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Hiking Happenings November 2006

The Guard and The Guardian
by Rory Tyler

Every society makes psychological connections between its culture and land. Consider the names we apply to some local Moab landmarks - Dark Angel, The Windows, Island in the Sky, The Penguins. When we see these landforms we easily comprehend the significance of the names. However, angels, windows, islands, and penguins probably did not have a high psychic profile for the Colorado Plateau’s ancient desert tribes.

Still, the Ancients likely engaged in this naming activity. It is even possible that they carried the exercise further, imbuing entire landscapes with meaning, purpose, mythology, and ritual. One place this might have happened is in Hidden Valley.

To get to the Hidden Valley trailhead, go three miles south of Center and Main on Hwy 191. Just past the stucco dental clinic, turn right on Angel Rock Road, then right on Rimrock Lane. The trail climbs three hundred feet to Hidden Valley then rolls along an easy mile and a half to a pass overlooking Poison Spider Mesa and Island in the Sky. Up and to the right of the pass you’ll see a cliff face, the outside wall of a horseshoe-shaped formation, which is a remnant of an ancient stream meander. The south facing walls of the horseshoe are loaded with Indian rock art. Walking time to the rock art is about ninety minutes.

Basketmaker Indians created most of the rock art in Hidden Valley between one and two thousand years ago when they dominated the Moab area. Masculine themes of hunting and fighting prevail. The Basketmakers used a spear-throwing device, called an atlatl, until about 500 A.D. when bows and arrows were introduced. Hidden Valley has numerous depictions of human figures with their arms cocked, legs akimbo, throwing spears at deer, elk, and sheep. There are also several panels depicting hand-to-hand combat.

Archeologists have discovered a great deal about violence in the Southwest. Lately, there’s been speculation that some of it may have occurred in the form of ritual warfare. Ritual warfare occurs throughout the world’s anthropological record. Combatants choose a time and place, devise a set of rules, then engage in hostilities until they achieve certain results. These results range from simply striking an opponent and returning safely to friendly territory, known as ‘counting coup’, to the capture, injury, or death of the enemy.

Basketmaker Indian culture also dominated the San Juan River Basin, a hundred miles south of here. While there are many similarities in Moab and San Juan rock art, there are also notable differences. Moab panels frequently include a figure with a single long appendage coming off the head. I call him the Cat-in-the-Hat. Around the San Juan a common motif is a figure with a bird-shaped head. I call him the Duckhead. One interesting image in Hidden Valley depicts a Cat-in-the-Hat and a Duckhead in the act of hurling atlatls at each other. Moab versus Blanding. Some things never change.

When you get to Hidden Valley you’ll see that it is a great place for contests like capture-the-flag and ritual spear fights. As I considered this idea, I kept thinking about two distinctive stone formations at the foot of the valley. One looks like a human head facing south towards San Juan country. To his left is a blocky fellow of imposing stature. Of course, what the Basketmakers thought of these two towering presences we can never know. But I enjoy speculating that the first figure was seen as some sort of lookout, keeping an eternal eye open for trouble from the south. His partner, the big blocky fellow, reminds me of a middle linebacker. Maybe he’s not the brightest torch in the bonfire, but when you need a brute to lay a little science on the bad guys, he’s your man. I call this duo The Guard, he’s the big blocky guy, and The Guardian, who keeps watch, sounds the alarm, and deploys the troops as needed.

Based on recent research and concepts in Southwest archeology, I think it’s a plausible hypothesis to place the formations and rock art of Hidden Valley into an anthropological context that includes ritual warfare. Take a hike and see what you think.

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

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden


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