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Hiking Happenings December 2005

Not Anasazi
by Rory Tyler

Anasazi (a debatable term in any case) refers to the pueblo-building culture that developed in the San Juan River region, south of Moab, between 700 and 1300 A.D. The Anasazi were notable for monumental architecture, intensive agriculture, road building, astronomical knowledge, and an occasional foray into cannibalism; all very contemporary Mexican phenomena back in the day. Archeologists find little of this kind of behavior around Moab. The evidence suggests that Anasazi presence here was brief and not particularly robust. The three most prominent Indian cultures of prehistoric Moab were Desert Archaic, Basketmaker, and Fremont, followed later by Ute and Navajo. Still, I often hear people refer to our local ancients as Anasazi.
Not much is known about the Desert Archaic culture. (Sometimes referred to as Barrier Canyon, which is a quibble for another day.) They held sway in our fair desert from about 6,000 B.C. to 0 A.D. As hunting and gathering nomads, the Archaics left only the barest of material traces; stone tools, mostly, and a few figurines. Fortunately, they did have a remarkable artistic tradition that we can still see thousands of years later. Archaic rock art - paintings and petroglyphs - can be pretty spooky. Huge staring eyes look right through you. Snakes writhe in and out of the picture. Intricately detailed horned wraiths waft across canyon walls. The sense of magic is powerful and apparent.

There are several excellent rock art panels on Kane Creek Road, including this very pregnant Basketmaker lady.

The Basketmaker culture replaced the Archaic about 0 A.D. Moab’s Basketmakers had a run of a mere eight or nine hundred years, compared to the Archaics’ six thousand. But they were busy during that brief interlude, producing many of the petroglyphs in the area. They grew quite a bit of corn and squash, but also continued many hunter-gatherer lifeways. The Basketmaker agricultural evolution was undoubtedly accompanied by new social relationships and rituals and this is reflected in their art. Basketmaker rock art often seems more formal and repetitive than Archaic. Some common Basketmaker stylisms include plate-like necklaces, big hands and feet, distinctive clan and/or cult headdresses, long lines of hand-holders, and lots of bighorn sheep.
Down in the San Juan River country the transition from Basketmaker to Anasazi began about 700 A.D.

Moab’s Basketmaker seemed to maintain their traditional identity a little longer; that is, until they got sandwiched between the expanding, but nearly expended, Anasazi to the south, and the Fremont Indians who were moving in from the west and north. There is some Fremont rock art around Moab, but Nine Mile Canyon, up near Price, is famous for their work. One way to get a better visual take on these various societies is to look at a copy of Sacred Images, the only Indian rock art book I know of that isn’t a confused stew of arbitrary imagery divorced from any semblance of cultural provenance. Another way is to go for a walk. (I know I don’t need to tell you this, but it is considered very bad form to mark on the rock walls, especially around rock art!)

There are a couple of interesting Archaic petroglyphs north of town in Mill Canyon. These two figures are notable for their large eyes, involved body details, and halos, all common features of Archaic iconography. From the Visitor Center, head north on Highway 191 for 15.5 miles. The left turn onto Mill Canyon Road is just after mile-marker 141. Follow the signs toward Mill Canyon for a mile and a half then bear left towards the historic Halfway Stage Station. The rock art is inside the canyon in front of you, up on the bench on the left-hand side. You’ll find some other rock art here, too. The shields, horses, and that bear are indicative of Ute Indians. There was a nice painting of a blue buffalo, too, but some vandals erased most of it last year; an utterly inexplicable piece of idiocy. (Mill Canyon, the next notch to the west, is known for its dinosaur fossils and tracks.)

A lot of good Basketmaker art is found along Kane Creek Drive. The Visitor Center has a brochure that will guide you to several of these sites, but I caution you against taking the interpretive information in this pamphlet too seriously. The images near the The Tombstone are not in the brochure. To get to them, take Kane Creek Drive about four and a half miles until it crosses a cattle guard and turns to gravel. As soon as it goes around the corner you’ll see a massive cliff line. The largest face is known as The Tombstone. It is notorious among rock climbers for its devilish difficulties, and among land-based parachutists for its unobstructed air-space. There are at least four major panels along this wall, and even more stuff around the next corner, starting up at the point across from the Amasa Back parking lot.

For a more demanding walk, and a much different array of Basketmaker art, try the Hidden Valley Trail. Turn right at Angel Rock Road, 3.8 miles south of the Visitors Center and follow the signs to the trailhead. After a 500 foot climb and another two miles of hiking, you’ll come to a pass. Bear right, up to the cliffs, then walk down the sunny south face of this horseshoe-shaped formation. Intrepids will want to search the south wall of the inside curve for more illustrations. Hidden Valley, I believe, is all about the hunter/warrior spirit. My guess is that these people integrated the arc of hunters’ and warriors’ lives into their culture; that they had rituals to prepare them for their tasks and rituals to purify them on their return, and that this site is where a lot of that preparation and purification took place. Go see what you think.

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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