to indicate a resemblance to a sheep. The third figure is a full-formed sheep, the last in another line of sheep done in the same style as the group to the right. This stylistic continuity argues that all these figures were done by the same artist and that the artist was trying to illustrate a story that had something to do with that crack.

Go back to the crack. The figure closest to it isn’t a sheep. It’s a man. To me, this looks like it could be some sort of shamanic tale about sheep mysteriously disappearing into the earth then rematerializing later in some new place and time. I’ll admit it’s all guesswork, but I like the concept. However, if after due consideration you think I’m as profoundly cracked as that rock wall, just keep going for another mile or two and the beautiful views along this relatively easy trail may soften any residual contempt you hold for my suspicious ditherings.

Or, if you’re reading this in a coffee shop, you can tear the page out, fold it into a paper crane, airplane, or anthropomorph and tell your barristas that if they present it to me on the autumnal equinox I’ll give them each a dollar. There’s interactive for you.

Cryptobiotic soil garden


Rory Tyler is available for cowboy poetry/campfire song gatherings which include lore, science, history and lies of the Moab area. (Suitable for all age groups). Rates are negotiable. Give Rory a call at 435-260-8496.



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